Where is the Archaeology? HUD and Historic Resources in Richmond

Excavation at the future site of the National Museum of the American Indian (from John Milner Associates)

In America today, much of archaeological research in cities is performed in advance of federal construction projects that require excavation before proceeding. These excavations, like the one pictured above, have the possibility to uncover and document information about a variety of urban subjects that have often not been extensively researched before. In the case of the archaeology performed where the National Museum of the American Indian now stands, the research uncovered parts of a brothel, launderess businesses run by the city’s single women, and alley tenements occupied by urban laborers and other working-class families and individuals. You can read more about this excavations and discoveries on the Smithsonian blog about the NMAI dig.

Another federal agency that has the requirement to perform archaeological and historical documentation of sites before they are destroyed is the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is responsible for building affordable housing. HUD’s job is complex, and in many cases the creation of public housing shapes and is shaped by the racial segregation that has been extensive in American cities since the nineteenth century. This segregation, which became mandated by legislation in the twentieth century and  was later continued through financial and planning policy, has been in many cases intentional. After legislated segregation was determined to be illegal, neighborhood clearance and urban renewal projects that gained popularity in the early 1970s continued to have a similar effect. These projects typically focused on primarily low-income, African American pockets of the city, destroying communities that have been living there for long periods of time.

These projects have often been extremely destructive, to both the modern communities in these neighborhoods and the underlying history and architecture (as I first wrote about in my blog about Fulton here). The history of public housing projects and federal construction has had a distinct impact on historic preservation in Richmond, including damage and destruction of architecture and historic remains. This has led to the creation of a federal document that now mandates archaeological research and historical preservation when Richmond uses Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds for housing projects.

RRHAThis agreement was brought about through a lawsuit, Staton v. US Department of Housing & Urban Development. The case dealt with the destruction of houses in an urban renewal project in the area of Carver in 1988, but such urban renewal and redevelopment projects continue until this day in areas throughout Richmond. The people of Carver believed that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) and HUD did not follow the guidelines set to protect important historical sites when they razed sections of the neighborhood. The result of this case, the “Programmatic Agreement for Richmond’s Housing and Urban Development Projects” was established to protect sections of Richmond’s historic neighborhoods from destruction, like what occurred in areas like Carver, Fulton, and Church Hill.


While archaeology and historic preservation may seem minimal in comparison to the city’s high poverty rate, urban renewal projects have been shown to perpetuate community challenges by destroying a sense of place and community and destroying cultural resources and places where people call home. Groups such as the Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions (RePHRAME) attempt to re-create a communityHUD after projects related to urban renewal occur, by making sure the people of community return to their homes and are able to participate in RRHA boards and meetings. Community-led action groups have also come to together to acknowledge the importance that certain archaeological sites have, such as the East Marshall Street Well Project, and the African Burial Ground. The programmatic agreement was put into legislation to further protect important historical sites, such as archaeological sites, from destruction. The rest of this post will detail the positives of this agreement, while looking at what is lacking.

What is Lacking

Richmond’s programmatic agreement is structured around enforcing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires that projects in the city that receive federal funds must record or avoid eligible historical sites. According to Section 106, a historical site may include a prehistoric or historic district, site, building, structure, or object (artifacts, records, or remains that are located within the property) included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

The programmatic agreement so far has only led to one archaeological excavation, in the area of Carver, with Leigh Street to the north and Catherine Street to the south, which as mentioned above, actually initiated the creation of the agreement through a lawsuit. The area that was excavated was known to be the site of a mid-nineteenth century brickyard that turned into a residential block after the Civil War. Because the area was disturbed during an urban renewal project, however, much of the cultural deposits were negatively affected. Since the data was disturbed, there could be no location-specific data that could tie certain artifacts to certain places and peoples. Archival research before the excavation suggested that African-Americans mostly occupied this area, but because the area was disturbed, there is a complete lack of understanding of the lifeways of these early free African-Americans in this location, forcing the archaeological firm to recommend no phase II. Recently, the author met with Kim Chen a City of Richmond Planner, and part of the Department of Planning and Development Review and asked her why so few archaeological projects have occurred this agreement. The lack of archaeology is not because there is not enough archaeology to be done, rather, according to Chen, the majority of projects involving funds from HUD and the programmatic agreement only takes care of interior housework rather than dealing with exterior work.

There are also a few loopholes in the programmatic agreement that could seriously affect the amount of archaeological work being done in the city. For one, the document itself is convoluted and refers back to many amendments and sections of the agreement and other agreements, making interpretation difficult. More seriously, archaeology and preservation of historic buildings is only required by the programmatic agreement on projects that cover more than an acre of land. Most construction projects in cities occur on a much smaller parcel, making the requirement to perform archaeological research less likely to be invoked. Finally, even though this factor cannot be changed, the programmatic agreement is only directed towards federal agencies, which is a shame because most construction projects are through private companies. If the construction site is private, there are no archaeological stipulations for the company to follow when breaking ground.

A Positive Intention

A positive aspect of the programmatic agreement is that it intended to increase participation of stakeholders in Richmond’s archaeological excavations by inviting multiple groups to participate in consultation and to sign the agreement when it was first created. The Virginia Council on Indians agreed to participate and signed the agreement, however that organization was eliminated in 2012 to create a new organization. All federally recognized tribes that have some association to Virginia were invited to participate, however, the only tribe out of five tribes to participate was the Catawba Indian Nation (the Pamunkey, now federally recognized, will be contacted when the programmatic agreement is renewed). Historic preservation groups in Richmond were also contacted, and out of six parties, only one group, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, agreed to participate. The intent was to increase participation, but many of the groups gave no responses. This raises some important questions – is it the lack of interest in the possibility of archaeology in Richmond? Or is the way the groups were contacted and asked to participate?

The Future of the Agreement

Luckily, the agreement is up for renewal in the near future, possibly as soon as the fall. Hopefully the questions and exclusions mentioned above, and the confusing structure of the agreement could be adjusted by more participation by interested parties. Richmond can look at other city’s archaeological programs for inspiration. For instance, Alexandria has an Archaeological Protection Code, from 1992, detailing exactly what needs to happen when a construction company wants to break ground, written clearly and concisely. Alexandria City archaeologists determine whether a site has important value, through the research, including mapping and documentation that they have done in their city (a project that is still ongoing here in Richmond). D.C. is a good city model for the agreement as well, since a majority of the construction projects use federal money. D.C., as has Alexandria, have used Geographic Information System (GIS) to document important sites by using historic maps, placing them on top of more contemporary maps, exactly locating the important sites. Hopefully, the agreement will be edited to allow for more archaeology projects to be done before new construction takes place, be better understood publically, and increase participation in stakeholders.

Additional Resources

More information about Carver: http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/new-directions/Content?oid=1596609

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority: http://www.rrha.org/

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: http://www.hud.gov/