The City of Richmond established Shockoe Hill African Cemetery in 1816. The northeast corner of Fifth Street and Marshall Street once had two lots (1 acre each) (now called Hospital Street). "Free Colored Burial Ground" and "Negro Burial Ground" first appeared on a City of Richmond property map in 1816 (enslaved). The burial ground expanded over time to cover 31 acres of land. According to conservative estimates, more than 22,000 people of African descent are buried here. It is by far the largest cemetery in the country for free blacks and slaves. It was repeatedly mistreated and forced to disappear from the visible landscape. It remains under threat."
Lenora S. McQueen, a genealogist, based in South Texas, was born and raised in New Jersey. She has no connection to Richmond other than that at least one, possibly five, of her ancestors are buried in the forgotten cemetery. But this only strengthened her resolve to protect the site from future hacks.
When Ms. McQueen discovered records showing her enslaved four-time great-grandmother, Kitty Carey was buried here, she decided to take action. Ms. Carey has lived most of her life at the University of Virginia's Morwen Farm in southeast Albemarle County. After being sent to Richmond as a servant to the widow of a plantation owner, she died in 1857.
Ms. McQueen's search for the origins of her ancestors, with whom she had previously been obsessed, led her to Morwen. She claimed that when conducting research with two U.Va. educators, digital historian Scot French and archaeologist Steve Thompson, she came across Miss Carey's name on a slave inventory. Ms. McQueen visited Richmond in 2017 to view the Virginia Libraries and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture archives. She discovered a letter dated 1857 from the owner's widow of Morwen to her sister informing her of the death of Miss Carey at Richmond and her burial there.
The list of museums for local African American cemeteries included The Grave Yard. Ms. McQueen claimed that what she discovered left her bewildered. "I had no idea this place even looked like a graveyard. When she stumbled upon an unmarked, weedy and trashy area, she remarked, "I noticed a highway running over it, and I thought my GPS had gone crazy.
Dr. Ryan Smith, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor writing a book about African-American cemeteries, reportedly confirmed that she was in the right place. Ms. McQueen collaborated with Dr. Smith and others, such as Ana Edwards, a leader in the fight to preserve the cemetery at 15th and Broad Streets, and VCU professor Sean Utsie, who chronicles the medical school's exploitation of the bodies of African Americans.
Working on her family tree over the past three years, Ms. McQueen has amassed a significant collection of records and maps relating to the abandoned property, which provided the basis for this story.
Ms. McQueen has already contributed to preserving the old cemetery site, where the previous mechanic's workshop used to be. The store's address, 1305 N. 5th St., was featured in a May 2018 city advertisement stating that unpaid property taxes would be auctioned at that location. She sent an email warning to District 6 City Council member Ellen F. Robertson about the cemetery and the upcoming public auction. The property was taken off the list for sale when Ms. Robertson reported it to the city. The property is no longer in the hands of the city.
Despite recognizing the site's importance, no action has been taken by Mayor Levar M. Stoney's administration to acquire the land or label it.
Ms. Robertson also publicly kept quiet about Ms. McQueen's results. Development of a "defensive and long-term strategy" for the site, according to Ms. Robertson, is ongoing. Behind the scenes, she said, there were discussions about creating a commission similar to that set up by Virginia Commonwealth University to work with dozens of African Americans whose remains were found in a well on campus in the 1990s during construction. The corpses, supposedly removed from the cemetery and used in MCV classes before the civil war, were dumped into a well.
The city changed its 7th Street redevelopment plan due to a study by Ms. McQueen to ensure that any roadwork would not touch the cemetery. But Ms. McQueen claims the state lied about the cemetery's location to not interfere with its plans to expand the freeway there.
Based on the maps Ms. McQueen dusted off, the original Cemetery ended up providing burials on both sides of Hospital Street and down the steep slope of what was once called Smiths Hill.
Ms. McQueen believes other officials are ignoring the potential impact of planned new lines to house high-speed trains on the Cemetery. At the same time, she waits for the city to take action on the abandoned cemetery.
She warned local, state, and federal officials that their plans to build a third set of rails for passenger trains would run the new line right through the cemetery.
Now that the proposal for additional lines to Richmond's Main Street station has been approved, Ms. McQueen said: "I remain very concerned." She is confident that if and when such work is carried out, builders will find the bones of unknown African Americans buried here in the past, as has happened during other road and construction projects. How much longer must this go on? she said. “ We must let our ancestors rest in peace.”