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African burying ground historical marker unveiled in Richmond

A historical marker sign stands with text about the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground
The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground Historical Highway Marker was placed on Sunday to honor more than 22,000 people of African descent buried in the Richmond burying site in the 1800s. (Photo: Katharine DeRosa/VPM News)

Voices of the Swansboro Elementary School Choir welcomed around 150 local officials, educators and community members to downtown Richmond Sunday afternoon.

The crowd gathered to watch as the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground Historical Highway Marker was unveiled at the corner of Fifth and Hospital streets near Interstate 64. Many speakers said the storm clouds from earlier that morning were meant to part just in time for the ceremony. 

Lenora McQueen spearheaded the efforts to reclaim the area, where more than 22,000 Black people were buried between 1816 and 1879, making it one of the largest known burial sites for people who were enslaved in the United States. McQueen’s fourth-great grandmother, Kitty Cary, was buried there. McQueen said she took an interest in genealogy and tracked Cary, who was enslaved throughout her lifetime, to the burying site.  

Cary was honored by American poet Elizabeth Ackers Allen, under the penname Florence Percy, in Harper’s Weekly through the 1866 poem “Kitty Cary.” 

McQueen read from the poem at Sunday’s ceremony:  

“No marble tells where Kitty Cary sleeps / Only a simple slab of painted pine / Time-stained and worn, her poor memorial keeps / One brief and half-obliterated line.  

"So near the highway, that the yellow sand / From passing wheels falls thickly on her grave / In death, as in her life, proscribed and banned / For Kitty Cary lived and died a slave,” McQueen read. 

Virginia Commonwealth University historian Ryan Smith, who researches cemeteries in Richmond, spoke of McQueen’s efforts. 

“She has galvanized a movement, she has built a coalition, she has spoke truth to power, she has researched — not an exaggeration — every inch of this burying ground,” Smith said. “She has inspired change. She has put her own painful emotions out on the line in public. She has invited us all into her story.”  

According to Smith’s research, the grounds stretch up to 31 acres, many of which are covered by train tracks and nearby roads, such as Interstate 64. Sunday’s ceremony was the first formal recognition of the grounds. The marker now stands where, in the 1950s, the city sold two acres of the land into private hands for a now-defunct gas station. The land was sold despite pushback from residents of the nearby, historically Black Jackson Ward neighborhood. 

A red, black and green sign hangs on a boarded-up building.
A sign for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground hangs on the site of a former gas station. (Photo: Katharine DeRosa/VPM News)

McQueen, like others, said she fears future infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of I-64 and the high-speed rail set to run from Washington to Richmond, will further displace the grounds.  

“The fight still continues. We will still continue to struggle for the rest of the burial ground,” McQueen said. “I, of course, would like the railroad to go around. I don’t know that they will, they may still go through, but that struggle is not over.” 

Mayor Levar Stoney also spoke at the event, deciding to throw away his prepared remarks and speak from the heart, he said. Stoney said he hopes the marker serves as an example for other localities to honor Black history. 

“We are standing on a place that was a former gas station. Now, you can’t tell me that folks did not know there were souls in the dirt here, but frankly, they just didn’t care,” Stoney said. “Now you fast forward to the 2020s, and it shows you when the right people are in the right places at the right time, people show the humanity that should have been shown to people of color for generations.” 

This historical marker is a positive step for the city, Stoney said, as it promotes taking accountability for previous mistakes. 

On Monday night, Richmond City Council will discuss using some of the funding for the city’s planned Enslaved African Heritage Campus to reacquire and memorialize the area. And the area may soon become a National Historic Landmark; McQueen said she expects the National Historical Landmark Registry to decide on the grounds in the coming days.