Anne and Sam Burleigh outside near their home in northern Virginia
Sam, R’76, (right) and Anne Burleigh
Photograph by Stephen Voss

This is sacred ground

February 3, 2022


With pilgrimages, discussions, and open hearts, the university and the descendant community are focused on next steps for creating an enduring memorial for the burying ground next to Puryear Hall.
By Matthew Dewald

Early one evening in the fall semester, as the shortening days brought long shadows before five o’clock, I pushed open the back doors of Puryear Hall and turned left toward a parking lot. The sloping hill I descended is visible to me from my desk inside. I often look at it out the window when I’m searching for words. The view is to the south toward the river, and in autumn the leaves shimmer in the late afternoon light.

As I made my way through the browns, ochers, and oranges of the seasonal detritus, something pink caught my eye. Against the trunk of one of the loblolly pines that tower above our building, someone had left a small bouquet of fresh flowers. Though it was late November, they were lilies, a symbol of spring, rebirth, and hope.

A hill with a large tree on the University of Richmond campus, with signage indicating its historical past as a Burying Ground.
The burying ground is located next to Puryear Hall.
Photograph by Jamie Betts

The flowers were a sign of growing awareness of the importance of this patch of land. Two years ago, research undertaken by graduate student Shelby Driskill in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies and overseen by historian Lauranett Lee, who is now an adjunct professor and visiting university lecturer, concluded that this spot was likely a burying ground dating to before the Civil War. Furthermore, the people interred in what the report called the Westham Burying Ground almost certainly spent their lives enslaved by the land’s owners of the time.

Their report’s publication in December 2019 posed an obvious question for the university: What now? The university formed the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee to plan next steps. An important piece of the puzzle was not just how to move forward, but with whom. If people are buried here, then their descendants — if they can be identified — are also essential stakeholders on the question of memorialization.

Sam Burleigh, R’76, is one of the answers to the “with whom” question. Soft-spoken but gregarious, he came to UR with the first small wave of Black undergraduates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and his future wife, Anne, a white student who lived just behind campus on Westham Parkway, met the first day of classes in a music theory course. He played trumpet and she piano, so they also crossed paths in the practice rooms, and from there “it just kind of blossomed,” he said.

A pilgrimage is a journey of an unknown length. You're going somewhere. You're seeking something. You're trying to find answers.
Brenda Dabney Nichols
Three portraits of Brenda Dabney Nichols in discussion with an interviewer who is off camera.
Brenda Dabney Nichols
Photographs by Jamie Betts

They went to college dances and spring festivals — the kinds of things that college kids falling in love do. Most of his family accepted the interracial romance and welcomed Anne warmly, though some older folks had concerns he attributes to their Jim Crow experiences. Anne’s family offered responses that ranged from “amazing” and supportive to family members who stopped associating with her. Friends embraced the relationship. “There were the stares and looks, occasional comments, that kind of thing, but that was just the way it was back in 1970,” Sam said. Only rarely did they feel physically at risk, a reality of the times.

When the couple married after their junior year, Anne was surprised to learn her father’s philosophy that tuition was now the newlyweds’ responsibility. Although she said she regrets not graduating from UR, she also feels fortunate that she was able to work and take night classes to finish her degree at VCU.

Mostly, the Burleighs had the ups and downs typical of any young couple — something they described to me on a Zoom call from their home in suburban Washington, D.C. As we talked, they sweetly finished each other’s thoughts as they talked about their lives a half century ago.

“Like any relationship, it takes a lot of work, and you have to really want it to work out —” she said.

“Everybody will get tested from time to time —” he said.

“But it really wasn’t because of racial differences —” she said.

“It’s just normal marital stuff —” he said.

“Like money,” she said.

But my contacting them had really been prompted by another topic. Sam Burleigh is among the people identified by the university who likely have ancestors in the burying ground. He wasn’t entirely surprised by the news. He knew his family had been in the area since before the Civil War. He also has a cousin, Brenda Dabney Nichols, who is a public historian and the author of African Americans of Henrico County. She is the keeper of the family’s history, preserving memory of the years after the Civil War when their newly emancipated ancestors built free communities, some of which were very near the location of UR’s campus today. Nichols had also become a consultant to the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee, providing expertise and serving as a liaison with descendant communities. With her help, the university began contacting other people they could identify as likely having ancestral ties to the burying ground.

Unlike his cousin, Sam Burleigh wasn’t an expert on the family history when he got his letter from the university. “I remembered my dad had said the family owned property out in the Three Chopt Road area,” he said. “I didn’t pay that much attention to it. We just talked about the fact that it probably had substantial value, more than what they would have been able to get at the time they sold it.”

A genealogy sent as part of the committee’s outreach helped fill in more details. For example, when Sam’s grandfather, the Rev. Samuel L. Burleigh Jr., died in 1943, he lived on Three Chopt Road uphill from campus. Bandy Field Nature Park is there now, next to the strip mall where many UR students go grocery shopping today. Rev. Burleigh was born in Henrico, likely in 1874, as were his parents, likely in the 1850s, before emancipation. The Burleigh family roots stretched back to a time, place, and circumstances that matched everything known about the burying ground.

This level of detail and documentation about his ancestors was new information for Sam Burleigh. Americans’ experiences tracing their ancestry can vary widely. Some people with European roots have traced lineages back for generations into colonial times, even identifying specific ships that carried pre-Revolutionary War ancestors from European ports. For lines tracing families who fled the Holocaust, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Vietnam War, or other tumult of 20th century, even amateur researchers can usually go back to the moment of immigration and have an origin story about becoming an American.

The picture is vastly more complicated for African Americans whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. Enslaved people are not named in census records from 1860 and earlier. Until the 1870 census, most African Americans’ identities disappeared into slave schedules, typically listed only by age and sex, not name. Other pre-Civil War records, such as contracts, wills, and other documents about property transactions, sometimes often provide only the first names of enslaved people in passing, and they can be frustratingly inconsistent, difficult to locate, and challenging to interpret for genealogy purposes. The ships that carried these ancestors over the ocean did not, of course, record personal data about the people they delivered to America’s slave markets.

We all want to be recognized and seen and not forgotten.
headshot of Jamelle Wilson
Jamelle Wilson
Dean, School of Professional & Continuing Studies

Jamelle Wilson, who is a member of the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee, saw the disparities in the historical record illustrated during her time as superintendent at Hanover Schools, her position before coming to UR. One day she visited a high school classroom in which the teacher had received a grant from Wilson watched as students excitedly worked to uncover their family histories. “And it struck me when I got back to my car,” she said, “that the students I talked with who were white had deep access to their families’ histories. They were able to go back generation to generation to generation. The Black students I talked with, they could only go back to a certain point. So there was this inequity.”

Wilson, dean of UR’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, said that Nichols is playing an important role helping descendants understand their connection to the burying ground.

“Mrs. Nichols has been instrumental in helping folks understand how their families show up in the list of names,” she said. “It’s been really interesting to hear that conversation. People will raise a hand and say, ‘Wait, I don’t see my family’s name,’ and she is able to say, ‘You are here,’” as she traces a lineage.

The committee’s conversations with descendants included an invitation to visit the burying ground. For most of the families contacted, the existence of the burying ground was news, so Nichols suggested that the visits should offer not only information but guidance as families processed the sometimes painful details they were learning about their family histories. She knew she didn’t want to call the visits a “trip” or a “tour.”

“There was an old word that stood out in my mind, and that was to do a pilgrimage,” Nichols said. “A pilgrimage is a journey of an unknown length. You’re going somewhere. You’re seeking something. You’re trying to find answers.”

The Burleighs were among 78 members of the descendant community who took her and the committee up on it. They included Sam, Anne, Sam’s older sister Karen, his cousin Cheryl, and his 98-year-old father, who is also named Sam and was one of the most senior participants that day. The committee hosted them on campus to share historical information, trace genealogical connections, and seek input about permanent memorialization of the burying ground.

“I’d love to tell you I know exactly what was going through my mind,” Sam, R’76, said. “It was more of a reaction to the knowledge that they had been there. They had worked that land, and 100 years later or whatever it was, I had gone to the university. This visit was a special one because it was about ancestral history, and it allowed us to think more long range, farther back than just 1970.”

This profound sense of belonging and deep human connection is something Wilson has been seeing in the conversations she has been part of. “I am constantly reminded of the intersections and alignments between the scholarship, the research, and the people,” she said. “This could be viewed as an academic exercise — I know it is not, but it could be viewed that way — but we have taken care to make the research live, to make the history live, by naming individuals and trying to understand what their experience was here on this property, really trying to humanize them. Mrs. Nichols talked about the ground being sacred ground. The sacred nature of that is, for me, completely rooted in the fact that these are human beings. I believe the families appreciate the work that is happening. We all want to be recognized and seen and not forgotten.”

Developing plans for the site’s permanent memorialization is one of the major tasks of the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee. The conversation has been a long time coming. Research by Driskill indicates that university leaders in 1912 knew about the burying ground and went ahead anyway with plans to plow a road, today’s Richmond Way, through it. Road-widening work in 1947 and expansion of a steam tunnel in 1955-56 turned up further evidence that prompted similar indifference. In 2020, UR’s president and board of trustees wrote to the campus community that they “are deeply saddened by these discoveries. We profoundly regret the acts of desecration and the silences in our historical narrative.” They also committed to an enduring memorial, a pledge UR’s new president, Kevin Hallock, reiterated in a message to the campus community in September 2021.

That Jim Crow-era history was unsurprising to Nichols — “I’m a child of segregation,” she said. “I know firsthand all about sitting on the back of the bus” — but she says the university is doing the right thing today and looks forward to the dedication of a memorial on the site. The precise nature of that memorial is a matter of active discussion. The university hired an architectural firm to study examples elsewhere, develop design ideas, and seek input from a broad set of stakeholders, including members of the descendant community. During the fall semester, it hosted six sessions to explore design concepts and gather feedback. In December, the committee provided recommendations to Hallock.

The Burleighs hold a family genealogy in their D.C. area home.
Photograph by Stephen Voss

A memorial, when it comes, will be another change in a long line of developments Sam and Anne Burleigh have witnessed together since the day they first spotted each other in music theory class 50 years ago. Anne, for her part, marvels at the historical trajectory of the land where she grew up and met Sam. Nineteenth-century plantations that thrived because of human bondage developed into the 20th-century segregated neighborhood where she grew up and the recently desegregated university where she enrolled. There, she met her lifelong love and went boldly with him into the 21st century.

“It’s very moving,” she said. “I’m tearing up now, but the odds of that evolution — here you have enslaved people whose descendants are then going to school on that same property. What amazes me is that I grew up in a red-lined neighborhood on Westham Parkway. I went to Tuckahoe Elementary School, but that was that same land. That just astounds me. And that we should happen to meet on that place just amazes me. Both of us are so grateful that this effort was made to find this out. Can you imagine what his ancestors would think?”

Sam, of course, picked up the thought. “We’ve come a long way. Not that there’s not a long way to go, but a lot has been done in 150 years.”

In the long line of Burleighs, Sam the 1976 UR graduate is Samuel L. Burleigh IV. His older son is Sam V, and grandson Samuel Lafayette Burleigh VI joined the family in September 2021. In addition to no doubt being a darling little boy, he is a reminder that while memorialization honors the past, it also professes the values of the present and a vision for the future. This understanding is front and center for Wilson as she serves on the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee, interacts with families, and considers the burying ground’s significance for the University of Richmond.

“We have started to unpack and remove the layers, and I’m encouraged and pleased that we are doing that,” Wilson said. “We should not take for granted anything that has happened before us. We should take advantage of any point at which we can become more aware and make personal connections. That serves us well as a community because it gives us a foundation on which to continue to build and nurture the community we want to be.”