Richmond finally honoring 'where black America started'

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - For 10 years, activists struggled to uncover and preserve an area believed to house one of the nation's oldest municipal cemeteries for enslaved and freed blacks.

What once was a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot at 15th and Broad streets, has been uncovered for a little over a month now.

As Richmond decides how to memorialize the area, NBC12 investigates the struggle to reclaim it -- and why many hope it will re-define Richmond's future.

To the African-American community this is more than just a burial ground. It is sacred ground. In the early 1800s, this was undesirable low-lying land in the city, which made it ground zero for the slave trade Richmond,

"We say, VCU get your asphalt off of our people," said Sa'ad el Amin.

"Every hour, ever minute, they remain is desecration," said King Salim Khalfani of the NAACP.

"Preserved as part of the American story for future generations," said Governor Bob McDonnell at the dedication of the slave burial grounds.

The cars are gone, the asphalt ripped from the ground. Dirt fill now covers the two-acre center of a decade's long struggle.

Donnell Brantley and Rolandah McMillan never thought they'd see the day. They are two of four people who on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, used their bodies as shields to try and stop cars from parking here.

"We've been acknowledged a little bit," Brantley said. "Still a lot of work to be done."

That was the first time they had been back to the area since the asphalt was removed.

"We don't know who's there, but we do know this is where black America started," McMillan said.

This is where many African Americans can trace their roots. A map dating back to at least 1804 designates this area, Burial Ground for Negroes. It was used as a cemetery for enslaved and freed blacks for nearly 25 years in the early 1800s. There's been dispute over how large the cemetery was and if most of it is now under Interstate 95, but no one knows for certain. And history tells us this site's significance is much more than a cemetery.

"This is ground zero for slavery," said David Herring. "More slaves were traded here in this location than anywhere else in the country."

Prior to the Civil War, Richmond had the largest slave trade in the country. Herring  runs the Center for Neighborhood Revitalization.

"The fact that it's been covered up I think that's sort of one of the reasons no one has paid attention to it," he said.

A darker part of Richmond's history -- the gallows were here, the executions were performed on this land.

"This is the place where Gabriel was executed. Gabriel was our seminal revolutionary. Our seminal slave rebellion leader," said Ana Edwards.

"I think the Shockoe Bottom area in and of itself is a sacred place," said Shawn Utsey. "Not only were people bought and sold there. People were incarcerated and held in slave pens. They were auctioned, families were split up."

Utsey is a professor of African American studies at VCU. He recently directed an award winning documentary about the battle to reclaim the burial ground.

"We are not good about talking about race and Richmond is a place centered in race in American history," he said. "To walk around and pretend, to be in denial about that history does none of us any good."

Richmond is a city in love with its past -- old buildings are cherished and reborn..

Statues line Monument Avenue, saluting Civil War legends and this city's turn as the Capital of the Confederacy.

City money helps pay for the upkeep of thousands of confederate graves at Oakwood Cemetery.

A stark contrast to the graves of an African American cemetery in the city's East End. Evergreen Cemetery is overgrown. What once was a field is now the woods. Headstones are hidden. Tree roots ripping up and pushing them aside. A mausoleum broken into, caskets opened. This is the resting to place for some of the city's most famous African American heroes. The likes of Maggie Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the United State.  Her grave is impossible to find unless you know which trail to take.

"Evergreen is shameful, the pauper cemetery near Oakwood is shameful," Utsey said.

Utsey and many more who've devoted themselves to uncovering the Shockoe burial ground believe is just the start of a new chapter for this city.

"For Richmond race has been a traumatic experience," he said. "The burial actually was a point of healing, or potential healing for everyone. I'm not quite sure we achieved that, but I think we've begun the process."

Mayor Dwight Jones recently took a trip to Africa and stood at the Middle  Passage, the place where slaves were sold from Africa.

"You look out from the door of no return onto the Middle Passage and so the question is what happened? You come here and this is what happened. It's the answer," he said,

And many believe it's the answer and an opportunity to tell the rest of the story.

"We want people to know what happened here. We want the whole story to be told," McMillan said.

"I'm hoping that a healing will take place," Brantley said.

"All of that history is honored," Edwards said.

"I think it's a step in the right direction after all those years of this being a parking lot," Herring said.

Some want a monument at the site, the mayor has said he'd like to see a museum. Others have asked for an archaeological dig to see if we can once and for all determine the boundaries and learn what life was like for the slaves.

Copyright 2011 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.