January 25, 2022
Brenda Dabney Nichols leads families to the Burying Ground

I didn't want to call them trips . . . We weren't going to tour the campus. So there was an old word that stood out in my mind. And that was to do a pilgrimage, because a pilgrimage in my definition is a journey to an unknown length. You're going somewhere. You're seeking something. You're trying to find answers to something.

On a cold day in December, Brenda Dabney Nichols stood in front of the Burying Ground on the southeastern side of Westhampton Lake and reflected on a two-year journey to connect families to a story they hadn’t been told before.

In December of 2019, a report by Shelby M. Driskill and Lauranett L. Lee revealed that the site was once a burying ground for those enslaved by former landowners and that remains were discovered multiple times in the early to mid-twentieth century.

After the report was published, then-president Ronald A. Crutcher established a Burying Ground Memorialization Committee to engage stakeholders in discussions about an enduring memorial.

There are no records of who was interred in the Burying Ground, but we know the names of men, women, and children who were once bound to the land and its owners. Committee Chairs Edward L. Ayers and Keith W. "Mac" McIntosh knew that connecting with the descendants was the greatest priority.

Brenda Dabney Nichols, author of African-Americans of Henrico County and the great-great granddaughter of Henry Pryor who established the community of Ziontown after Emancipation, was the first person they called to serve as a consultant and work with them to connect with the descendants. She accepted the role immediately.

"This was something I knew I could accomplish," Nichols said. "It began as an assignment. But as time went on, it became a passion."

Nichols has deep connections in Richmond and began engaging with fellow descendants in their neighborhoods and churches.

"That's how I planted the seed," Nichols said as she remembered visiting with ministers and congregations across Richmond, including Quioccasin Baptist, Westwood Baptist, Pilgrim Journey Baptist, and St. Paul Baptist Churches.

Nichols and the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee then hosted five pilgrimages to the Burying Ground for over 78 descendants.

"Some of them were just surprised, and some of them were really angry," Nichols recalled. "But this is what happens when people don't see you as being important. But they see you more as a piece of property, just to use your body, to use your gifts, to use your labor to enrich themselves. And this is what many of them saw from this. Some cried. Some had other words to say. Some were amazed. And so there were many different types of emotions. They were grateful at the very end that they did find out about it."

After pouring over feedback from descendants, students, faculty, staff, and alumni, consultants from Baskervill drafted memorial design concepts for the community to respond to during six virtual and in-person conversations this past October and November. A report outlining the entire process and final proposals will be released this month.

"We are fortunate to have Mrs. Brenda Dabney Nichols involved with the Burying Ground Memorialization Committee," McIntosh said. "Engaging our descendant community has been one of our top priorities. We are thankful for Mrs. Nichols leadership, ingenuity, and collaboration in ensuring we reached as many descendants as possible so we could hear their stories, build relationships, and get their input on how best to memorialize those buried at the site."

"We look forward to the day of dedicating the memorial," Nichols said. "The main thing is that we were allowed to give input as we felt we so deserved. And so that's a learning point, that's a beginning for healing, and for a reckoning and for reconciliation to begin to occur."