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This is the first of a two-part series on the fate of the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves in Richmond, Virginia. 

It is dark and noisy beneath the towering pillars holding Interstate 64 over what looks like wasted space near 5th and Hospital Streets in Richmond, Virginia.

Patches of overgrown grass sprout between cracks in the crumbling asphalt beneath the highway overpass; graffiti the color of old blood marks some of its supports. Rain-washed, sun-faded litter is everywhere. Lenora McQueen first saw the space in 2017 while seeking the final resting place of her fourth great grandmother, Kitty Cary—a woman who was born, lived and died enslaved. McQueen didn't know what she'd find, but she didn't expect what she did. 

Copy of the letter announcing the death of Kitty Cary, the fourth great-grandmother of Lenora McQueen. Cary, who was enslaved by the Higginbotham family in Virginia, is believed to have been buried in the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves in 1857. The Grave Yard now sits underneath a section of Interstate 64 in Richmond. Copy of Letter courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.

She saw an old gas station on the site of what was once the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves, established in the early 19th century. "I saw a highway running over it; I thought my GPS had gone haywire." McQueen remembers thinking as she drove past, "I hope this isn't it."

It would take years of McQueen's dogged research and collaboration with historians, university professors and community advocates to determine that this unseemly patch of land was indeed the cemetery. Far beneath the crumpled cigarette packages and cast-off plastic bottles, McQueen and others realized, there are likely the remains of untold thousands of Black men, women and children. No marker tells this history, and information about the Grave Yard is somewhat sparse and confusing. Part of the parcel is privately owned, but the other part, the portion controlled by the state of Virginia, is the proposed location of a rail line to be built between Virginia's capital city and Washington, D.C.

'A More Eligible Burying Ground'

The city of Richmond, then a ganglion of America's thriving domestic slave trade but still decades away from naming itself the Capital of the Confederacy, established the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves in 1816. One acre of the grounds was devoted to free Blacks, another was reserved for burying the enslaved. This cemetery was the city's long-overdue response to petitions from the free Black community, who had for several years prior protested the ever-degrading condition of the previous Black cemetery, The Burial Ground for Negroes. 

Richmond city maps of 1809 identified the old burial ground, and showed why it was an undesirable place for the Black community to lay their loved ones to rest. 

"At that site there was a powder magazine and the city gallows [was] next to it," says Dr. Ryan Smith, a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Smith says a mixed-race free man named Christopher McPherson led the free Black community in agitation against the old graveyard. 

"It is very much confined as to space, inaccessible to a carriage by a steep hill, and it is on the margin of the Shockoe Creek, which has already washed away some of the graves, and will continue to wash them away," McPherson wrote of the old space in his biography in 1811. An educated man who had served as a clerk during the Revolutionary War, McPherson believed he was a prophet and was perhaps inclined to leadership. "I was commanded, and did draft a petition to the common hall, on behalf of the free people of color, and got them to sign it, requesting a more eligible burying ground," McPherson wrote. 

Signs at the site of the historic Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves.

Richmond's free people of color comprised ten percent of the city's total population in the early 1800s, according to Smith. However, he says they did not "have representation on the all-white city council." As the city dawdled, the free Black people took matters into their own hands, purchasing lots in the north of the city, on Academy Hill. They opened it in 1815, and operated their cemetery as a burying ground society. 

It wasn't until the free people of color had solved their own problem that the city took action on the years-old complaints to close the original Black burying ground next to the gallows, opening the Grave Yard in 1816. The old Burial Ground for Negroes stopped receiving remains and was "integrated into the city," says Smith, part of it turned into a schoolhouse for whites, part of it used as the city jail. Despite what must have amounted to thousands of interred Black people in the old Burial Ground, it was "basically ignored, built over, disregarding its previous use as a burial ground," Smith said. Soon after, Jewish residents of Richmond successfully petitioned the city for land near the newly built Grave Yard to establish its own cemetery near the almshouse, across from present-day 5th Street. What would become Shockoe Hill Cemetery was founded by the city in the early 1820s, initially called the "New Burying Ground for Whites."

Far beneath the crumpled cigarette packages and cast-off plastic bottles, McQueen and others realized, there are likely the remains of untold thousands of Black men, women and children.

"So now you've got this curious assemblage, it's kind of a cemetery neighborhood," Smith says, "but [with] very clear divisions of social groupings." In death as in life, skin color dictated where a person fit.

The Grave Yard remained in operation until at least 1879, when it was last recorded in the Richmond city directory. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of African Americans were buried there. Black cemeteries in the South like the Grave Yard were prime targets for "body snatchers," enslaved men who exhumed recently buried Black bodies to supply to medical schools, writes author and associate professor of history and African and African Diaspora studies Daina Ramey Berry in a 2018 New York Times Column.

"Medical colleges in the South had access to lots of bodies, because of the slave trade," says Dr. Shawn Utsey, Professor of African American Studies and Psychology and chair of African American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Utsey is an authority on 19th century illegal grave robbing, the domestic cadaver trade and the psychology of the African American experience.

"I saw a highway running over it; I thought my GPS had gone haywire." McQueen remembers thinking as she drove past, "I hope this isn't it."

VCU, which current enrolls more than 30,000 students, was founded as the Medical College of Virginia in 1838. The school enslaved Chris Baker, a man born to enslaved parents who also worked there. The college used Baker to procure bodies from Richmond cemeteries, including the Grave Yard.

Utsey says that Richmond's status as an epicenter of the American slave trade bolstered the sale of bodies to medical schools in Virginia, Georgia and beyond. His film, "Until the Well Runs Dry," details the nefarious practice of grave robbing and how some of the nation's best known medical colleges benefited from it.

Finding Kitty

Kitty Cary, McQueen's fourth great-grandmother on her father's side, was born enslaved circa 1793. She moved for the last time at age 60 with her owner's widow after his death, and spent the final three and a half years of her life enslaved in Richmond. McQueen knows few details about her early life; much of what she has learned was gleaned from the letters written by members of the Higginbotham family, who enslaved McQueen's ancestors at a plantation known as Morven, in Albemarle County, Virginia.  McQueen traveled to Virginia from her home in San Antonio, Texas to participate in a symposium on slavery at the University of Virginia, and found about 130 of the Higginbotham family letters at the Virginia Historical Society. That night and for months after, she pored over each line, hoping for a mention of her kin.

"It was the small mentions of her that endeared me to Kitty," says McQueen, who recalls reading in one letter that Cary was making curtains for the Higginbotham's son's new home, and in another, Cary's "frequent seasons of sickness." A letter one Higginbotham daughter wrote to her sister dated April 25, 1857 confirms Cary's death. "Our dear, faithful, old Kitty is no more," it reads, and describes the last moments of Cary's life surrounded by three of her nine children, and her husband Nelson, who had previously been enslaved on a plantation near Kitty in Albermarle. Cary's last words were recorded in the letter: "Don't cry children, don't cry for me children, I am going home." 

Abandoned lot under elevated section of I-64 on Hospital Street between N. 5th Street and railway tracks, beneath which lies a section of the Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves, Richmond.

McQueen researched burial grounds where Cary would have been buried. "The [Virginia] Historical Society gave me a short list of cemetery names, and I was able to eliminate most of them quickly, based on the dates of establishment." The only plausible public burial ground for Black people on the list was the Grave Yard, which was active at the time of Cary's death. Additional research led McQueen to surmise that as many as three other relatives are buried at the now-unrecognizable cemetery.

Unresolved Future

According to Utsey and Smith, the boundaries of the cemetery are difficult to define, because historic records about the space are often vague. Repeated attempts to reach the private owners of the portion of the Grave Yard's two acres for comment were unsuccessful. The private portion of the site, located at 1305 N. 5th Street and totaling just over one acre, was put up for public auction due to delinquent property taxes in May 2018.

Over the course of several weeks after the auction notice was published, McQueen warned several elected officials and city personnel that the property was actually an unrecognized African American burial ground, and asked the city to work with historic preservation and archeology groups to reclaim the site. Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, whose district contains the cemetery, and Mayor LeVar Stoney were unavailable for interviews for this article. Mayor Stoney's office provided a statement in late June that says the city of Richmond "acknowledges the deep historical and cultural significance of the Graveyard for Free People of Color and For Slaves and is currently engaged in conversations centered around minimizing adverse effects on this historic site as well as properly preserving and memorializing this treasured heritage." Additionally, the recently formed Shockoe Alliance is "a working group that is focusing on collaborative next steps to preserve and commemorate the Shockoe Area," according to Mayor Stoney's office.

Later in 2018, the privately owned acre of the cemetery was removed from auction listings. "It is still vulnerable and unprotected," says McQueen, "because now, it is in limbo, yet there are still human remains there."

The other acre of the cemetery site is also in danger of disturbance. The state-proposed, 123-mile-long Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast Rail Project (commonly referred to as DC2RVA), if built, may impact the site, says McQueen and other advocates, who have unearthed 19th century city maps and other historic documents to back their claims. The Federal Railroad Administration, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and an archeology group consulting on the project say there will be no adverse effect on the Grave Yard; some state agencies have also pointed out that the land the Grave Yard occupies has been repeatedly violated in the past, via the construction of a viaduct, Interstate 64, and other public works projects. McQueen stresses how crucial it is for the descendent community – those born of people buried in historic cemeteries like the Grave Yard – to be represented among the decision makers who will determine the space's future.

"I think the companies who are involved in investigating these cemeteries need to have African American representation on their teams, because they would be sensitive to the plight of the cemeteries and the African American experience," says McQueen. "If it was their ancestor's graves, I would think their response would be different."

Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis is an award-winning journalist and writer, with a decade of media experience in the Richmond, VA region. She is also the co-creator of The Unmasking Series, an anti-racism dialogue and workshop series founded in 2016. Born and raised in rural Hanover County, VA, Samantha lives with her husband Jamaal and three sons.