KUJICHAGULIA Means Self Determination: Reclaiming the untold stories of the Shockoe Bottom Resistance Movement – Part I
Maat Free lays down the foundation, and with it, we’re going to build a robust comprehension of the ongoing “How are we dealing with our slavery-related spaces?” issue.
The Posthumous Emancipation of enslaved African Ancestors at #untoldrva’s Self Determined community elevation ceremony, entitled Anointing the Veil. This took place in April 2015 during the 150th Anniversary of the end of African enslavement. Photo by Vanessa Nixon.
Because America’s laws considered us to be White people’s personal property until 1865, Black people in the United States have a very hard time tracing family trees and bloodlines. When one of us died (from being worked or beaten to death), another one of us usually dug a shallow hole and dropped us in there as quickly as they could, because plenty of uncompensated work was waiting. So was the whip.
In Richmond, Black bodies in this town (enslaved, free, and convicts alike) were routinely dumped into a soggy wet swampland called the Burial Ground for Negroes, where there was a branch coming off the river that flooded those Black graves on a regular basis. That waterway was called Shockoe Creek. Whenever it rained especially heavily, bodies would wash up out of the dirt and the flood waters would scatter people’s ribs, skulls, and femurs all over the whole area that we now know refer to as Shockoe Bottom.
It didn’t take long for the Burial Ground situation to get completely out of control. Of course, the families of the deceased had every reason to be frightened of complaining. One free Black man did though. His name was Christopher McPherson. Very rarely does anyone ever mention the letter he wrote to Richmond City Council a little over 200 years ago. Thank goodness he was an eloquent wordsmith or there’d hardly be any firsthand accounts of this gory scene at all.
On the 16th day of June, 1810, the free people of color in this city, petitioned the common hall to grant them a new and eligible burying ground, and to this day, a lapse of more than six months, I have never heard of any report of the committee on the case. Several who signed the memorial, and others, have since died, and were buried in that disgustful old burying ground, whosenames I have inserted on a copy of a memorial which I have, and in which is a copy of the proceedings of the hall, with the courses of 28½ acres of land, in the suburbs, belonging to the corporation, towards which, no doubt, the people of colour paid a part in the taxes levied upon them.
I had an inspection, the other day, made of the present burying ground. It lies directly east of the Baptist meeting house, uninclosed, very much confined as to space, under a steep hill, on the margin of Shockoe Creek, where every heavy rain commits ravages upon some one grave or another, and some coffins have already been washed away into the current of Shockoe stream, and in a very few years the major part of them will no doubt be washed down into the current of James river; added to this, many graves are on private property adjoining, liable to be taken up and thrown away, whenever the ground is wanted by its owners, (this is owing, either to confined space, or want of knowledge of what was public ground;) and furthermore, we may add the humiliating circumstance, that this is the very express gallows ground where malefactors are interred. I ruminated on this ghastly scene; and now, thought I, were I in a barbarous land, and such a sight like this was to present itself to my view, I should exclaim to myself, these are a poor, ignorant people. The blessing even of a solitary ray of gospel light has never shone upon them, neither has civilization, nor the age of reason, made any approaches towards their savage habitations. A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, Alias, Pherson, Son of Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Containing a Collection of Certificates, Letters, &c. Written by Himself
By 1816, the whole place was so nasty that the city finally agreed to honor six years-worth of petitions from distraught black families to please build them a proper cemetery. However, each time the creek flooded, the horror could not be contained. There’s no telling how far those graves shifted or how many corpses were tossed around in the current of the river when the water imposed itself beyond the banks of Shockoe Creek. According to McPherson, even the coffins of free Black people were regularly uprooted by the floodwaters, sending crude wooden boxes to ride the rapids with nothing to stop them. And so it was that the remnants of death were scattered far beyond the area marked on the old city maps as the Burial Ground for Negroes.
Don’t feel bad for not knowing that there could very well be countless Black bodies buried under the highway just as you enter the heart of Richmond. Interstate 95 is less than 20 feet from the outermost edge of the space the City still insists on calling the Old Burial Ground for Negroes. Most travelers have no idea that they’re riding over top of (or at least right alongside) dead enslaved Africans every time their car whizzes past Shockoe Valley on the highway. Even if you did hear about a cemetery down there, who can blame you for being kind of clueless as to its exact location? We do have that brand new “Welcome to Richmond” sign only a few yards away from it, but so far, there’s no neon billboard on the clock tower saying, “Yoooo…look down, right there…hey…”
It’s true. The current offerings of City-sponsored (but not necessarily community-supported) interpretive signage has contributed to an overall sense of abandonment down there. In fact, most people think the “Dead Black Slaves Buried Beneath a Grass-Covered Parking Lot” story is still pretty much a semi-confusing urban legend. But never fear, my fellow Richmond citydwellers. I think I might be able to help out with that. Each one, teach one. That’s what I always say.
So I want you guys to check this out. Let’s rewind to the beginning and focus on the backstories. I’m incredibly stoked to do this because it’s the exact reason why I created #untoldrva, a hidden history project I founded in 2014 to help reclaim the missing pieces within the local historical narrative.
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A few years ago, I was driving through Shockoe, right past what I prefer to call Richmond’s African Ancestral Burial Ground. I had my little daughter Ngozi and her friend Niya in the back seat, and to our left, there was the lush green expanse that had once been a run-of-the-mill VCU parking lot.
“Mommy, can we go say hi to the Ancestors?” My daughter’s tiny voice melts my heart when she asks me things like that. This girl is an eager keeper of traditions, always ready to acknowledge the presence of those who came before us, every time we pass by that spot.
How could I deny her request to stretch out on the grass while I tell stories about the land, language, and culture of the place from which our people came before they were brought to America? I’ve taught her and her much older sisters, from the earliest age on up, to leave their humble little presents between the two large trees that anchor this space and stand tall like faithful witnesses to everything that’s happened here.
Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to help my three daughters embrace the concept of Ancestral Remembrance in ways they could each understand. It makes me happy when I get a chance to quietly observe them passing my original stories onto curious friends, and when I listen to my girls speaking their young truths, I know they too are gifted at helping others to reclaim what has long since been forgotten.
My daughters’ friends have all returned home with stories to share with their parents about our experiences at the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom and all along the river. Mothers call and ask if they can come with us to walk the trail. Fathers look teary-eyed and admit that they’ve always wanted to know more. This was the start of how I began to share what I know.
I’m always eager to drop jewels in the midst of people from all different backgrounds. The way I figure, everyone deserves to benefit from this hidden history because at the heart of it all is Ancestral Remembrance, one of my favorite topics in the whole wide world. We are the children who have chosen to remember. The traditional African way of maintaining a reciprocal connection with one’s Ancestors is called SIMBA SIMBI: to hold up that which holds you up. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and it is good to go back in the past to reclaim what was once lost or forgotten. There is a word for that as well. It’s called Sankofa. These things have become my life’s work.
For years, myself and many others have led a very real, very active underground movement to care for the memory and legacy of the enslaved African Ancestors who were once bought and sold in Richmond. This town was in fact the largest human trafficking market America had ever seen. There were over fifty complicit slavery-related businesses that operated within the economy of the day, gleaning profits on everything from whips, chains, and torture devices to sellers, drivers, breeders, and buyers. Hundreds upon thousands of Black people were forced to endure the unthinkable, within a few blocks of the front door to our City Hall. A lot of folks have no clue they’re riding over top of, directly past, or alongside these unmarked graves, gallows, and auction blocks every single day.
In 2011, after years of maintaining an at-home memorial space for unsung Richmond Resistance Fighters, I was asked by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project to lead processionals in honor of Brother Gabriel, whose gallant attempt to organize a mass rebellion ended with his death on the hanging gallows. Today, you can still see some of the giant stones where Richmond City courts ordered people to be executed by public lynching (Gabriel and his crew were killed here in the year 1800). Just look carefully at the huge blocks at the mouth of the tunnel, which overlooks the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom. That’s where it all went down.
Richmond did a lot of wrong here. Nowadays, people come with humble hearts to try and reverse some of it with good energy and togetherness. The crowd that attends Sacred Ground’s annual commemoration for Brother Gabriel is always a mixed gathering of people from all ages, backgrounds, and level of involvement. For two years, it was my job to pour the libation and to give an address on the site of his hanging. That was the beginning of my public work and now, every time I lead groups through these sites, folks from all walks of life respond with tears and gratitude for being given the opportunity to participate.
#untoldrva is now my primary means to share this fascinating hidden history. Once I began to see the positive effects of sharing the core concepts of Ancestral Remembrance from an African Centered perspective, I sought out even more opportunities to reach larger groups of people. Over time, it became clear that the best thing to do was just write what I know in a way everybody can understand. My goal is to impact the historical record so that it reflects the views of those who support the Self Determined right for Black people to speak our own truth about the complex legacy of enslavement and resistance in our beloved city.
This column is dedicated to uncovering the never-before published backstories of the Shockoe Resistance movement. I plan to dig deep, open the vault, and start at the very beginning with all the essential elements from the stories I’ve collected along my journey.
There’s so much to tell you about things like:
- The power of Kujichagulia: Self Determination in the Shockoe Resistance Movement
- Our Posthumous Elevation at Emancipation Day 2015
- A timeline of unsung victories from those committed to Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility
- The underground effort to ensure the authenticity of narratives that protect the memory of once-enslaved African Ancestors
- Obscure tales and exploits of Shockoe’s grassroots activism
- A lexicon to help people find appropriate language when discussing enslavement and remembrance
- Reclaimed traditions of West African Ancestral Remembrance in the American South
We’re going to get this right. As the audience expands, we’ll all grow closer together, connected by the desire to respect and celebrate one another authentically. Please join me along this journey as I give voice to all sorts of previously unspoken tales about what happens when people take the Self Determined initiative to tell their own stories, in their own voices, for the benefit of our collective past, present, and future.
Thank you in advance for traveling with me as we celebrate the efforts of our vigilant neighbors who’ve committed themselves to this work. I’ll remain in place and do all I can to balance our beloved city’s historical record. I hope you’ll join me to help make sure these things are never ever forgotten. May it be so.
With Love and Kujichagulia,
Founder of #untoldrva, Guardian of Ancestral Remembrance and keeper of the missing pieces in our local historical narrative