The Burying Ground Memorialization Committee announced three design concepts to memorialize the Westham Burying Ground, a development that came more than two years after the release of the report that outlined its history and the University of Richmond’s involvement in it.
Steps to create a finalized design of the memorial for the burial ground of enslaved people and conduct a survey to minimize the disturbance of the land will begin this semester, UR President Kevin F. Hallock wrote in a Feb 3. email to the UR community. Construction for the burial ground memorial behind Puryear Hall is expected to be completed in 2023, according to the email.
“I’m extremely proud,” said Keith McIntosh, committee co-chair and vice president and chief information officer. “I think [the report] is a great model and example for the University of Richmond with how to go about this process and how to work with a diverse group of folks.”
Former UR President Ronald A. Crutcher established the committee in January 2020 following the release of Shelby Driskill, then a graduate student, and History Professor Lauranett Lee’s report that stated UR officials had knowledge of burials that had been disturbed during construction to expand campus infrastructure in 1912, 1947 and the mid-1950s, according to the 2020 report.
Driskill’s research uncovered a 1902 report that identified the existence of a burial ground of Black people, filling the gap of the land’s history from its status as a plantation to UR’s campus, according to a 2019 Collegian article.
The committee aimed to identify an appropriate way to commemorate the burial ground by engaging students, descendants, faculty and staff in discussions about the history of the land the campus occupies, according to the committee’s website.
Another former UR President Edward L. Ayers co-chaired the committee. Ayers, who was president from 2007 to 2015, expressed his perceived importance as a historian of studying the past to lead a better future.
“I think it’s one of the more hopeful things that we’ve done,” he said of the work to memorialize the burial ground.
the first step involved sharing Driskill and Lee’s findings with students and descendants of the people who were enslaved on the land that is now owned by UR, according to the committee’s final report. However, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic altered the manner in which the information was communicated, switching in-person meetings to Zoom webinars, according to the final report.
Four student representatives provided input to the committee. Before graduating in 2021, Anthony Polcari, former president of the Richmond College Student Government Association, said he felt the committee did an adequate job providing students opportunities to give their input but wished he would have marketed them better. For Polcari, it was equally important that UR’s commemoration of the burial ground both acknowledged the history and uplifted Black voices, he said.
He hoped UR would put in place a scholarship or financial reparation program not only for students, alumni and faculty and staff but to the Black community in the city, Polcari said.
“You’d want to show some effort to repair the issue, and not just recognize it,” he said.
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Discussions about the burial ground pivoted in fall 2020 from only providing information about the history to gathering feedback on what different community members thought would be an ideal way to memorialize the space, according to the report. Over the course of five pilgrimages starting last February, 78 descendants of the enslaved people in the plantation had the opportunity to provide input on how to memorialize the site where their ancestors may be buried, according to the report.
In-person and Zoom meetings in fall 2021 allowed students to share their thoughts about different design concepts proposed by Burt Pinnock and Sonny Joy-Hogg, from the architectural firm Baskervill.
Over 160 community members attended the meetings held by the consultants in fall 2020 and 188 attended the meetings in fall 2021, according to the report.
Senior Shira Greer, a member of the Black Student Coalition, said the report was consistent with her expectations based on her prior knowledge of burial ground research and attending the various design sessions.
“It seems like they have been engaged in a meaningful way with the descendant community, which I think is most important with this work,” she said.
Last semester, the design consultants narrowed down the memorial concepts from six to three, in accordance to feedback from community members. The committee received the three variations outlined in the final report in December.
All of the variations depict the committee’s recommendation of the visibility of the names of those buried at the site. The first variation presents an open area with a brick foundation, with a fountain in the center. The second, which depicts a wall-like structure of stone and brick, shows the names as its focal point. The third variation shows a tree with a wooden structure surrounding it, which also incorporates the committee’s recommendation for a bench or place of rest as a gesture of reflection within the immediate site.
Community members expressed three leading principles they wanted the memorial to evoke, according to the final report:
• 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.
The final report also included recommendations to integrate the history of the land and the burial ground into academics through efforts to both expand knowledge and preserve the records of the work done thus far. The committee additionally encouraged UR to maintain open dialogue with the descendant community by including them in future celebrations of the site and identifying more descendants.
Junior Kavon Thompson, one of the student representatives who joined the committee in the fall, said he was able to sit down with the descendants and learned that they were concerned about how secure and sacred the space would be treated.
The memorial should create excitement and an opportunity for people to educate themselves about the history but there likely would be people who wouldn’t respect the space, Thompson said.
“I feel like it’s just the culture here,” he said.
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