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By treating spatial conflict as one way communities wrestle with the memory and legacy of slavery, this article unites critical landscape analysis, a tool of legal geography, with legal and cultural analysis and recent scholarship on African American reparations. A slave cemetery lay beneath a parking lot in Shockoe Bottom, a neighborhood of downtown Richmond that was once a major slave-trading hub. In recent years, controversy arose over the site’s use, generating racially charged local debate and two failed lawsuits seeking to preserve the site. This article examines the significance of the African Burial Ground controversy by analyzing its symbolic, discursive, spatial, and legal dimensions. Although the law ostensibly protects ancestral graves from desecration, it demands that a plaintiff demonstrate biological descent from the interred in order to make a claim; as this case demonstrates, standing is denied to those whose family histories were obliterated by slavery. I argue that the plaintiff’s lack of standing before the law, which is rooted in slavery, cannot be separated from other, social and political forms of illegitimacy historically inscribed upon African Americans. Here, claims of desecration were relegated to the political arena, where redress was possible but subject to the vagaries of local, state, and national racial politics. Community activists, unable to protect the Burial Ground through the force of the law, instead mobilized the spectacle of the law, and achieved a surprising out-of-court resolution to the conflict.


Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities


Online; print edition forthcoming

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