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ASALH Convention Highlights Preservation of African-American Burial Ground

Dorothy Rowley | , WI Staff Writer | 10/9/2011, 2:04 p.m.
There's a movement going on 100 miles south of D.C., in the capital of the...

There's a movement going on 100 miles south of D.C., in the capital of the Confederacy to ensure that the ancestral legacy of an African-American burial ground is preserved.

The "sacred space" is located in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond, Va., and keeping it intact was the topic of a panel discussion during the 96th annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The five-day event convened Oct. 5-9 at the downtown Marriott, drawing hundreds of attendees from across the country.

"African Americans are prominent in Virginia and American history," Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell said in a statement welcoming the convention. "Leading historian Carter G. Woodson, a native of Virginia and the son of former slaves, brought this fact to the world's attention by founding [ASALH in 1916], publishing several scholarly works and establishing Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month."

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 burial ground discussion on Oct. 8 that resonated with the mostly baby-boomer crowd.

A ceremony, which was attended by McDonnell, Richmond's mayor and a slate of other local and state dignitaries, was held at the burial ground this summer. The event transitioned the cemetery from Virginia Commonwealth University's ownership 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.

According to Salim Khafani, executive director of the NAACP Virginia State Conference, 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 told The Washington Informer. "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."

The Washington, D.C.-based ASALH is headed by James B. Stewart, who serves as national president. The organization's mission is to "promote, research, preserve, interpret and to disseminate information" pertinent to black life, history and culture.

Several honorariums were given during the convention, and among the recipients were Dr. Daryl M. Scott, for the Mary McLeod Bethune Service Award, historian Vincent Harding for the Carter G. Woodson Scholars Medallion as well as Howard Dodson; Thomas C. Battle; Carl M. Dunn; and Robert L. Harris -- all of whom were recognized for the Executive Council Award.