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Stoney says ad firm using African burial ground as ‘bargaining chip’

A man wearing a blue sport coat holds an umbrella in front of a building with the words "Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground" painted on it.
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
Mayor Levar Stoney speaks Friday at the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground about a proposal to remove a billboard on the property.

Lamar Advertising proposed finding six sites to use in trade for removal of Shockoe billboard.

Mayor Levar Stoney announced Friday that the city of Richmond rejected an offer to swap one billboard at a historic African cemetery for six new billboards across the city.

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground is over two centuries old and has repeatedly been disturbed by road construction, a gas station being built on the site, a billboard towering over it and more.

It’s now recognized as a historical landmark, but the blank billboard — owned by Lamar Advertising — still stood as of Friday when Stoney spoke at the burial ground. Lamar, which did not have representatives present at the announcement, received an easement in perpetuity from the previous owner of the gas station allowing for the billboard.

“Their proposal requests that we find them six other sites,” Stoney said. “That gives them 12 billboard opportunities in the city of Richmond, essentially using this sacred ground as a bargaining chip for their bottom line. That is unacceptable and disgusting.”

The city and Lamar last met in November 2023 to discuss a resolution. Stoney said the city received the proposal the following month.

In a statement emailed to VPM News, the advertising company did not indicate whether it had responded to the city rejecting the proposal.

“The city did not respond to Lamar's proposed resolution until noon [Friday]. It is Lamar's intent to continue to work in good faith with the interested parties to come to a suitable resolution,” the statement read.

Stoney said the city wants to remove the billboard, but doing so in the right way could be a long process. The mayor did not specify a timeline for the removal.

“We don't want to disturb the souls that lie underneath, so we will obviously do even a deeper analysis on how we go about doing that,” Stoney said.

The mayor also said the city attorney’s office would explore “every avenue possible” to get the structure removed.

Still, Stoney said the city wants to avoid being adversarial about the situation and hopes to partner with Lamar on removing the billboard.

A historical marker sign stands with text about the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground
Katharine DeRosa
VPM News File
The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground Historical Highway Marker was placed to honor more than 22,000 people of African descent buried in the Richmond burying site in the 1800s.

Recapturing history

Lenora McQueen, a Texas woman who traced some of her ancestors back to the burial ground, catalyzed the push to reclaim the site. The city purchased a portion of the the Shockoe burial land in 2021 — with the exception of Lamar's easement.

The former gas station building on the site, which the city has not touched for fear of disturbing any human remains beneath it, now has a red, black and green mural with the following text:

Beneath this old gas station, that billboard and I-95/64 is


Active 1816-1879

The mural was mostly completed in January. A gas canister behind the building needs to be removed before it can be finished.

According to the website of VCU professor Ryan K. Smith, an expert on Richmond cemeteries, the cemetery grounds were once much larger. As roads and buildings were constructed in the area, pieces of the site were chipped away into the small patch that today sits alongside Interstate 95.

The state posted a highway historical marker at the burial ground in 2022.

Updated: February 26, 2024 at 5:15 PM EST
The timeline of a mural being painted on the now-closed gas station was misstated. An addition to the rear of the building still needs to be completed.
Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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