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Post-Asphalt, What's Next for Burial Ground?


The asphalt's coming off, but the fight's not over for the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom.

Virginia Commonwealth University has said it will use about $56,000 in state money to remove the asphalt from its parking lot at 15th and East Broad streets before it's transferred to the city July 1. The 2.5-acre site is believed to include part of Richmond's oldest municipal cemetery for blacks.

The question now is how to investigate the site, says Shawn Utsey, chairman of the department of African American studies at the university: "To have struggled this far, and then to allow others to define and determine what happens — we're back to square one."

For answers, the city's Slave Trail Commission is looking to Michael Blakey, director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.

Blakey led the efforts to research and honor the African burial ground in Lower Manhattan. After it was discovered in 1991 at the site of a new federal office building, hundreds of skeletons were removed while people protested.

About 15,000 people had been buried there in the 1600s and 1700s, Blakey says — "people whose lives had disappeared from record." In a journal article he wrote about the burial ground in 1998, Blakey described the reverence with which people were interred, as well as the skeletal evidence of their suffering: malnutrition, infections and physical labor that strained their muscles "to the margins of human capacity."

In deciding what to do with its burial ground, Richmond faces the same questions as New York did, Blakey told the Richmond's Slave Trail Commission earlier this month. Should the city excavate? If remains are discovered, should they be unearthed? Should research be conducted on those remains?

"Generally, there is a kind of intimacy and authority that contact with the burials, exposure of burials, allows," Blakey says — the opportunity to acknowledge individuals and see the things with which they were buried. Research may also contribute to what's known about the life expectancy and causes of death of the people who were buried there, he says.

But there's a price. Research efforts at the New York burial ground cost $6 million, Blakey says.

He recommended that initially, the city excavate to determine the boundaries of the site. He estimates it would cost around $20,000 to dig two to three wide trenches down to the original surface of the burial ground, which likely rests 12 feet below grade.

He also recommends that the city convene a community forum for people to discuss what research, if any, should be done on remains, if they're discovered.

Utsey agrees, and wants Blakey to head these efforts — not the state's Department of Historic Resources, which in a 2008 report opined that most of the burial ground lay under Interstate 95. Utsey moved to do just that at the March commission meeting, but after some heated debate, the commission decided to wait. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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