Preserving Sacred Ground: Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground

March 7, 2022 by Rob Nieweg

The National Trust and its local allies are advocating to protect and honor the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, a nearly erased municipal cemetery in downtown Richmond, Virginia. This collaborative advocacy is closely aligned with the goals of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as well as the preservation movement’s National Impact Agenda.

Between 1816 and 1879, Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground was Richmond’s 31-acre segregated cemetery for free and enslaved African Americans. Scholars estimate that more than 22,000 people of African descent were buried there, making Shockoe Hill one of the largest African burying grounds in the United States. Shockoe Hill is associated with the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground and Evergreen Cemetery, two focuses of National Trust advocacy through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Over many years, tragically, Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground was neglected by the City of Richmond, sold off, desecrated, and nearly destroyed by railroad and roadway construction, leaving today no visible sign to recognize the Burying Ground’s existence. In 2021, Shockoe Hill was listed by Preservation Virginia as one of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places because of planned construction of high-speed railroad tracks and the future expansion of Interstate 64 and local roadways.

In Richmond, the preservation alliance collaborating to save Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground is led by Lenora McQueen—who is descended from an ancestor, Kitty Cary, buried at Shockoe Hill—and a set of scholars, Steve Thompson, Ryan Smith, and Daniel Mouer. These dedicated individuals are joined by the Sacred Ground Project of the Virginia Defenders of Freedom, Justice & Equality, Preservation Virginia, Historic Richmond, RVA Archeaology, Cultural Landscape Foundation, and the National Trust. Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources and the City’s Historic Preservation Office actively support this effort.

To protect and honor this hallowed cultural landscape, the African Burying Ground has been nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register. If the nomination is successful, official recognition of the cultural importance of Shockoe Hill would be a step in the right direction.

Learn more about the ongoing campaign to preserve the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground on The Cultural Landscape Foundation website.

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