Richmond African Burial Ground advocates to go on trial May 25; pre-trial vigil planned; Four activists were arrested after shutting down VCU parking lot

Members of the Defenders being arrested for civil disobedience while physically shutting down the parking lot for an hour. Photo from RTD

Pre-Trial Vigil 9:00am Trial Begins 10:00am
Richmond Manchester General District Court
920 Hull St Richmond, Virginia

Press Release:

A May 25 trial is scheduled for four Richmond activists arrested April 12 after successfully blocking cars from entering the state-owned parking lot that sits on a more-than 250-year-old Black cemetery. Donnell C. Brantley, 62; Rolandah “Cleopattrah” McMillan, 48; Autumn Barrett, 38; and Phil Wilayto, 62, are charged with trespassing on Virginia Commonwealth University property after being told to leave, a Class 1 misdemeanor.

If convicted, they face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.00. The four are being represented on a pro bono basis by the law firm of Benjamin & DesPortes, P.C. Steven Benjamin is First Vice President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a former president of the Virginia chapter. DesPortes is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

The trial is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at Richmond Manchester General District Court, 920 Hull St. At 9 a.m., the defendants and their supporters will hold a sidewalk vigil outside the courthouse. Supporters are asked to wear white shirts or blouses in a show of solidarity.

The Richmond African Burial Ground is the city’s oldest known municipal cemetery for Black people. From about 1750 to 1816 it was the final resting place for hundreds if not thousands of enslaved Africans and free people of African descent.

It also was the site of the town gallows, where on Oct. 10, 1800, the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel was executed. Long abandoned, the site has been used since the 1970s as a commercial parking lot.

In 2008 the lot was purchased by VCU, which, despite community protests, proceeded to “upgrade” the lot. After years of community agitation, the 2011 Virginia General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the transfer of the 3.4 acre site from VCU to the City of Richmond for reclamation and memorialization.

A budget amendment appropriated $3.3 million to pay for the transfer. With the encouragement of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, three Richmond-area private contractors have volunteered their services to remove the parking lot asphalt and gravel and replace it with sod, relieving VCU of the cost of those operations, as required by the General Assembly bill.

And yet, as of today, VCU is still using the African Burial Ground site as a parking lot for its students and employees. “We decided to close the parking lot ourselves because we were tired of VCU continuing to park on the graves of our ancestors,” said McMillan, who with her three co-defendants and four other protesters held signs for an hour and a half in front of the parking lot entrance, preventing cars or buses from entering the lot. “We wanted the whole world to see that this state institution has no respect for the community that surrounds it.”

Brantley, McMillan and Wilayto are members of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, a Richmond-based community organization that has played a major role in reclaiming the cemetery. Barrett is a member of the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. All four are active with the Richmond African Burial Ground Community Organizing Committee, which sponsored the parking lot protest, held on the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War. The trial date of May 25 is celebrated worldwide as African Liberation Day, a day to promote anti-racist struggles.

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