New research from the University of Richmond points to a burial ground of enslaved people lying beneath the campus.
The burial site is believed to be behind Puryear Hall, built in 1927 on the southeastern side of Westhampton Lake near the university’s steam plant. The site’s presence isn’t confirmed—the university is still investigating—but initial evidence discovered by researchers has led to the belief that an unknown number of slaves are buried below the campus.
“There are big questions we are still trying to piece together,” said Derek Miller, assistant director of community relationships and community-engaged learning at the university’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, who has a doctorate in historical archaeology.
The news was first reported by The Collegian, the university’s student newspaper.
The potential discovery comes as universities across the country and the state acknowledge their history with slavery and launch efforts to tell the full stories of their past.
Much of the initial evidence for the burial ground is documentary.
A 1947 Richmond News Leader article describes a small pile of bones being unearthed on the campus. A university spokesperson said at the time, “It has long been believed bodies of slaves were buried in the neighborhood of the university.”
That neighborhood included Zion Town, an African American neighborhood on Ridge Road between River Road and Three Chopt Road.
A history of Zion Town published in 1935 by the University of Virginia said that land once belonged to Ben Green, who owned a plantation that produced lumber. He owned the land that includes what is now the UR campus and the Country Club of Virginia, according to the 1935 book.
The dam near Westhampton Lake, the book said, was where his mill was.
“Some few years ago a gang of laborers digging in the hollow just below this dam uncovered a pile of bones and skulls that are considered to mark the site of the old burying ground for Ben Green’s slaves,” the book said.
The book is the “firmest” evidence of the site, said Dywana Saunders, a research and digitization associate for UR’s Boatwright Memorial Library.
“You can assume because Ben Green had slaves,” she said.
Still, the university—founded 33 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—isn’t certain if the burial ground exists.
A ground-penetrating survey, which uses radar to push images to the surface, is scheduled for Sept. 16. That method, Miller said, has the potential to identify burials, but “it’s important to be cautious on this and not to overpromise.”
The survey is noninvasive, meaning nothing is being moved or dug up, he added.
“We’re doing the best we can to begin to identify possible people and tie names to this,” said Miller, who is assisting in the survey. “There’s good evidence it was probably started when this area was a plantation, but we don’t have a good sense or knowledge of when did it begin and when did it end?”
A report released by President Ronald Crutcher last month said the university will spend the 2020 academic year doing more research and creating a plan to memorialize the slaves.
Then, in academic years 2021 and 2022, it plans to memorialize them; research and connect with descendants; and “support ongoing work to integrate historical context into campus, including development of historical exhibits and interpretive signage.”
“Once additional historical and archaeological research has been completed and verified, our plan would be to memorialize in some way those enslaved people and to support ongoing work to represent meaningfully this history and information at the University,” said university spokeswoman Cynthia Price.
That’s an issue many schools in Virginia and elsewhere are tackling.
The College of William & Mary announced last month that it’s using $1 million to look more at the legacy of slavery and racism at the country’s second-oldest college. The university is also developing a memorial to honor African Americans enslaved by William & Mary.
UVA started its own project in July to identify and contact the descendants of university-owned slaves. Elsewhere, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia have disclosed their slavery connections in recent years.
Now, as research continues on the site, UR seeks to deal with how to memorialize plantation-owned slaves potentially buried underneath its campus.
“Anything dealing with the history of the property is really important for us to understand, especially African American history,” Saunders said.