photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.
Ana Edwards, chair of the Defenders' Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, addresses reporters at City Hall.
Since officialdom isn’t getting much of anywhere with visions for a baseball stadium in Shockoe, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality chose today to update the Richmond media about their independent study on what should happen on the property adjacent to the former “Hell’s Half-Acre” site of the Lumpkin Slave Jail.
The date was more appropriate than anyone could’ve imagined: falling on Juneteenth, when the last holdout of slavery in Galveston, Texas, was broken three months after the Civil War ended. Today's announcement also came two days after nine people were shot to death at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shots were fired at a Memphis, Tennessee, church. Thursday night, a belligerent man pounded the door and rattled the windows of United Nations Church International in the 5200 block of Midlothian Turnpike. He carried some kind of plastic pipe object. An onsite armed security guard delayed the man long enough for him to be apprehended by police and whisked off to Tucker Pavilion for observation.
These are serious times requiring somber thoughts. So it was that Ana Edwards spoke outside Richmond City Hall on the progress of the Defenders and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.
Since March, the Defenders have held four public meetings in the cardinal quadrants of Richmond, attended by a total of some 100 people. “We gave them an historical context for the history of Shockoe and the plans that have been proposed,” Edwards related. “Then people submitted their plans.” The attenders of these conversations submitted their ideas on cards.
For guidance in this process, the Defenders engaged Robert Nieweg of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Last year, the National Trust and Preservation Virginia both declared the Shockoe slave-related property as among the most endangered historic sites in the nation and state.
The ideas generated from these discussions are undergoing distillation into a coherent series of plans. Individuals with backgrounds in economic development, heritage and historic tourism and community stakeholders are involved. One theme that is fairly unanimous, Edwards says, is that of green space.
The refined proposal will be unveiled Saturday, Aug. 1, at 1 p.m. at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church. There, the plan will be vetted in public and the result passed along to members of Richmond City Council. The group will formally present the plan to City Council in September, a week ahead of the UCI Road World Championships.
An estimated 450,000 may attend the races, with a potential television and Internet viewing audience of some 300 million people. The Worlds haven’t been held in this country since 1985, and many biking enthusiasts who want to cheer on their favorite nation or team won’t need to buy overseas flight tickets to watch. The racers will roll up Monument Avenue and make a U-turn around the arced, columned Jefferson Davis memorial. They will also roll past the house that Lewis Harvie Blair built – the only Confederate veteran known to have lived on Monument and who in the 1880s advocated for workplace and educational integration and contributed to black schools and causes. The arm of the first and last president of the Confederacy is extended toward Blair’s house as if welcoming the old grudging soldier into the folds of nostalgia.
Edwards says that coming to terms with the history of the Shockoe slave markets is crucial for understanding the nation’s central struggle around race. “We have the opportunity to enrich the public landscape for the world to see,” she said, “and to let them know we are keenly aware of the conflicted history. We want to see the best way to create a visible, beautiful and enduring way to commemorate not just the suffering that occurred there, but the fortitude and resilience of the people who came through that and are part of Richmond today.”
Edwards acknowledges that come September, city officials will be occupied by the Worlds presence. Perhaps that will make this issue stand out in sharper relief. Many of the elements for creating a place of education and memory already exist: the Lumpkin's Jail site, the marooned Winfree Cottage and the footprint of the slave trading quarter.
How best to unite these elements is the open question.
“There are physical features, programmatic features and then there are ideas about process and how to curate it.”