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2020-21 Elske v.P. Smith Distinguished Lecture [virtual]

Ryan K. Smith, Ph.D., professor in the Department of History, presents "Dead Reckoning: The Historical Recovery and Unsettled Place of Richmond's Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground."
Ryan K Smith

The Elske v.P. Smith Distinguished Lecturer recognizes an outstanding professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences and was established in honor of retired faculty member and former dean, Elske v.P. Smith, Ph.D. The annual lecture is intended to welcome faculty, staff, students, the community and friends. The lecture is free and open to all.

The format for the lecture will be webinar and it will be held on Friday, November 5 at 11:00 a.m. 

This year's lecturer is Ryan K. Smith, Ph.D., professor in the Department of History, who specializes in American religious history, material culture and more recently, historic preservation. His most recent book is “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond's Historic Cemeteries” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), an exploration of the history and recovery of the burial grounds of Richmond, Virginia, through the lens of race.


Cemeteries are essential sources for human connection and historical information. But what happens when they are destroyed? This talk will review the history of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, established by the city of Richmond upon the closure of the initial African Burial Ground along Shockoe Creek in 1816. Over the next several decades of its development, this new burying ground on Shockoe Hill would expand across dozens of acres and encompass the remains of the vast majority of enslaved and free Richmonders of African descent until its closure in 1879.

Its size and longevity made it one of the largest such burial grounds in the United States, and the Black families associated with the site activated it as a profound and sacred space. Even so, predations took place on its grounds from the beginning, perpetrated by institutions including the Medical College of Virginia, and after 1879 the site was systematically erased and repurposed by city authorities. In contrast to what can be seen at the graves of white residents at Shockoe Hill Cemetery and Hebrew Cemetery nearby, the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground's historic and sacred past is not apparent to visitors today.

Yet the entire memorial landscape of the United States is shifting, creating a moment of reckoning with such displaced and overlooked sites. Historical research and landscape analysis can aid in that process of reckoning by recovering and reaffirming the stories of such sites in collaboration with descendants. Artists, too, must play a role in fostering new sorts of memorial engagement for visitors.

This lecture will explore how the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground presents a vivid example for these possibilities as well as for the types of ongoing threats to such sites. It will review the origins, erasure and efforts toward reclamation of this burying ground which is so intertwined with our own community and our future.

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