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UR Grapples with burial ground discovery Jackie Llanos and Susanna Getis

Image courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Behind Puryear Hall lies the Westham Burying Ground. There is a sign that tells its history, yet many students don’t know about it.

In July 2019, The Collegian published an article about research efforts that brought to light evidence of the existence of a burial ground of enslaved people on the University of Richmond’s campus. In December 2019, UR published a report commissioned by UR president Ronald Crutcher that outlined the history of enslavement on the land that became UR’s campus. Since then, knowledge of the burial ground on UR’s campus, known as Westham Burying Ground, has been incorporated into first year orientation, classes and community discussions.

Shelby Driskill, a graduate student, and Lauranett Lee, a visiting professor and oral historian, were the lead researchers of the December 2019 report, which was titled “‘Knowledge of this Cannot be Hidden:’ A Report on the Westham Burying Ground at the University of Richmond.” According to the report, the last known enslavement-era owner of Westham Farm — the plantation on the land that would become UR’s campus — was Benjamin Green. Green bought Westham Farm in 1855 and owned it until 1868, therefore ending the era of enslavement on the land, according to the December 2019 report.

A 1901 topographic map marking a graveyard and a landscape company’s documents containing the words “negro burying ground” are the earliest known documentation of the burial ground, when land that would become UR’s campus was owned by the Westhampton Railway Park, according to the Dec. 2019 report.

Driskill and Lee were not only able to confirm the existence of the burial ground, but also uncovered some of the identities of the enslaved people who were buried in the Westham Burying Ground, Lee said. This report was a response to findings from the Making Excellence Inclusive Report and Recommendations, which was published in June 2019, according to the December 2019 report.

“What is most shocking is that [Driskill] has been able to uncover so many names,” Lee said. “Not only [of] the enslaver, but the enslaved, and [we] begin to see how their histories intertwine.”

Since the December 2019 report, Driskill found evidence of three people who were enslaved by Green, she said. These enslaved people were baptized by the Rev. Robert Ryland, the founder and first president of Richmond College, Driskill said.

“So you're seeing these streams of history beginning to cross,” Driskill said. “Lauranett and others call it braided narrative, and I think that entwining is such a powerful visual image, but it's also so accurate.”

Since publishing the report, Driskill and Lee have worked with UR to incorporate the history of the Westham Burying Ground into UR students’ lives.

“So in every aspect, the landscape seeks to erase the history and culture of people of color. You see this with indigenous people as well.”

Lauranett Lee

Driskill made a short video summarizing the findings of the report that was shown during this year’s first-year orientation, she said. The process of condensing the information while keeping its authenticity was difficult, she said.

First-year Jillian Yates recalled seeing the video, she said.

First-year Emily Enright, on the other hand, did not remember watching a video about the burial ground during orientation, she said.

“If we did end up watching [the orientation video] it wasn't enough, because it didn't stick,” Enright said. Instead, Enright learned about the burial ground because of an article she read for her geography class, she said.

Yates said the orientation video was one of the topics covered in her first year seminar, Representing Civil Rights in Richmond. Students in this class learned about people, places and events in the city of Richmond’s history to understand racial and social inequities of the city, according to the course description. Burial grounds of people who had been enslaved throughout Richmond, which included the Westham Burying Ground, are among the topics discussed in the class, Yates said.

“There's so much history to this campus that was not told to students [when we arrive on campus],” Yates said. “And I feel like this information would change the way that people feel about the campus if they didn't know about the burial [ground].”

Another first-year, Mateo Peric, believed that information about the burial ground should be provided to prospective and incoming students, he said. Even though having prior knowledge of the burial ground would not have impacted Peric’s decision to attend UR, he understands it could impact someone else’s decision, he said.

Peric enrolled in the course Representing Civil Rights in Richmond because it fit well with his schedule but after completing the course, he was glad he took it, he said.

“Now that I've actually been in [the class], I really do think it's a class that everybody should have to take,” Peric said.

American studies professor Laura Browder, who teaches the seminar, invited Driskill and Lee to talk about the burial ground as part of the week the class spent talking about it.

“We often think of UR as existing in a perfect little bubble outside of history, and of course that’s not the case at all,” she said.

Browder said that, during the ten and a half years she had been teaching at UR, she had seen students become more passionate about topics relating to race and social justice.

“We're really at an inflection point where we're seeing universities across the country acknowledging how tied their wealth is to slavery,” Browder said. “And also acknowledging how tied some of the names of people that got buildings named after [them] — how those people were really instrumental in maintaining injustice.”

Junior Drew Strong learned about the burial ground in his Sophomore Scholars in Residence community, Just Cities, which was taught by rhetoric and communications professor Nicole Maurantonio and senior administrative officer Amy Howard. During the class, Strong and his peers grappled with the same issues the UR community is trying to address as it learns about the history of the UR campus: how the community should acknowledge, learn from and memorialize the burial ground, Strong said.

“Given how old [the] school is, it would make sense that enslaved individuals were forced to work here [on the land UR now occupies],” Strong said. “But ... throughout my freshman year I don't think I'd given a lot of thought about what happened to those that died. And then it got definitely brought to my attention when we did talk about that discovery or the realization that, yes, people were buried here.”

“I knew coming into Richmond, I was going to the former capital of the Confederacy... I was able to already talk to older students here about kind of their first time on campus and understanding that things weren't perfect here.”

Drew Strong

Sophomore Zariah Chiverton sees classes as a vital way to educate UR’s student body about the existence of the burial ground, she said.

Chiverton cannot remember how she first found out about the burial ground, but she learned more about it through her fellowship with the Race and Racism Project this summer, she said.

“I just don't think there was enough [discussion] when news broke of it,” Chiverton said. “It just seemed like we heard about it and then that was it, like nothing came after that. And so I think a lot of people just aren't updated on what is actually going on.”

The Burial Ground Memorialization Committee, founded by Crutcher and comprising multiple members of faculty and staff, held three virtual conversations last year on Oct. 12, 20 and 28 for faculty, staff and students to discuss how the burial ground should be commemorated, according to a SpiderByte published Oct. 2.

Strong attended one of the sessions because he wanted to learn more about the burial ground, he said.

“[UR’s administration] really emphasized the importance [of] or desire for student feedback,” Strong said. “And [I realized] that I might as well bring in my own input to at least make sure there's at least one student perspective there.”

Strong noticed that not many students were present at the Oct. 28 discussion, he said.

“I understand that some people may not have been able to go because of scheduling conflicts,” Strong said. ”But I do wish if they were able to go, people would go. If nothing else to at least learn more about this, even if they didn't necessarily have any new or urgent thoughts about it.”

Despite efforts to inform the student body about the burial ground information, the student body still appears to have gaps in its knowledge.

Junior Mia Dini, who learned about the burial ground through her involvement in Westhampton College Government Association, noticed that people she knew outside of WCGA did not seem as knowledgeable about the burial ground, she said.

Dini has had very few discussions about the history of UR outside of her involvement in WCGA, she said. Dini attributed this lack of discussions about UR history to the fact that she was a psychology and computer science major, and these topics are not typically discussed in these classes in her experience, she said.

“I feel like it's still not super known about, and I feel like it's important that people know the land that they're on,” Dini said.

While Yates thought most first-years knew about the burial ground because of the orientation video, Enright and Peric didn’t think many people knew about it, they said.

Strong acknowledged that UR had been making an effort to educate students about the burial ground, but also said he thought UR could do more.

“A lot of people I’m friends with or know about have at least a passing awareness or know at least as much as I do about it,” he said, “and some of them are definitely kind of more involved with it or at least found out before I did. So, I don't think it's totally unknown, but I don't think it's as widely known as it could be.”

Chiverton said it was not enough that students knew there is a burial ground. In addition to the recognition of Westham Burying Ground, university administration should offer courses that focus on the history of UR, Chiverton said.

“If I were to bring it up in conversation I wouldn't be surprised if other people don't know about it,” Chiverton said. “And it seems like for a lot of people that have heard about it, that's it. They know that it’s there.”

Chiverton believes that the knowledge of Westham Burying Ground cannot end with its discovery.

Driskill and Lee are continuing their research, they said.

Contact news editor Jackie Llanos at jackie.llanoshernandez@richmond.edu and international editor Susanna Getis at susanna.getis@richmond.edu. Photos by visual editor Ben Wasserstein.