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 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."
In August, not long after a volunteer contractor finished scraping away the last of the asphalt covering the cemetery, Kambourian sat down with Richmond magazine to share her thoughts on the history, the controversy and the new promise of a permanent memorial.
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: Do you remember how you felt when you found "Burial Ground for Negroes" on the map?
ECK: I thought ‘Oh, neat, here's … something that was lost and we can recover it.' If we'd found George Washington's mistress' diary, we'd be thrilled to death to have that new information. And that's the way I felt with this.
RM: But just like George's mistress' diary, we'd be uncomfortable, right?
ECK: Sure, but I wouldn't expect women's groups to come out and protest because this woman was used badly. Women were treated badly back then, but I'd be interested because this is history. I hope nobody thinks my mistress example is true about George Washington.
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 catalog 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 neat about this map is it shows a very different post-Revolutionary War Richmond.
ECK: Exactly. If you were going east on Broad Street, you'd have gotten to about the [First African Baptist] church, and then you'd have had to find another way to get across [Shockoe Creek]. Evidently they were able to cut the road down to 17th Street coming down from Church Hill, but going east, they weren't able to get any further than the Baptist church because it was so steep, I think you'd just turn the carriage over.
RM: So when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources decided the burial ground was under I-95, they used the 1809 map, too?
ECK: Well, not necessarily the original like I did. Evidently, I think it might have been a Works Project Administration project. Someone redrew [the map] in the 1930s. It's the same map, but I never could get the scale to work on [that] one.
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: Was this like a parade route?
ECK: Yep. It's really icky. When you get down to it, they were guilty of conspiracy. They tried to commit treason, but they didn't get off the first shot. Aaron Burr got off on the same thing. But they weren't going by the letter of the law; they were making [the slaves] examples.
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: The Gabriel rebels were executed here?
ECK: Yep. They would bury them as close to the point of execution as possible.
RM: You love this stuff.
ECK: I'm terrible. I have a history degree from VCU, where I did mostly Middle Eastern and ancient-history studies.
RM: This isn't ancient?
ECK: I'm not going to get to Egypt and dig, so you might as well take what's at hand.
RM: When did the push to preserve the burial ground pick up steam?
ECK: Probably in the early 1990s, I thought this is probably good enough [research] that I ought to tell somebody. I finally showed it to someone who is a cartographer, and he goes, ‘Look, you're beating a dead horse, you've proved it.'
RM: So he confirmed your results that the burial ground isn't under I-95?
ECK: He didn't confirm my exact measurements, but he looked at what I'd done, and it was correct. When I found it at first, I thought it was under 95, but when I did the overlay I could see it wasn't under 95.
RM: So your original assumption was …
ECK: That it was under I-95. It was suggested I call some old guy who'd been part of the 95 project. So I called him, and he goes, ‘Huh? There was no burial ground there!' I think he was scared.
RM: You're certain it's not under 95?
ECK: That berm where I-95 is? That berm's always been there.
RM: The hill existed then, too?
ECK: Oh, yeah, you couldn't get a cart down it on the 1809 map.
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, ‘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.
I did a presentation one time for the DAR chapter on Richmond's black history, and these ladies loved it. I know at least six of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘My family Bible has lists of slaves in it, and I would love to share it, but I'm afraid to.' I said … black [families] who are serious about genealogy, they would love to get 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.