Groups claim state failed to protect Va. slave burial site

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A ex-Richmond city councilman is among those asking that Virginia officials excavate part of a university parking lot to determine ...

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A ex-Richmond city councilman who says his ancestors include Africans interred in a former slave burial ground is among those asking that Virginia officials excavate part of a university parking lot to determine how much of the paved area overlaps with the site.

Sa’ad El-Amin said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the director of the state Department of Historic Resources, Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, failed to protect the state-controlled land from what they consider the desecration and destruction of the former graveyard.

At a news conference Tuesday attended by members of the NAACP and other groups, El-Amin asked Gov. Timothy Kaine, who is in his final days as governor, to help move VCU’s “ass-phalt off our people.”

The state attorney general’s office, which defends state agencies in lawsuits, doesn’t comment on pending litigation, spokesman David Clementson said Tuesday.

VCU bought the land in February 2008 for the parking lot, which was completed last year. It relied on a state Department of Historic Resources archaeologist’s report that determined that the African Burial Ground extends only 50 feet into the lot.

But the NAACP, the Society for Preservation of African-American History and Antiquities, and other groups claim that the state’s study was flawed and inaccurate.

They say a College of William and Mary historical biologist they consulted has determined that the burial ground might encompass the entire lot and the only way to find out is to do an archaeological test excavation. The lawsuit said the groups raised their concerns with Kilpatrick, but she didn’t acknowledge the findings. If gravesites are uncovered, they are demanding that VCU stop using the site as a parking lot.

Virginia law prohibits the state from damaging historically significant sites.

The site was used during the mid-1700s to early 1800s and was known as the Burial Ground for Negroes. Interstate 95 was built over the main portion, and the asphalt parking lot was placed atop 10 feet or more of fill dirt that has settled on the site since the last person was interred.

Ana Edwards, head of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, said the site was the oldest city-owned gravesite for black people. It was located near the city gallows, and included the bodies of people who were executed, along with those who didn’t own property on which to be buried. It’s unclear how many people were buried there.

VCU announced in August 2008 that it would preserve the 50-by-110-foot section of the parking lot for a future memorial there in cooperation with the city-created Richmond Slave Trail Commission.

The commission wants to develop a series of historic stops to illustrate Richmond’s major role in the slave trade. The burial ground is near the former site of Lumpkin’s Jail, once one of the state’s largest and most notorious slave holding centers at the time. The jail underwent an archaeological dig and is part of the trail.

Edwards praised efforts to commemorate the graveyard but said the state and VCU “made a deal without consulting anyone except each other” about the size of the site.

The lawsuit is intended to encourage public debate over how communities deal with their dead, Edwards said.

She also said that allowing black people — many of whom descended from slaves — the right to determine what happens to the site would grant them “the right to self-determination, which they didn’t have for centuries, including the choice of whether they came here in the first place.”

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