I-95 is a familiar route to those that travel by car in Richmond. Day in and day out, countless cars pass through the I-95 exit located in Shockoe Bottom, rushing along the pavement to begin their journey out of the city. Our modern, industrial life has a way of de-personalizing the city that so many of us claim as our home. Perhaps if these cars, and us with them, took a moment to slow their rush, they might notice that they are on sacred ground.
The African Ancestral Burial Grounds are located in Shockoe Bottom at 1540 E Broad St, nestled next to I-95. The site was covered over for many years by a VCU-owned parking lot, and was only turned over to the city of Richmond after much time and protest. This tension between the historical, sacred sight and the rapid industrialization and gentrification of the Shockoe Bottom area is nothing new to the many people who have been fighting for the reclamation of the land for years.
Throughout this article, I intend to center and lift up the voices of those who have been and continue to do the work of resistance that is so vital to both the commemoration and future of the African Ancestral Burial Grounds. The spirit of resistance that permeates the site is one with a long, expansive history. One organization that has incredible resources for the evolving history of the site is The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. They encapsulate the history very succinctly, saying:
The African Burial Ground is located at 15th and E. Broad streets in the historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, home of Richmond's original 32-block footprint, laid out by William Mayo at the commission of city founder William Byrd II, in 1737. Known only as a "Burial Ground for Negroes" on an 1809 surveyor's map of Richmond, Richmond's African Burial Ground was active from 1799 through 1816. It is notable for being Richmond's first municipal cemetery that was designated for the burials of Black people, and for being the site of the city gallows where many of the members of the slave revolt of 1800 were hanged, including its principle organizer and strategist, 24-year old enslaved blacksmith Gabriel, known at the time as "General Gabriel", on Oct. 10, 1800. His burial place is unknown.
Last fall, I had the great honor of being part of a course co-taught by MK Abadoo and Free Egunfemi Bangura at VCU titled Dance and Commemorative Justice. The course culminated in a site-specific performance at the African Ancestral Burial Grounds, choreographed by Abadoo. The piece aimed to activate the history of the site through activation of space and storytelling devices centered around futurity and community. The multi-generational cast incorporated those of all genders and dance backgrounds, truly tying the performance in the spirit of its community members. In an article by VPM, written by Catherine Komp, Abadoo is quoted as saying, “As a national community, even international communities would have imagined leadership, it might be one singular male general. The leadership of the future is multiple women. And so you see, the Brother General Gabriel character is a leader in this work, but then very much the generals emerge from the matriarchs in the work.” Cementing the performance in a future of shared matriarchal leadership while engaging with the great history of the African Ancestral Burial Grounds created a feeling of deep honoring while simultaneously inspiring a call to action: we must not forget, and we must keep going.
The struggle for reclamation and justice on macro and micro scales rages on across our country and our world. The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project is one of many fighting for justice and founding community around the African Ancestral Burial Grounds in Richmond. Tonight, October 10, 2020, from 5:30-7pm, they are hosting their 18th Annual Gabriel Gathering at the African Ancestral Burial Grounds. Their call to action is a powerful statement centering “anti-racist rebellion and its meaning for reclaiming Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.” They are asking everyone planning to attend to please wear a mask and socially distance.
The continued importance of activating space was a topic continually emphasized in the Dance and Commemorative Justice course that sticks with me to this day. MK and Free spoke often of the way sites hold great power. They taught that in order to activate that power, we must gather and engage. I encourage everyone who has the ability to come experience this event in the spirit of honoring and lifting up the voices of both the past and the collective future.
More information about the event tonight can be found on the event page: http://www.sacredgroundproject.net/.
General information about the African Burial Grounds can be found at these links: http://www.sacredgroundproject.net/p/richmonds-african-burial-ground.html, https://www.visitrichmondva.com/listing/richmond-african-burial-ground/5069/. Finally, for more information about Free Egunfemi Bangura, her organization #UntoldRVA, and the performance held last year, follow these links: https://www.facebook.com/UntoldRVA/, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIGXbrMTHkY&fbclid=IwAR0MtyguCRF1TqE90FG4UJ_2WtxjjR_D0vxmVLRZKrPcKvDJ__SA4Ox4mmg, https://vpm.org/news/articles/7581/brother-general-gabriel-performance-premieres-at-richmonds-african-burial-ground.
Let us activate the space and gather in community!