By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Published Jun 11, 2011 9:10 AM
The African-American community won a major victory when the Shockoe Bottom Burial Grounds for enslaved and free Africans were acknowledged as sacred ground in the historic Southern city of Richmond, Va. The burial ground had been covered up by a parking lot 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 buried there during the period of chattel slavery. Some reports say that Gabriel, the leader of a slave revolt plot in 1800, was hanged and buried at the site.
Ana Edwards, the chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, and Phil Wilayto, the editor of the Virginia Defender newspaper, issued a statement saying, “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, city and state officials and community activists attended a ceremony on the grounds of the African burial site. The May 24 event was the culmination of a protracted struggle.
According to the Virginia Defender 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 pointed out the historical significance of the burial ground for people of African descent: “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 history of slavery and Civil War
Virginia was the first British colony in North America where Africans were imported for the purpose of slavery, starting in August 1619. Throughout the history of slavery in the U.S., some of the most significant revolts to end the system of racial exploitation also took place in Virginia. Three of the most notable rebellions occurred there: the one 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.
It was just 150 years ago that the U.S. Civil War began, when on April 12 President Abraham Lincoln ordered an attack on the Southern rebels at Fort Sumpter in South Carolina. At the conclusion of the 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. The African troops played a central role in stabilizing Richmond amid the attacks by the retreating Confederates, who had 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. 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 of 1861-1865, the ruling class in both the South and the North seek to avoid responsibility for slavery — the 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 reaping enormous profits through the slave system and denied slavery’s role in providing the economic resources that led to the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe as well as North America.
Several weeks prior to the memorial recognition ceremony at Shockoe Bottom, Virginia Commonwealth University had four activists — Rolandah “Cleopattrah” McMillan, Donnell C. Brantley, Autumn Barrett and Phil Wilayto — arrested for blocking the entrance into the parking lot that covers the African burial ground. These four and others had taped off the entrance to the parking lot and turned cars away for an hour and a half at the entrance.
The action commemorated 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, some 45 people demonstrated outside the court demanding that the charges be dropped. Sixty people were present in the courtroom during the hearing that freed the activists of all charges.
Attorney Steven Benjamin, a well-known legal defense lawyer in the state of Virginia, represented the four pro bono. 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.
Brantley addressed the media after the hearing and called for the university to assist in the funding of the African Burial Ground’s memorialization. She pledged that community activists in Richmond would continue to monitor the handling of the memorial project.
For additional information on the struggle to reclaim Shockoe Bottom, visit the Virginia Defender website at www.defendersfje.org.
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