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"Knowledge of This Cannot Be Hidden": A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond


Executive Summary

As part of a one-year study of University of Richmond history, this report considers a site near Westhampton Lake where human remains were discovered multiple times in the early to mid-20th century. It provides the recorded encounters with the site assembled from previous research and recent archival discoveries. The report also details the centrality of enslavement during at least a century of the land’s history when hundreds of people were enslaved on plantations that at various times contained all or part of the current campus.

In Fall 2019, as a response to the June 30, 2019 Making Excellence Inclusive Report and Recommendations and supported by findings of the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity, the University of Richmond engaged a current visiting faculty member, Dr. Lauranett L. Lee, as a history consultant. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Dr. Lee is leading institutional history efforts that reassess parts of the past that have been forgotten or excluded. Her team for this study includes University of Richmond undergraduate students, an SPCS alumna, and an SPCS graduate student, Shelby M. Driskill, whose work is focused on public history and who is the researcher for the Westham Burying Ground study. Between September 2018 and August 2019, Ms. Driskill conducted extensive research that used as its starting point the limited knowledge of exhumations at a site on campus: information contained in a 1935 monograph, two 1947 news items, and an oral history describing a 1954-56 utilities project. Her graduate student research, supported by many members of the university community, provided additional evidence related to that site as well as details of the land’s use in the enslavement era and in the early 20th century. The university commissioned this research and report to further engage the study of these subjects as well as additional questions of land history. 

The report is divided into two sections: The Westham Burying Ground, which details the history of graves and exhumations at a location on the southeastern side of Westhampton Lake, and Land & Lives, providing historical context: information on the enslaved people bound to the land’s owners during the era of enslavement and the uses of the land before and after Emancipation.

Findings

Though it is unlikely that precise identifying information will be located for those whose remains were interred at the burying ground, and it cannot be stated with absolute certainty that those individuals were enslaved, the significant history of enslavement on the land; the dismissive approach to the graves by those who controlled the property; the results of research into possible competing explanations; and the position of the burying ground at low ground and at a significant distance from antebellum landowners’ homes all point to the likelihood that the site held, and may still hold, a burying ground for enslaved people. 

Read the full report.

 

Burying Ground Research Presentation

Filmed during a meeting of the Burial Ground Memorialization Committee.