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Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond

January 16, 2020

Dear Members of the University Community,

I write to follow up on my October 30 message regarding this year’s institutional history research to share with you “Knowledge of this cannot be hidden”: Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond. The report stems from last year’s Presidential Commission for University History and Identity (Commission), which rightly challenged our community to tell a fuller, more inclusive history of the University, and where most germane, to position that history within the larger story of our city and state. I believe the report has met that challenge, addressing important questions about the reported enslaved burial ground on what is now our campus and tracing a history of this land and its inhabitants over more than three centuries. I am grateful to public historian and visiting lecturer Dr. Lauranett L. Lee and Shelby M. Driskill, a member of the research team and School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS) graduate student, for their excellent work leading this effort, and I urge you to read and consider the report.


Burial Ground Research

Richmond College, precursor to the University of Richmond, acquired the land that is now our campus in 1910 and has occupied it since 1914. Documents located during this academic year’s research confirm that the institution was aware as early as 1912 that a cemetery existed near the southeastern edge of Westhampton Lake behind today’s Puryear and Richmond halls. In July of 1912, Warren H. Manning, landscape advisor for the new campus, notified Richmond College board chair — and prominent Lost Cause proponent — James Taylor Ellyson that a planned new road would traverse the graveyard, including “at least 20 graves,” and recommended relocating any human remains to another cemetery. Manning added, “Knowledge of this cannot be hidden.” Known records do not clearly reveal how the College responded, but evidence indicates that knowledge of the burial ground was met with indifference and the road was constructed. 

This year’s research, alongside a substantial SPCS graduate student research project begun last year by Shelby Driskill and supported by many UR faculty and staff, documents several links between the land and enslavement, leading us to believe that the “Westham burying ground” was for enslaved people. The evidence includes:

  1. From around 1753 to 1865, hundreds of enslaved people lived, labored, and suffered under the plantation system on the land that is now our campus.
  2. In addition to the 1912 references to the cemetery, there are three other documented instances in which human remains were found near the southeastern edge of Westhampton Lake. This area — like known burial grounds for enslaved people — was located far from and at lower ground than the landowners’ homes.
  3. Several historical sources both refer to the existence of a burial ground and cite it as a place where African Americans were buried.

To bolster our research, the University engaged Naeva Geophysics in the fall to undertake a ground penetrating radar (GPR) study of the reported burial ground site to determine what physical evidence may remain. As I communicated last semester, the results were inconclusive due to unfavorable soil and ground conditions, which is not unusual. Yet, while extensive research did not explicitly determine who was buried there and when, the historical and geographical context for the discoveries of human remains supports the likelihood that the site is an enslaved burial ground. 

As the report documents, it is clear that the leadership of Richmond College and its board in the early 20th century, and of the University of Richmond in the 1940s and ’50s, knew of the burial ground. Yet on several occasions the College desecrated the cemetery as it moved forward with developing the campus. As mentioned earlier, we believe the College built a road through the burial ground even after it received an explicit warning in 1912 that such construction would expose graves. Then, in both 1947 and 1955–1956, construction workers accidentally uncovered human remains from the burial ground while upgrading campus infrastructure. The University condoned reburying the remains at an unrecorded location. This devaluing of human life and dignity conforms with the long and painful history of dehumanizing enslaved persons. The Board of Trustees and I are deeply saddened by these discoveries. We profoundly regret the acts of desecration and the silences in our historical narrative.


History of Enslavement and Post-Emancipation

In addition to advancing our understanding of the burial ground, the report also sheds new light on the history of this land and lifts up stories of people previously excluded from history, just as the Commission recommended.

We now know that the familiar story of the University moving to the site of a former amusement park in 1914 leaves out a complex and painful history of enslavement on these grounds. Before the University acquired the land, it was for more than a century part of a series of plantations run on enslaved labor. From at least 1753 to 1865, hundreds of people were enslaved by a succession of the land's owners, forced to labor in their fields, mills, mines, and homes. Dr. Lee and Ms. Driskill have done outstanding work recovering and telling the stories of some of the enslaved, who had been all but forgotten and erased by history. I urge you to read their stories, which put a human face on the institution of slavery and its injustices.

As the report documents, the history of this land also encompasses important stories of freed people’s leadership, self-determination, and achievement. It is heartening to read of the vision and accomplishments of William Washington Browne, founder of the True Reformers, the Richmond-based African American mutual aid organization that held a large parcel of what is now our campus in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The True Reformers used this land in various ways to advance their work growing and supporting the black middle class.

Going forward, it is my sincere hope and intention that the story of this land continues to be one of progress. That means building a more inclusive Richmond where all our members benefit from the rich diversity of our campus and learn how to achieve meaningful understanding across lines of difference. We have more work to do to achieve this goal, but together we can fulfill our commitment to inclusive excellence and become the thriving intercultural community we aspire to be.


Next Steps

As is the case with good research, we have made important discoveries while opening new avenues of exploration. We recognize that we are not the sole custodians or interpreters of this land’s history, which is why we invite additional information from the broader community, especially descendants of the enslaved who lived, labored, and may have been buried here. Only together can we tell a fuller history of this land, remembering and memorializing those whom existing narratives have excluded or forgotten.

To that end, I have recently appointed a memorialization committee charged with: 1) engaging the campus and broader community in dialogue about the complex history of this land detailed in the report; 2) memorializing the enslaved who lived and labored on these grounds and the burial ground where we believe some of them rest; and 3) making a specific recommendation about appropriate memorialization. The Committee will be co-chaired by Vice President and Chief Information Officer Keith “Mac” McIntosh, who has led diversity and inclusion efforts locally and nationally, and President Emeritus Edward L. Ayers, an eminent historian of the American South and co-chair with Dr. Lee of the 2018-19 Commission.

As part of our commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Committee, Dr. Lee, and Ms. Driskill will also convene a conversation about the research findings on Monday, January 20 at 1 p.m. in the Wilton Center Multifaith Room. I hope that many of you will participate in this initial conversation, and we look forward to additional conversations on campus and in the community throughout the spring semester.

The Provost’s Office is supporting student engagement with a more inclusive university history in two ways. Faculty were invited to develop and teach a spring 2020 course that includes the study of our institutional history and its legacies. I am pleased to report that six courses are now being taught across a range of disciplines. (For more information, please contact interim Senior Administrative Officer, Dr. Amy Howard.) Building on the Race and Racism Project pilot, Dr. Ernest McGowen was recently appointed to lead student research and faculty participation in understanding our history of race and race relations. (If interested in participating in this project, including student summer research, please contact emcgowen@richmond.edu.)

Research on Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman will also continue this semester and involve engaging a number of stakeholders. I look forward to sharing a progress report later this spring, and I am grateful to Dr. Lee and the researchers assisting her for their efforts.

Finally, moving forward, the University is committed to responsibly managing the burial ground site. We will not disturb the area unless absolutely necessary to repair existing infrastructure, and if that need arises, we will follow all appropriate protocols and exhibit appropriate care and respect.

The history of the land where we study, work, and learn together is complicated. It is not a simple story, nor should we try to make it one. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Lee, Ms. Driskill, and everyone else who has contributed to this important work thus far, as well as to the members of the memorialization committee and to all who will participate in our community conversations this spring. I look forward to our continued work together to examine, understand, and communicate our past more fully and inclusively.

Sincerely,

Ronald A. Crutcher
President