Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, with Virginia historian and artist, Ana Edwards, at the marker in recognition of the African troops who liberated Richmond from the confederacy in April 1865. (Photo: Phil Wilayto), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Reclaiming the Legacy of Resistance to Slavery in Virginia
Virginia Commonwealth University forced to acknowledge centuries-old African burial ground in Richmond
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
A major victory was won by the African American community in Richmond, Virginia when the Shockoe Bottom Burial Grounds for enslaved and free Africans was acknowledged as sacred ground in this historic southern city. The burial ground had been covered-up by a parking that was owned by the Virginia Commonwealth University.
Activists in Richmond had demanded that the university remove the parking lot and establish a memorial in honor of the Africans who were buried there during the period of chattel slavery. It is reported that the leader of the 1800 slave revolt plot, Gabriel, was hung and buried at the site.
In a statement issued by Ana Edwards, the chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project and Phil Wilayto, the editor of the Virginia Defender newspaper, it says that "After a 20-year community struggle, the parking lot itself was closed on May 21. The land was then turned over to the City of Richmond for memorialization."
Just three days after the official closing of the parking lot, a ceremony was held on the grounds of the African burial site that was attended by city and state officials as well as community activists. These efforts represented a culmination of a protracted struggle that continued up until a day after the official ceremony was held on May 24.
According to the Virginia Defenders newspaper "The site in question was used from approximately 1750 to 1816 as the only municipal cemetery for Black people in the Richmond area. Most of the hundreds if not thousands of people buried there were enslaved Africans or enslaved people of African descent."
The newspaper continues by pointing out the historical significance of the burial ground for people of African descent noting that "Because of Richmond's central role in the internal U.S. slave trade, it is likely that millions of Black Americans could be descended from the ancestors buried there. The cemetery was abandoned and forgotten until the early 1990s, when a local historian found a reference to a 'Burial Ground for Negroes' on an old city map. Since then, many community organizations and activists have been demanding the land be reclaimed and properly memorialized."
Significance to the Actual History of Slavery and the Civil War
For this recognition to take place in 2011 has additional historical significance. It was 150 years ago on April 12 that the United States Civil War began with President Abraham Lincoln's attack on the southern rebels at Fort Sumpter in South Carolina. Virginia was the first British colony in North America where Africans were imported for the purpose of slavery starting in August of 1619.
During the course of the slave period in U.S. history some of the most significant revolts to end the system of racial exploitation also took place in Virginia. Three of the most notable rebellions occured in 1800 led by Gabriel in Richmond, the Nat Turner revolt of 1831 in Southhampton County and the attack on Harper's Ferry led by John Brown and Osborne Perry Anderson in 1859.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, it was the African troops fighting under the Union Army who are credited with being the first regiments to enter Richmond. The town was then set on fire by the retreating Confederate soldiers.
Nonetheless, it was the African troops that had entered Richmond who played a central role in stabilizing the city amid the attacks by the retreating Confederates who fought for four years to preserve the slave system. The recognition of the African burial grounds is significant in that the apologists for slavery have often attempted to revise the history of this period to downplay the role of enslavement in the overall economy of the U.S. as well as its pivotal role in sparking the so-called "war between the states."
By refusing to acknowledge the central role of slavery in the economic growth of the United States and as the real cause behind the Civil War between 1861-1865, the ruling class in both the South and the North seek to avoid responsibility for this horrendous crime against humanity that lasted in the British and U.S. controlled territory for nearly 250 years.
In recent years the demand for reparations for stolen labor during the period of slavery has sparked contentious debates within the U.S. Typically the white-dominated ruling class has denied the reaping of enormous profits through the slave system and its role in providing the economic resources that lead to the rise of industrial capitalism in the Europe and well as inside North America.
Activists Acquitted of Charges Related to Burial Ground Protest
Several weeks prior to the memorial recognition ceremony at Shockoe Bottom, four activists were arrested for blocking the entrance into the parking lot that covers the African burial ground.
Rolandah "Cleopattrah" McMillan, Donnell C. Brantley, Autumn Barrett and Phil Wilayto were arrested and charged with trespassing on property owned by Virginia Commonwealth University. These activists along with others had taped off the entrance to the parking lot and turned cars away for an hour-and-a-half at the entrance.
This action was carried out in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. The four activists were taken to court on May 25 but the charges were withdrawn.
Prior to the court hearing on May 25, 45 people demonstrated outside the court demanding that the charges be dropped against the four Richmond activists. Some 60 people were present in the courtroom during the hearing that resulted in the activists being freed of all charges.
The activists were represented pro bono by Atty. Steven Benjamin, who is a well-known legal defense lawyer in the state of Virginia. When the activists walked out of the courtroom in Richmond they broke into chants and cheers in celebration of another victory against Virginia Commonwealth University.
Donnel C. Brantley addressed the media after the hearing and called for the University to assist in the funding of the African Burial Ground's memoralization. She pledged that the community activists in Richmond would continue to monitor the handling of the memorial project.
For additional information on the struggle to reclaim Shockoe Bottom just log on to the Virginia Defenders website at http://www.DefendersFJE.org .