For years, bones kept appearing on the University of Richmond campus.
A 1947 article in a local newspaper documented one such instance: Construction workers had found a “small pile of bones, believed to be the skeletons of slaves.” The news also made its way to the campus student paper, The Collegian.
Yet the discovery eventually faded from campus memory.
This year, journalists at The Collegian are determined to remember. They recently unveiled a yearlong project to investigate the presence of a burial ground of enslaved people on the college’s campus.
Dubbed “The Westham Project,” the investigation takes its name from the Westham Burying Ground. The Collegian is one of 10 student media organizations working as part of Poynter’s College Media Project, an initiative that provides support to college media teams to explore a problem on campus. Applications for the fall 2021 iteration of the project are now open.
Barbara Allen, Poynter’s director of college programming, said the college media project is in its third year.
“The student journalists accepted into the program presented us with a pressing issue on campus — a problem or a controversy or a pain point — just something that really deserves a good investigative lens thrown on it,” Allen said. “Richmond’s project jumped out immediately, as we’re seeing campuses all over the country realize there’s an enormous amount of American history in some cases quite literally buried on campuses.”
The Collegian first reported on the discovery of documentary evidence of the burial ground last July. Though there had been reports of the burial ground’s existence throughout the university’s history, it wasn’t until 2019 that a graduate student found the first primary source suggesting the spot was a burial ground for enslaved people, said Olivia Diaz, the paper’s editor in chief.
“I was surprised that it was 2019, and it was something that we still as a campus hadn’t talked about or even just reached out to community members to create that dialogue,” Diaz said. “There was a conversation that needed to be had and was well overdue.”
When two professors at the university emailed Diaz suggesting she apply to the College Media Project, the burial ground came to mind as a possible topic. It was an opportunity to generate dialogue among the University of Richmond’s community about the burial ground and its impact on the university today.
Diaz tapped Morgan Howland, the paper’s investigative editor, to lead the project. Now, a team of eight Collegian staff and two student contributors are working on the Westham Project with the help of three advisers, though Howland said she is hoping to expand the team.
Howland said the group seeks to provide the most comprehensive account of the Westham Burying Ground to date, including an exploration of how the University of Richmond community has responded to its discovery. Their introduction posted in the fall semester, and the team has since published stories and podcast episodes exploring memorialization efforts and the ways in which the University of Richmond is similar to other Virginia schools in trying to reconcile its historical ties to slavery.
“Our main initiative is to engage the community in discussions in thinking about the burial ground, both the burial ground itself and the broader implications of how our university’s history involving aspects of systemic racism can impact our present and how that is actively impacting Black community members — Black students, staff, faculty,” Howland said.
Emma Davis, The Collegian’s managing editor and a member of the team, said the paper reached out to predominantly Black student organizations and found students who were interested in contributing to the project.
“What we have as a newspaper struggled with is we’ve been a mainly white institution on our campus, and especially with this project — we’re talking about a potential burial ground of formerly enslaved people — obviously if you don’t have representation from everyone on our campus and from those people that have this direct connection, that’s an issue because it can lead to bias and misrepresentation,” Davis said.
Davis said the collaboration has provoked discussion on how to ensure The Collegian is doing independent reporting while still including diverse perspectives.
Like many other news organizations, The Collegian transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. The staff have taken up phone calls and Zoom chats in place of in-person interviews, which has occasionally posed challenges in reaching sources.
“In terms of getting student sources, it’s been really difficult because in normal times, without COVID, you’ve been able to just walk around campus and just be like, ‘Hey, want to talk to me about this?’” said Susanna Getis, a member of the Westham Project team.
Poynter’s Allen said the challenges facing student journalists are always present, but this year they are “immense.”
“I’m not sure if people realize just how much (students) need the camaraderie and support of their physical newsroom to feel galvanized about doing the really difficult work that student journalists do,” she said. “The pandemic and being forced to stay away from their newsrooms and each other in a lot of cases has made this long year so much longer for them.”
She said she’s proud of the work The Collegian and other schools are doing.
Wonbo Woo, an Emmy-award winning journalist and former Neiman Fellow who is also advising the project, said, “They’re a dynamic team; it’s a great paper. They have a really strong investigations editor who’s leading the series, and it’s been a really rewarding process to be able to talk to them about the work that they’re doing.”
The Collegian may also face issues finding information on identities of the people interred at the burial ground, Howland said. There are very few records from the time and even descendants of those who had information may be too far removed at this point, said Davis.
Still, the reporters said they are hopeful their work will help the University of Richmond grapple with its past.
“I just want people to read it,” Getis said. “I want other people through the Westham project to realize that we are surrounded on campus by a history of white supremacy. And just by telling that story, I think that we will be able to change the culture and the conversations that are occurring on campus.”