Landslide Update - Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground


The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground in Richmond, VA, was among the nation’s largest burial sites for free and enslaved people of color and operated 1816-1879. Following it closure the site was desecrated by a series of municipal building projects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the construction of railroad tracks, a service station, and an Interstate 64 overpass. Because of plans to build a Washington, D.C. to Richmond high speed rail project (DC2RVA) through the remnants of the burial ground, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) enrolled it as a Landslide site and featured it in the report and digital exhibition Landslide 2021: Race and Space.   

Lenora McQueen is a descendant of Kitty Cary, an enslaved servant of a Richmond family buried there in 1857, and since 2017 has led efforts to raise the visibility of the historically and culturally important landscape. Because of McQueen’s advocacy, in December 2020 the Richmond City Council approved an ordinance allowing the city to purchase an acre of the original burial ground inclusive of the abandoned service station. In June 2021, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved the placement of a highway historical marker near the site and in June 2022, the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.   

Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, Richmond, VA - Photo by Dr. Ellen Chapman, courtesy Cultural Heritage Partners, 2022

Nonetheless, the high-speed rail project remains a threat. On January 23, 2024, McQueen sent the following letter to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and other representatives concerning the site’s future.



To the Honorable Glenn Youngkin, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, Congresswoman Jennifer McClellan, Speaker of the House of Delegates Don Scott, Senator Lamont Bagby, Delegate Rae Cousins, all members of the Virginia Legislature, citizens of Virginia, et al.     

Dear Governor Youngkin, Lieutenant Governor Earle-Sears, Congresswoman McClellan, Delegate Scott, Delegate Cousins, Senator Bagby, members of the Virginia Legislature, et al;     

Re: Still endangered in the Commonwealth, the “Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground” (not to be confused with the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom), by the DC2RVA high-speed rail project and the Commonwealth Corridor, the proposed RVA757 Connector, as well as various infrastructure projects (I-64 widening, etc.)     

A year ago I wrote to you asking for you to take up the cause of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground at 1305 N 5th St. in the Virginia State Capital Richmond, a 31 acre African burial ground, where over 22,000 enslaved and free people of color, of African descent are buried. I wish to take this opportunity to bring this highly important and nationally significant endangered burial ground and historic site back to your attention. I wish to renew my former request, that you and the Virginia Legislature take up its cause, especially as multiple mounting threats move closer to being carried out against it, which will all bring harm to it, in one form or another. Numerous recent announcements have been made regarding the enormous funding that President Biden has made available for the expansion of high-speed and passenger rail as well as other infrastructure projects (like the widening of I-64 in Virginia), and beyond. These projects, while great for Virginia, will harm the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, one of Virginia's most endangered historic places.     

Last year Section 106 for the DC2RVA high-speed rail project was re-opened. The FRA determined that the rail project as planned will harm the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. As of yet, I have seen no movement regarding consultation in the section 106 process towards the protection or avoidance of this site. I have seen no plans that attempt to move passenger rail off of this burial ground. Consulting parties and advocates have asked that these rail projects be constructed around this burial ground, and not through it. I am asking you to find another route, find another way. That is not too much to ask.  Billions of dollars are being allocated for these infrastructure projects. Certainly money can be allocated to find a way to go around this burial ground and to also remove the existing track which was constructed upon the graves of enslaved and free people of color of the city of Richmond. Just as money can and should be allocated to find a way not to allow the widening of I-64 to impact this burial ground as well. I am asking please for a study to be sponsored for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground (the largest African Burial Ground in the United States) and the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District, to look for ways not to impact it, and move these various infrastructure projects around it.      

While waiting for something to happen with section 106 for the DC2RVA high-speed rail project, other rail projects outside of Richmond, have been making plans for increased rail service to their cities that will negatively impact the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. To my surprise Hampton Roads has proposed adding 8 trains on what is being called the RVA757 Connector that will run directly upon the graves in this burial ground. It appears that Amtrak began quietly running 6 passenger trains on the burial ground in 2021. I say quietly, not because there aren’t people who know that there are 3 passenger trains running early in the morning, and then 3 more in the evening between Staples Mill Road Station and Main Street Station. I say quietly because I am fairly sure that none of those passengers riding that train are aware that they are riding over the graves of the enslaved and free people of color of the city of Richmond. Reports show that these six trains are plagued with problems, there are numerous delays, especially between the two Richmond stations. The track obviously does not well support the running of even these few trains. The solution being proposed to solve this problem is to run 8 more trains upon the same track that does not support the 6 currently being run. For more information read 3WTKR's article and the draft report.

Shortly after receiving notification of the 1/20/23 Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) letter expressing that the DC2RVA high-speed rail project will have adverse effects upon the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground and Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District, and shortly after I sent my email request to you last year, I received a request from a staff member of Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. They requested a meeting with me and a few others. What we were told was that the DC2RVA high-speed rail project did not really need to construct the third rail through the burial ground, and that they did not wish to harm it. It was said that they were planning to run all of the trains on the existing CSX track. As a descendant of people buried in that burial ground, I don’t find that at all acceptable. The only true way to protect the burial ground from harm is to go around it. That track exists upon graves in the burial ground. That is the same track that I just previously mentioned. It was constructed upon and or through graves. Its construction was a hateful, desecrating act. The running of these trains through the burial ground is a perpetuation of that terrible, hurtful, disrespectful act, and a constant reminder of the inhuman and cruel treatment the people buried there received both in life and after death. In 1900 the Seaboard Airline Railroad constructed their track (now CSX) to Main Street Station directly and purposely upon and through the burial ground. This track also cuts off and land-locks the entire northern half of this 31 acre burial ground, and makes it completely inaccessible to anyone who might want to pay their respects to the many thousands of people buried along that hillside, beneath those railroad tracks, or beyond the tracks.     

And with this all now having been said, I wish to ask you please, how in the world can a CSX railroad track that does not well support the existing 6 Amtrak trains being currently run on it since 2021, also support the 8 passenger trains that Hampton Roads wants to add to it, and the numerous trains that the DC2RVA high-speed rail project also wants to add to it? Plus I am told that there is at least one more train from Newport News to be added. And then there are also the trains from the east west Commonwealth Corridor (whose study mentioned nothing about this burial ground.) But as planned, its trains will also run through this burial ground. It was originally planned that its trains would run on the track that was to be constructed by the DC2RVA high-speed rail project through the burial ground. The answer has to be that there is no way that this existing CSX track will support high-speed rail, or any of these passenger trains. Additionally, it seems clear that even if the existing track were used and a third rail not constructed in and through the burial ground, the burial ground will still be negatively impacted. This track runs through an already very dangerous intersection at 7th St., and Hospital Street. There is no way that all of these trains won’t negatively impact 7th St., Hospital St. and its intersection. Those two streets and that intersection were also constructed upon that burial ground. Any road or infrastructure work caused to be done there because of the addition of these trains will be the fault of these rail projects. It does not matter if they do the work themselves, or if they cause it to be done by the city. It would be the result of the actions of these rail projects. The rail projects would be causing harm. The only true way not to harm this burial ground is to find another route, or to construct around the burial ground.     

Again I ask, will you please take on the cause of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, and do what is necessary to move these railroad and other infrastructure projects off of and around this burial ground? My ask is that you help to bring honor and dignity and respect to this burial ground and its people. They deserve it, and they also deserve to be allowed to finally rest in peace.      

Thank you for your time and your consideration.      

Yours truly,     

Lenora McQueen  

Advocate and descendant of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground