Chris Smith Photo
It's a difficult but unavoidable piece of Richmond's story that it was one of the biggest slave markets in early America. While an excavation last year examined the site of a former slave jail, the repaving last summer of the nearby "Negro Burial Ground" seemed to go the other direction. A small, cohesive group protested the action, drawing reporters and TV cameras. In late October, Shawn Utsey, chair of African-American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, debuted his short documentary on the matter, Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim the African Burial Ground. The film explores the discussion of how best to recognize the burial plot as hallowed ground, rather than its current use — a parking lot owned by the professor's employer, VCU.
Q: When you first showed your documentary at VCU on Oct. 23, you said you hoped it would begin a dialogue and result in some community action. What has been the response so far?
A: In this process, I saw myself as a filmmaker, and I really tried to strike balance between the various sides of the issue. Obviously, I became involved psychologically because it is an important issue. I saw this documentary as my contribution to raise awareness and not necessarily in an accusatory fashion. We had a packed house [at the screening], and most folks said, "I didn't know about the burial ground. What can we do about the issue?" It seems to me that all fair-minded people would recognize that something is wrong with that scenario — that there is a parking lot on or next to a burial ground of people who were enslaved, bought and sold, in Shockoe Bottom. I think once awareness is out there, most folks would say something has to be done about this.
Q: Ultimately, what would you like to see happen with the burial ground?
A: In doing the documentary, I saw there are varying sides, even in the African-American community, about what should be done. Some folks say, "Memorialize it but let the folks rest in peace." Others say, "Let's excavate and see what their lives were like. Let's learn about them." And that seems to be consistent with VCU's mission as a research institution — to be at the forefront of research in various areas, certainly with the upcoming celebrations of the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. This kind of work would be consistent with that mission.
Q: You also sit on the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, which in October rolled out a vision for a national slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom. Do you think there will be enough public support for that to happen?
A: It's logical that Richmond would be the home to that museum. I'm also on the committee to plan the foundation that will be charged with raising the money. We have begun meeting already about that task, and I think we can make it happen. I know that [former governor and mayor] L. Douglas Wilder was involved trying to get a similar museum in Fredericksburg. And I think he had lots of support and backing for that effort. I don't know if we can tap that same resource. As a region, we house a bunch of museums on the Confederacy, and I don't necessarily object to that outright. But certainly historical accuracy requires us to have both sides of the story.
Q: For someone who hasn't studied the issue closely, how would you connect the dots between slavery in early America and the African-American experience today?
A: I am a psychologist by training, and I always make the same analogy of viewing the 300 years of enslavement of African people as kind of a collective trauma. In the treatment of trauma, the first task is to confront the trauma and comes to terms with it. Then you can move on. I think as a country — and certainly as a state — we have not confronted the issue that divided the country. But we have been asked to move on, and I think that's not healthy psychologically. I think that's why there's so much silence and segregation in Richmond. People are pleasant enough most of the time, but we live in separate worlds. And I think we're afraid to discuss those separate worlds and those separate histories. Now, Richmond is actually in my mind way behind where they might be if we were to talk about these histories. The tourism would be much better off if we weren't afraid to talk. Because if you talk about the Confederate history, you have to talk about the history of enslaved folks. I think people are hesitant to talk about it because it's a very hard conversation. I don't make assumptions about people necessarily who want to celebrate their Confederate heritage, but I think it's only fair to have that same fervor about celebrating the other heritage of folks who were part of that discussion. And that would be the enslaved folks. I think we need to have an honest dialogue about that history and come to terms with it.
Q: Your psychology research has focused on how race-related stress impacts the physical, psychological and social well-being of African Americans. What conclusions did you reach with that research?
A: Race-related stress is not necessarily the same thing as racism — it's simply stress as a consequence of being black. People who respond in a healthy way to events that involve race-related stress have better outcomes than people who suppress [the events] or don't respond. I think the burial ground and other issues are an example of the community's lack of response. I think the ability to respond to a situation in which there is disenfranchisement going on will empower folks. I think they'll be better off psychologically than if they feel silenced. And I think right now the community feels silenced. Much of the discussion about the burial ground has taken place between the administration of VCU and the city administration. That doesn't help the community feel involved or engaged. There was a similar issue in New York with an African burial ground — a completely different response. The community was outraged; the community got involved, and within two years they were excavating. Now, there's a huge memorial in New York with a museum right there. It's just night and day compared to Richmond.
Q: You did your Ph.D. work in New York. Were you there when the slave burial ground was uncovered in the early 1990s?
A: I was there. I worked on Chambers Street. The burial ground was found on Broadway. I could see the dig from the window of my office so it was just incredible. And I could see the protests. There were a lot of things going on in New York already of a racial nature. [In the 1980s, several young black men were killed in separate incidents involving angry mobs. In another event in 1991, a car in a prominent New York City rabbi's motorcade struck and killed an African-American child, sparking riots between black and Jewish communities.] So there were a lot of things going on that galvanized the black community. When the burial ground became an issue, it was just a new location for the struggle that had already been galvanized. One of the people I interviewed in my documentary, Michael Blakey, now at William & Mary, was the chief architect of the excavation of the New York African burial ground. He was able to determine that those folks in New York — the majority of adults — had come directly from Africa because many of the men had filed teeth and he could determine that at the time of the burial ground that second-generation enslaved folks were not retaining their cultural practices from Africa. So they were probably directly from the continent. Also the lead content in the bodies was higher in the children than in the adults. All of these things were informative about the lifestyles. He also could look at their bone structure in the pelvic area and the women were almost indistinguishable from the men and that's just because the workload of the women was tremendous in terms of carrying heavy items. There was so much information they were able to decipher from the excavation. That has tremendous significance for the history of this country. Again, it's not a black and white thing — it's the history of this country that we're talking about. And I think the screening I had was a very diverse group. It was incredibly diverse. I was surprised, and I think that speaks to the issue that people understand it's an issue that speaks to all of America and that it's simply a matter of telling the whole story.
But New York was a very different place. In Richmond, I see how people refer to the seat of the Confederacy and how the spirit of black people here may be different than in New York. Not that they're more docile but that there are different social graces for people, period. I grew up in North Carolina and went to school in Georgia. My brother went to University of Georgia, so I've been in the South, deep parts of the South, where racism is alleged to be widespread. But people are very polite. In New York, people are just direct and not always polite. So, I think that had a lot to do with how this thing gets resolved.
Q: More than a year ago, you launched a project to collect and archive video of Richmond's elderly African Americans sharing their oral histories. What's the best story you've heard so far?
A: There have been a few exciting experiences with the oral history project. Exciting but emotionally drenching. There have been eight people we've interviewed so far. We interviewed one woman [in late October] who was 101 years old. It was touching because I had a graduate student with me and when we were finished interviewing, the young lady rolled the woman back into the cafeteria and gave her a kiss on the cheek. I though that was odd: "You just met her, you know." But I think she had that much impact in that short conversation that the student was moved to feel warm and to feel close to her. And so she gave her a kiss on the cheek and I didn't think about it again. But I got a call the next day that the woman had passed away that evening. So, I couldn't resist trying to invoke some divine causality for the student giving her a kiss on the cheek as if to say goodbye. But it was just incredible that I would have had that experience. But I also interviewed Wyatt T. Walker who is not quite 90 but certainly warranted a sitdown given his history in the civil-rights movement. I think by far that was the most exciting interview I have done given his connection with the civil-rights movement, his history in New York. In fact, I first became aware of him while in New York because he was the pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church, probably the second largest church in Harlem. So, when I went to interview Dr. Walker, I saw a picture on the wall and I'm thinking that looks familiar. It was Dr. Walker in a jail cell. It was the same picture as King in the jail cell in Birmingham. And Dr. Walker explained to me that he took a picture of King — the one we see everywhere — and King took the same picture of him behind the bars, looking out. It was incredible because Walker was the strategizer for King. I was really blown away by talking intimately with someone who was right there when all these things were going down.
The interesting thing about the people we've interviewed is that they really didn't have a lot of horror stories about being black in the early years. I think that it's a consequence of the type of segregation they grew up under and that segregation, for the most part, provided protection. So, there weren't frequent slights in public places because they were, you know, in their black sections and they knew to stay in those sections. They went to black schools. So, they didn't experience that kind of racism until well into adulthood.
Q: If you personally could raise another monument to a significant African American Richmonder, who would it be?
A: I think Gabriel Prosser would be an ideal candidate. [Gabriel planned a slave revolt in 1800 that was suppressed before it could happen.] I had the opportunity to listen to the City Council discussion back in 2002, I think, in which they were able to get Gabriel recognized as a freedom fighter. And I listened to the opposition, which was, "Well, if his plan had worked, he would have killed lots of men, women and children." What seems strange to me, though, is that — taking that reality out of the equation — that's what America is based on: The right to seek your liberation and maintain your liberation at any cost. That is what those founding fathers did. They rebelled against an oppressive governing body — England — and they felt that their rights were being violated and they wanted to be liberated and they went to war. So, it seems hypocritical that the people who were being held as slaves didn't have the same right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It seems to me that Gabriel was actually thinking in the spirit of those founding fathers. That has an impact whereby the paradigm of fairness is being implemented. We understand that if Patrick Henry can say, "Give me liberty or give me death," and everybody thinks that makes sense, then Gabriel should be able to say the same thing. That would be one person.
Now, Grace Harris would be another candidate and perhaps because of her refusal to take no for an answer. She was denied admissions to VCU's School of Social Work because she was black. She was offered [a compromise], which I thought was a pretty good deal: They would actually pay her tuition somewhere else. So, she went to Michigan for graduate school, which in my mind is not a bad deal. [Laughs.]. She came back and worked her way up the ranks and became the first black provost at VCU, and interim president at a few points in time. That's just an amazing story of perseverance and tenacity. I think she deserves that kind of recognition too.