Explore designs for the planned burying ground memorial

April 29, 2022

UNIVERSITY NEWS

See three concepts developed after discussions with the University of Richmond and descendant communities.

As a graduate student at the University of Richmond in 2018, Shelby Driskill, in photo at bottom right, researched and pieced together information about the location of a burying ground of enslaved people on campus. Driskill and public historian and UR lecturer Lauranett Lee, left, published  “Knowledge of This Cannot Be Hidden: A Report on the Westham Burying Ground,” in December of 2019.

Following the report, President Emeritus Ronald A. Crutcher established the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee, charged with identifying appropriate means to memorialize the space.

two photos of people speaking in front of seated groups at community meetings

The committee engaged faculty, staff, students, and descendants in discussions about the history of the land the campus occupies.

The group extensively researched and confirmed the names and descendants of the enslaved people who worked on the plantations and farms on which the University now stands.

Three portraits of Brenda Dabney Nichols in discussion with an interviewer who is off camera
Brenda Dabney Nichols, Henrico County public historian, began primary genealogical research in 2019. She connected the committee to the descendants.
Jamelle Wilson headshot

“We have taken care to make the research live, to make the history live, by naming individuals and trying to understand what their experience was here on this property, really trying to humanize them. Mrs. Nichols talked about the ground being sacred ground. The sacred nature of that is, for me, completely rooted in the fact that these are human beings. I believe the families appreciate the work that is happening. We all want to be recognized and seen and not forgotten.”

— Jamelle Wilson, dean, School of Professional and Continuing Studies, Burying Ground Memorialization Committee member

A pilgrimage is a journey of an unknown length. You’re going somewhere. You’re seeking something. You’re trying to find answers.

Brenda Dabney Nichols

Henrico County Public Historian

Headshot of Ed Ayers

“The descendant community brought great wisdom and compassion to the University’s work, giving it a resonance it would otherwise have lacked. The insights about the endurance, achievements, and hope of those descended from the people buried on that site inspired each of the designs. The commitment of Mrs. Nichols made all the difference in the commission’s work, connecting us to the past and the present in ways otherwise impossible.”

— Ed Ayers, president emeritus, co-chair, Burying Ground Memorialization Committee

Family members of the enslaved people made the pilgrimage to campus to see the space.
Headshot of Keith McIntosh

“We dedicated our time on the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee for almost two years, ensuring we met our committee charge and lived into our shared intentions. We knew we needed to connect and collaborate with our descendant community for this effort. We all felt strongly about identifying and engaging with descendants. We are grateful to Mrs. Nichols for identifying more than a hundred descendants of the families most likely to have had family members interred in the burying ground. In addition to building a relationship with the descendant community, we learned so much about those descendant families and their participation has been instrumental in shaping our memorial designs.”

— Keith McIntosh, co-chair, Burying Ground Memorialization Committee

The Burying Ground Memorialization Committee presents three design concepts to memorialize the Westham Burial Ground

The three concepts reflect discussions with the UR and descendant communities. From those conversations, the committee came to this vision for the space:

The burying ground site should remain sacred and lightly touched.
The burying ground should be unique, accessible, and inviting.
The burying ground should balance sentiments of reconciliation and resilience with the certainty of an enduring struggle.