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College Students Uncover History In Richmond Cemeteries

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Richmond's cemeteries are giving some Virginia Commonwealth University students a history lesson.
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Richmond's cemeteries are giving some Virginia Commonwealth University students a history lesson.

This fall, many professors will send their students to the library, but one faculty member plans to send his kids into the cemeteries of Richmond to learn more about the city's past.

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ryan Smith says graveyards are an intriguing place to begin learning about how ordinary people lived and died, so his students are assigned to find topics in local cemeteries—to write papers or produce podcasts about the people buried there.

One student, for example, wrote extensively about a doctor without a degree—a man named Chris Baker who served the Medical College of Virginia for decades.

"He was notorious around town as what we would call a grave robber, providing the anatomical specimens that MCV was using to train its students. He's a black man, but at the same time he s preying upon African-American graves. He's forced to live, for his own safety, in the Egyptian Building of the Medical College of Virginia's campus."

Another student, Scott Seal, read up on the Shockoe Hill Cemetery where many of Richmond's notable figures were buried. One was Peter Francisco, a famous fellow in his time and someone Seal had never heard of.

He showed up on the docks here in Virginia as a kid, and he didn't speak English, and so nobody really knows where he came from. Somebody can and picked him up off the dock and made him an indentured servant, and so at 15 or 16 he enlisted in the army to get off of that farm.

He stood well over six feet tall and so strong that he came to be known as the Giant of Virginia. Legend had it he was also fearless in battle.

He was wounded five times. He was involved in a lot of important battles. George Washington is actually on record from that time saying that Peter Francisco was responsible for the entire success of the Revolutionary War.

These stories are shared on the website Richmond Cemeteries, and Professor Smith hopes maybe some of the podcasts could be assembled to create audio tours for people visiting the final resting places of little-known Richmond residents.

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