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OPINION: Honoring Ancestors 

The city should support the acquisition of 1305 N. Fifth St. and its inclusion on the Slave Trail.

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Scott Elmquist

Dear Richmond City Council and city residents,

My fourth great-grandmother, Kitty Cary, would have been buried in the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, the now invisible Grave Yard for Free People of Colour and For Slaves at Fifth and Hospital streets.

She died just over 160 years ago in Richmond, where she lived in the home of her owner on Franklin Street. Elizabeth Fisher, the daughter of her owner, wrote a heartfelt letter to her sister Ann in Philadelphia the very same morning that Kitty died in 1857, sadly informing her sister of the death of their beloved Kitty. The letter brought tears to my eyes as I read of her long illness and painful death. I was touched by how much love was expressed for Kitty in that letter. Kitty’s daughters who were present were devastated. Her other children and grandchildren had been sold after the death of Elizabeth’s father a few years prior, splitting up the family.

Elizabeth told how she had Kitty’s body neatly prepared for the grave. “It is what she would have done for me” she said. Kitty was dressed in the garment that she herself had requested for that purpose. Her last words were spoken to her children in an attempt to comfort them as she herself lay dying, seeing them weeping – “Don’t cry children, don’t cry for me, I am going home” – she breathed her last breath and died.

Elizabeth and her sister Jane intended to follow Kitty’s body to the grave the next day. She indicated that their intention was that no respect would be spared for Kitty. My intention also is that no respect should be spared for Kitty, other family members buried there, or for the more than 22,000 people estimated to have been interred there.
In my eyes Kitty holds a place of high honor. And all of those people buried there probably were loved by someone. They were someone’s child, someone’s mother, someone’s father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparent, grandchild, cousin, husband, wife, friend. … They are still someone’s someone. They deserve to be honored. They deserve to have their story told and no longer hidden. And they deserve to be allowed to rest in peace.

I came to Richmond in October 2017 to find Kitty and my family. I had only known of the intention of her owner, who moved to Richmond, to keep her. I had no idea of what had actually happened. So I came to Richmond and found Kitty in the letter. The excitement I felt when I realized that I could go to the place that she would have been buried was tremendous. I remember the confusion, and the disappointment upon reaching my destination. I didn’t understand the place at all, and I kept thinking that I must be in the wrong place. I hoped that I was in the wrong place. And I left there not knowing until sometime later that it was the right place. That desolate hillside has an abandoned gas station and a billboard on it. It is so disrespectful with streets, a viaduct, railroad tracks and a highway all run through its grounds. But with all that has happened there, it does not make that place or its people not important. Even those whose skeletal remains were obviously moved or scattered, they deserve something better, as even today their essence remains.

I thoroughly researched the history of the place where my ancestor Kitty was laid to rest by those who loved her. It has been a horribly sad and disturbing journey seeing the degradation, the disrespect and the destruction associated with this burial ground. I have no idea if she rests there in peace, or if she fell victim to one of the many atrocities that befell that graveyard. Any number of things may have happened to her, from having her body stolen and used as a medical cadaver, to ending up as street fill. Though even if she herself were untouched, how could she rest in peace? The history of the burial ground is tragic.

Equally as terrifying as the burial ground’s destructive past is its future, as even today high-speed rail and the widening of Interstate 64 threaten to harm it unless steps are taken to recognize it, acknowledge its full historical boundaries and protect it. This burial ground is supposed to be a place of eternal rest – a place of honor and memorial, just like at the two burial grounds next to it. The disparity between them is shocking and quite beyond words.

On any given day, a descendant of those buried inside the walls of the Shockoe Hill Cemetery or the Hebrew Cemetery can go and visit the grave of their ancestor, which is still to this day lovingly cared for. That is not true of the African American community whose ancestors died between 1816 and 1879 in Richmond and were buried outside the walls of Shockoe Hill Cemetery. They have been made to disappear, as if they had never existed at all. I wonder when will they be recognized and honored? When will they be given the peace that they may rest, and that we may rest knowing we have corrected the wrong?

It now appears that a new day may be dawning, as City Council passed a measure to support acquiring the parcel at 1305 N. Fifth St. A second ordinance needed to secure the acquisition of the burial ground is expected to be introduced in November.

While the parcel is a small portion of the 31-acre Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, it lies at its very heart. Now the property may be the city’s best chance to claim, memorialize and learn from this extraordinary history.

I ask city residents do all they can to support the acquisition of 1305 N. Fifth St. so that it can be appropriately studied, interpreted and remembered. Thank you for your consideration.

Lenora McQueen is a member of the descendant community of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. People can get involved by asking their City Council representative to support and protect the burying ground. Also visit sacredgroundproject.net.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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