Elizabeth Cann Kambourian never intended to wake the dead.
When Kambourian, an amateur historian, began researching her house in the city's North Side, she never expected the trail to lead to a cracked expanse of pavement on East Broad Street, where hundreds of years of African-American identity lay long forgotten.
And she never could have guessed that her sleuthing might serve as a catalyst for community strife.
"I thought everybody would be so excited and as happy as me," says Kambourian, who rediscovered the "Burial Ground for Negroes" on an old city map. "I guess it didn't make people happy the way I thought it would."
RM: How did you start researching the burial ground?
ECK: All of this started because I was researching Quincy Plantation. My house lot was part of that. I'd read Virginius Dabney's history of Richmond, and it mentioned Gabriel's Rebellion slaves were from here, and I thought, ‘My God, something that cool happened right here where my house was?' This was 1973 or 1974. The old lady who'd lived in my house before gave me a title search that went back to 1756.
RM: So it all started at your house?
ECK: The Dabney book made reference to where these [Gabriel's Rebellion] hangings were taking place. There were three places where they were hanging slaves. I wanted to go see where those gallows were. I went down to the state library and got the oldest map in the file, and it showed that in [the Broad Street] spot, not only were there gallows, but also there was the "Burial Ground for Negroes."
RM: How did the burial ground get lost to start with?
ECK: Nobody kept that burial ground secret from anybody. It's been there on the map since 1809. We actually deduced what the date was because the [library] card catalogue said it had no date on it. It shows the First African Baptist Church built in 1803 or 1804 and [didn't show] the Negro Burial Ground in Barton Heights, which was opened in 1811, so it had to be before that. Seventeenth Street was there then. The Capitol. Adams Valley became Broad Street.
RM: What's this road [pointing to what is now Governor's Street]?
ECK: I've seen some maps where they called it Old Indian Trail. But what's neat about it is the reason they preserved it is because it could get up the hill. When the Gabriel slaves were executed, they were at the Henrico jail, which I think was at 22nd and Main, and the governor [future President James Monroe], he gives directions on how he wants them marched out.
RM: Wasn't Aaron Burr tried here too?
ECK: Yeah, he was held in the same jail. At the time the slaves were in this jail, James Thomson Calendar was in the jail, too. Calendar was the first one who exposed Jefferson for having a black mistress. He got locked up by President Adams under the Alien and Sedition Act. He wrote a bunch of letters to Thomas Jefferson about it. They were on different floors, but he talks about how he could hear [the slaves] down there praying and wailing.
RM: When did you start to get traction with your findings?
ECK: It was with the Richmond Defenders. They contacted me, and they were actually able to get the [historical] marker up and that sort of stuff. They really got it done and were really good about citing me for the research. I think when the argument started with how do we get access to this land, that's when it started getting ugly.
RM: Are you happy with the end result?
ECK: If it'd been presented as, "Look what we found, and what can we do about it?," there's a lot of people in Richmond who would have loved to get involved in this.
RM: It changes your perspective.
ECK: People say black history has been stolen or it's lost, but it's not. Sure, a portion has been lost. But there are always blank spots. Your history may have more blank spots than average, but what's there is wonderful. You've just got to go look for it.