Knowledge of this cannot be hidden

May 14, 2020

In 1910 the University of Richmond bought the land on which it now sits to build its future. But this land also has a past, one that the university is for the first time beginning to fully study, understand, and, for reasons you’ll read, memorialize.

It is a complicated history with shifting property lines and shifting values that are at turns typical and tragic. This land, where today we work to build a more hopeful, inclusive future, has also been a site of enslavement, of resilient efforts against the headwinds of Jim Crow, and of redevelopment practices that do not align with our standards today.

An enduring, potent symbol of this complicated legacy lies today under a triangular patch of grass and bushes between Puryear Hall and the university’s steam plant. Evidence strongly suggests that some of the enslaved people who worked this land before it became UR’s campus were buried at this spot. We now know the eternal rest of many was shamefully disturbed by the development of the land for campus uses.

The university is now taking steps to mark, protect, and appropriately commemorate this burial ground and the history of enslavement on this land. The specific form that this memorialization will take has yet to be decided, and the complex history of this land is the subject of active discussion on campus and with community members, including members of the descendant community.

These steps of study, reflection, and action make up an ongoing effort to understand and convey a fuller and more accurate story of the university’s history. They further UR’s educational mission as a place that seeks knowledge and, with it, understanding of how best to live our values and pursue our shared future.

By Matthew Dewald
The information that follows is derived from the research of Shelby Driskill, a student taking courses in the Master of Liberal Arts program of UR’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies. She began her research as a student in the Master of Liberal Arts program under the guidance of visiting professor Lauranett Lee and continued it under Lee’s guidance as a research coordinator. In 
January, the university published it as a report titled “Knowledge of This Cannot Be Hidden”: A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond and shared it with the university community.
In 1912, contractor Warren H. Manning reported to the university that his workers had discovered "at least 20" graves during grading work (above), likely to build what is now Richmond Way.

Land’s history
The University of Richmond purchased the land on which campus now sits in 1910 and began classes here in 1914. The land’s history stretches millennia before the university took ownership. In the centuries before European contact, it was home to multiple Native American tribes and linguistic groups. At the time of the British arrival, it was the territory of the Powhatan people.

Once this land came under the control of European settlers, it passed through a series of owners, was divided among them in changing ways, and was used for a variety of purposes until the university’s purchase. The following are the broad outlines of the period up until university ownership.

The Westhampton and Richmond sides of campus were part of larger, privately owned plantations. Research by Driskill has definitively dated the presence of enslaved laborers on the 5,000-acre Westham plantation that contained the entire campus as far back as 1753, when the property was transferred from William Randolph to William Byrd III. The records of that transaction and multiple, subsequent records through 1865 indicate the widespread presence of enslaved laborers on the property until the end of the Civil War. The names of hundreds of enslaved people appear in these documents.

In the decades immediately before the Civil War, portions of the current university property were owned by a man named Benjamin Green and members of his family. The family profited from a number of properties and business interests, including mining, milling, agriculture, and others. The 1860 slave census alone shows the family enslaving 128 people and “hiring” 53 people from other enslavers for work that likely occurred at various locations.

Bankruptcy forced members of the Green family to give up property on the Westhampton side of campus in 1867. The family continued to hold the land on the Richmond College side until the turn of the century. Some of the family’s former holdings became the site of neighborhoods formed by newly emancipated African Americans, including areas called Ziontown, Burrell Town, and Westwood. The Westhampton side of campus, then called Westham Farm, went through a series of owners until its purchase by an African American benevolent association.

In 1897, the Richmond headquarters of an organization called the Grand Fountain of the United Order of the True Reformers purchased Westham Farm on the Westhampton side of campus.

The True Reformers were an African American mutual benefit association, locally under the leadership of a man named William Washington Browne. Among its other activities, the association operated a bank, a newspaper, an insurance agency, and a theater in downtown Richmond at a time when Virginia’s Jim Crow state was entrenching itself with a new constitution that enshrined racial segregation, poll taxes, and other discriminatory measures. The True Reformers bought Westham Farm as part of a plan to open a home for the elderly and orphans.

As the True Reformers developed plans for this newly owned land, their ambitions collided with those of the Westhampton Park Railway Co., a white-owned streetcar railway company that owned much of what is now the Richmond side of campus after 1897. It bought the land as part of a plan to develop a park to increase ridership. Within a decade, the railway’s park had failed, and the True Reformers had developed significant debt. In 1909, a group of businessmen bought both properties and incorporated the relocation of Richmond College in their plans to create a new neighborhood on the city’s edge. A 1910 Times-Dispatch article reported the news of the developing residential plans with the headline, “Westham Becomes White Man’s Settlement.”

A detail from the 1901 topographic map produced for the Westhampton Park Railway Co., with the modern campus overlaid.

Burial Ground
One of the most significant results of Driskill’s research was the presentation of ample evidence that a section of today’s campus was used as a burial ground for enslaved people before the Civil War. The area of focus is a triangular patch of ground behind Puryear Hall that was part of plantation holdings before the Civil War. It came under the control of the True Reformers in 1897 and was the focus of attempts to gain ownership by the Westhampton Park Railway Co. Here are the broad outlines of what Driskill found.

Evidence emerged throughout the 20th century that the site was used a burial ground. For example, in 1901, the Westhampton Park Railway Co. produced a topographic map that included the area and marked it “Grave Yard.” Internal documents from the Olmsted Brothers, the landscape design firm, refer to it as a “negro burying ground.” And in 1912, contractor Warren H. Manning reported to the university that his workers had discovered “at least 20” graves during grading work (photo above), likely to build what is now Richmond Way. “Knowledge of this cannot be hidden,” he wrote as he proposed moving the graves to “some cemetery.” Known records do not document the university’s response.

University construction projects in 1947 and 1955–56 also revealed human remains at the site. In these latter instances, the university condoned the reburial of remains at undisclosed locations.

“This devaluing of human life and dignity conforms with the long and painful history of dehumanizing enslaved persons,” President Ronald A. Crutcher wrote not long after the university published Driskill’s research. “The Board of Trustees and I are deeply saddened by these discoveries. We profoundly regret the desecration that took place on this ground and the silences in our historical narrative.”

During the fall semester, the university hired experts to conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey of the area in order to determine whether any distinguishable graves remain at the site. The results of the survey, which was conducted in September, were inconclusive. The history of disturbances to the ground and the quality of the soil may have contributed to the result.

Evidence — such as the treatment of the graves in the 20th century, the location of the burying ground, and the hundreds of people enslaved on the land during the enslavement era — point to the high probability that the people buried at this site were enslaved people who worked on the land that is now the university’s campus.

Driskill researched several alternate explanations, including that the graves are those of the families of the landowners; of African American laborers who worked on and lived near the land after the Civil War; of people connected with the True Reformers; or of Union soldiers killed in an 1864 skirmish. These scenarios are all very unlikely based on the historical evidence and contemporary burial practices. The most likely explanation is that the graves date from the time of enslavement and that the land was the burial site of people who were enslaved.

Our story often is inspirational, but there are aspects of the past we have long ignored, including the significant history of the land on which our campus now stands.

Shortly after the release of the report submitted by Driskill and Lee, Crutcher published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Universities, like families, have histories that cry out for a fuller telling,” he wrote. “Our story often is inspirational, but there are aspects of the past we have long ignored, including the significant history of the land on which our campus now stands.”

In January, Crutcher announced the formation of the Burial Ground Memorialization Committee to engage campus and community members, including descendant communities, in discussions about the complex history of the land on which campus is now located. The committee is charged with making specific recommendations about appropriate memorialization of the burial ground and the land’s connections to enslavement, including a physical memorial. That work is ongoing.

The committee’s work is part of a wide-ranging university initiative called Inclusive History. Its charge is to examine, understand, and communicate our past more fully and inclusively. Since the beginning of the 2019–20 academic year, Lauranett Lee has led institutional efforts to research the university’s history with an emphasis on slavery, segregation, and desegregation. Lee and Driskill’s report was one outcome of that work.