The convention's theme, which also commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the role slaves played, was "African Americans and the Civil War." While the convention showcased an array of vendors and offered several sessions that explored a variety of topics, it was actress Gwendolyn Briley-Strand's one-woman show depicting the life of Harriet Tubman, and the African-American burial ground discussion that resonated with the mostly baby-boomer crowd.
A ceremony, attended by McDonnell, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones and a slate of other local and state dignitaries, was held at the burial ground this past summer. The event transitioned the cemetery's ownership from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to the Richmond City Council's Slave Trail Commission. The event also marked removal of the cement, which had covered the cemetery for more than 10 years while VCU used it as a parking lot.
Salim Khalfani, executive director of the NAACP Virginia State Conference, said the goal is to model the burial ground – complete with a monument – after the African Burial Ground in New York City. He said there has been a struggle to retain Richmond's oldest African American cemetery, where both enslaved and free blacks were buried from around 1750 to 1814.
"At [the NAACP's] request, we got three contractors to get the asphalt off and get the process started for free," Khalfani said. "On the day before the city's ceremony – those of us who fought to reclaim the burial ground – had a ceremony of our own because the city was allowing participation of the people who had been fighting against us the entire time."
Dr. Shawn Utsey, chair of African-American studies at VCU, was also a panelist. Utsey who directed the award-winning documentary, Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground, said the cemetery represents the humanity of Black people.
"This is an effort to reclaim our humanity," Utsey said. "We own our right to define our own reality ... and we will continue our fight to preserve [that sacred space] until the well runs dry."
James B. Stewart who serves as national president heads the D.C.-based ASALH. The organization's mission is to "promote, research, preserve, interpret and to disseminate information" pertinent to black life, history and culture.