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Richmond Begins Restoring Former Slave Burial Ground

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Advocates for restoring a site believed to be one of the largest slave burial grounds in the state tear up the pavement currently covering the area. The City of Richmond will construct a memorial at the site.
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Advocates for restoring a site believed to be one of the largest slave burial grounds in the state tear up the pavement currently covering the area. The City of Richmond will construct a memorial at the site.

Bernard Means, an anthropology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says you can learn a lot about race and class by studying burial practices.

"The dead don't bury themselves. They're buried by other people. And when you bury your dead, you’re trying to send a message," Means says. "It might be a very personal, a very intimate message, or you might be trying to communicate to the community."

Consider burials on 18th and 19th century plantations, Means says. The graves of plantation owners and their families are most often marked with inscribed headstones. But slaves were often buried without markers.

"The plantation owner is going to have a marker because they want people to remember them. But for people who are servants and stuff like that, they were effectively disposable people," he says. "They didn't really need to be remembered."

Sometimes graves of poor or enslaved people are marked with field stones, which are natural stones that are hard to notice. Irvin White was clearing brush on his rural property when he came across several of these small stones.

"It was when we were doing some cleaning up on the fence line, we ran into them," White says. "We were coming up along the fence line and stopped right as we got to them."

Field stones usually don't have inscriptions.

"Part of the reason was, you might be dealing with an illiterate population, or if you're talking about enslaved Americans, you’re talking about people who, even if they were literate, couldn't admit to it, because there were laws against that," says Mean.

Irvin says there are a number of forgotten burial sites in his community.

"They're all over on the farms around here. If you're around enough, you'll run into them-you’ll hit indentations just out in the fields," he says. "There's lots of them that there's no stones even that big and you don't notice them until you Bush Hog over the top of them the first time.

Like the people buried beneath them, nameless stones are often forgotten through time.

"If you were treated poorly in life, you were probably treated poorly in death as well," he says.

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