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Illustration by Jared Boggess
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Clockwise from top left: Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in Shockoe Bottom was known as the “Devil’s Half-Acre” for the cruelty inflicted on the slaves held there; “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia,” painted by English artist Eyre Crow in 1861, depicts the slave trade that operated in and around Shockoe; Founding Father John Marshall lamented in retrospect that the U.S. Constitution failed to end slavery; amid paroled Confederate troops, Union soldiers occupy the State Capitol grounds in 1865;
Our city serves up a veritable trail mix of history-tour options to visitors. Each day Segways, trolley buses and families on foot or in minivans travel along the well trod paths of the Slave Trail, the Road to Revolution and the region-sprawling Richmond National Battlefield Park. The Valentine Richmond History Center offers walking tours of just about every nook and cranny of our region's history.
The problem is, none of these routes to discovering our amazing past succeeds in offering a unified message about what this city wants to tell the world — or why the world should listen.
In the interest of telling this city's full history as it should be told — as one that shaped and defined the history and politics of the entire nation — Richmond magazine suggests one more trail.
"America's Liberty Trail" is a simple proposal answering the complex question of what makes Richmond relevant.
Richmond is where the Constitution came to life and where its authors openly debated the liberties that all Americans now hold true. It's where the sons of our nation's founders conspired against those words enshrining liberty. And Richmond is where brothers took up arms against brothers in a war over the very meaning of liberty.
Forget Boston, Philadelphia and Williamsburg. No other city tells such a riveting action story that begins with the Constitution's origin, its near-fatal flaw and the epic battles fought over how to fix it.
Yet, Richmond rarely, if ever, has taken a step back to recognize that all its stories of Civil War, slavery and emancipation represent chapters in the nation's story. Richmond is the setting. The Constitution is our main plot. And that tale starts and ends with one word: Liberty.
"The fact that we still fight over [the Constitution] today means it's a much bigger story — it has more staying power, and it has more potential to inspire," says Alice Dunn Lynch, executive director of the Virginia Capitol Foundation. She oversees the statehouse building where, among other distinctions, the Bill of Rights became the law of the land in 1791.
It's a funny trick of history that Richmond's importance to the beginning of the story has been largely forgotten. In the period between the 1780s and the 1820s, this was ground zero for some of the greatest political minds in history. Men whose names are immortal — Patrick Henry, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson — served here as governor. But a man we know less about, a slave simply named Gabriel, lived in their time, too. He heard their words about liberty and embraced them.
America's Liberty Trail restores Gabriel to his rightful place as a forgotten Founding Father.
Gabriel's cause and character help knit together the story of the Constitution with those chapters about slavery, Civil War and Emancipation.
"This is well worth pursuing," says Ed Ayers, president of University of Richmond and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work as a Civil War scholar and author, acknowledging that distance between Civil War and Civil Rights are more easily bridged when the Founding Fathers — including Gabriel — become part of the story.
Stacy L. Burrs, chairman of the board of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, echoes Ayers' approval.
"I'm fascinated by this idea because it's consistent with our view of the significance of those individuals and how the story hasn't been told," he says. Burrs views Gabriel as an early hero in the fight to redefine liberty that culminated 60 years later.
"It's basically what Gabriel said: ‘I just want the same thing Patrick Henry wanted'," Burrs explains. "Extrapolating from there, it just makes perfect sense."
State Del. Delores McQuinn, chairwoman of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, says she's also willing to consider this approach.
"My only concern would be that whatever we do is going to enhance the discussion," McQuinn says, equally insistent that the tragedy of slavery not disappear behind a veneer. "I just think we've got to be sure that the story is told."
With Shockoe Bottom as the epicenter of the action, nearby locations already familiar to Richmonders take on layered meanings on America's Liberty Trail. Rather than replace other Richmond trails, its purpose is to lead visitors to walk the full Slave Trail, to visit Tredegar as a gateway to the Civil War story and even to venture to historic sites farther afoot.
Thomas Jefferson agreed that slavery was the nation's singular struggle, writing in 1825, less than a year before he died: "One fatal stain deforms what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts."
With Jefferson's words in mind, Richmond magazine presents America's Liberty Trail:
1. Main Street Station
As Richmond prepares a massive renovation of Main Street Station, city plans include a modest visitor's center with maps and pamphlets directing tourists to other attractions. This site, a time capsule to Civil Rights struggles with its separate-but-equal waiting areas for passengers, offers a perfect jumping-off spot for tourists. The site's proposed Richmond Visitor's Center should be used to frame the story of our nation told through Richmond's lens.
2. Richmond Gallows and Burial Ground for Negroes
Born in 1776 as a slave, Gabriel "Prosser" was a powerfully built man with powerful ideas who led a failed slave revolt on a stormy night on Aug. 30, 1800, under a hauntingly familiar slogan: "Death or Liberty."
But Gabriel is so much more. A contemporary to our nation's Founding Fathers who traveled the same dusty Richmond streets he did, Gabriel's efforts and his cause make him a patriot, not a rebel. He is a hero of national stature that Richmond keeps to herself.
Revolutionary sentiment brewing among Virginia's slaves in the late 1700s came to a boil in July 1800 when Gabriel, literate and attuned to political thought, joined a plot that likely included thousands of slaves all across the state.
"It went as far as Dumfries all the way out to Columbia [Va.] and all the way down to Norfolk," says Elizabeth Cann Kambourian, a private researcher whose research on Gabriel's Insurrection is perhaps some of the most thorough existing. "It was really brilliant, to have kept it secret, and I think the plan originated in Richmond."
Gabriel initially was just one member of a group of slaves who plotted the revolt; they were mostly well-educated and extremely religious. Gabriel, however, quickly emerged as a powerful leader.
"A bunch of different people brought in ideas ... but he made it into a plan," Kambourian says. "People had been talking about it for years. Nobody had ever sat down to figure out how we're going to do it."
Gabriel's elegant plan bore elements of well-studied military strategy.
"Meet at Brook Bridge," says Kambourian, of a location probably just to the east of present-day Bryan Park. From there, Gabriel would order his men to march at midnight in three military columns. One would take the gunpowder magazine near the Burial Ground for Negroes. Another column would strike the state Capitol building, capturing then-Gov. James Monroe and the militia's muskets stored in the attic armory. Gabriel planned negotiations with Monroe to free all Virginia slaves.
To start it all, Gabriel's first column of soldiers would go to Rocketts and set the city's wharf ablaze as a distraction.
From there, the revolution would fan out, taking the Manufactory of Arms at present-day Tredegar and a major cache of arms stored in Fluvanna County.
The plot was not without danger of betrayal: The day of the planned insurrection, two slaves revealed the plot to Monroe.
The state's militia was weak in 1800, though, and Gabriel's fighters, armed with farm implements fashioned into weapons, stood a good chance.
In the end, it came down to weather.
"I think it was a hurricane," Kambourian says. A massive and violent storm struck that night, washing out a bridge near present-day Lakeside and cutting off the slave's assault.
By the next day, as the militia began rounding up the rebellion's leaders, Gabriel fled, remaining on the run for nearly a month before his capture and return to Richmond.
Prosecutors offered clemency to George Smith, who may have been Prosser's lieutenant, to give evidence against others. He declined. "They were not only educated, they had character," Kambourian says.
In Jefferson's mind, Gabriel's significance could not be underplayed. Gabriel cited words from the Declaration of Independence as inspiration, and Jefferson, its author, wrote to then-Virginia Gov. James Monroe in 1801 questioning the justice of executing the conspirators. Many, including Gabriel, already had been hanged. The world, he wrote, "cannot lose sight of the rights of the two parties and the object of the unsuccessful one."
In other words, these black Americans sought the same liberty that white Americans had fought to secure.
Gabriel may have learned his love of liberty by admiring one of its chief proponents.
"Patrick Henry did legal business with Thomas Prosser Sr.," says Kambourian, referring to the patriarch of the farm where Gabriel was a slave. Documents, she says, suggest Henry was a frequent visitor to the Prosser farm near present-day U.S. 1 and Wilkinson Road. Henry was a hero not just to whites, but to black Virginians as well.
"When he actually gave that speech ... people stood at the windows who couldn't get in," Kambourian says, referring to Henry's famous turn at St. John's in 1775, given the year before Gabriel's birth. "Including black people, [and] they heard it with their own ears."
As Gabriel stood on the gallows on Oct. 10, 1800, it's possible he thought of Henry's words echoing from nearby St. John's Church just 25 years earlier.
3. Henrico Parish, St. John's Church
In March 1775, the Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond. Safe from the British, it was the site of Henrico Parish, a large church capable of serving as a meeting hall. When they met, the group of patriots included Washington and Jefferson, as well as Richard Henry Lee. On the last day of the convention, Lee listened awestruck as Henry, a delegate from Hanover County, demanded liberty or death. Lee later made the first motion to declare independence.
Gabriel was born a year after Henry's speech, but he no doubt heard it from slaves, some of whom may even have heard it firsthand.
Just 85 years later, the same church and surrounding neighborhood overlooked Richmond's scorched ashes. But the neighborhood remained at the heart of later battles for Civil Rights. Once among the city's most elegant neighborhoods, Church Hill was abandoned during the post-segregation White Flight movement. Today, it is a place surrounded by efforts at reconciliation, including Richmond Hill and other church-led initiatives to improve Richmond Public Schools.
4.Richmond Lodge 13 Masonic Hall
Completed in 1787, this is the oldest Masonic hall in continuous use in the country. Future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall oversaw its construction, and many notable Masons, such as George Washington and the Marquis De Lafayette visited. While wealthy, powerful men filled its halls, so did men of lesser social stature. Freemasonry is inexorably tied to the nation's founding, but also to the labor movement. Freemasonry began as a guild for stonemasons. Its membership expanded to include men of many trades, and labor movement offshoots helped bring about modern labor reforms. There is little doubt of Richmond's significant place in the history of labor. Joseph Reid Anderson, owner of Tredegar Ironworks, the center of munitions production during the Civil War, used slave labor to break the strength of trade guilds in Richmond and Virginia, an effort that helped set precedent for modern "right-to-work" laws that give companies the ability to dismiss employees without cause.
Though gone today, the rear of nearby Galt's Tavern offered a possible meeting place for conspirators in Gabriel's insurrection. One co-conspirator was even employed there.
5. First African Baptist Church
Initially founded in 1802 as a congregation of both black and white Richmonders, the church split in 1841 when the white congregation moved just up the block to a new building. The current brick structure dates to the 1870s, but its predecessor was once among the largest structures in Richmond, with its congregation once counted in the thousands. The building's size led it to be commandeered by Virginia's Secession Convention in 1861.
"There was a great deal of suspense about whether secession should be invoked," says Mark Greenough, the Virginia Capitol Historian. First meeting in February 1861 the convention spent two months "thinking of ways to say ‘we should not secede'."
Put simply, he says, "Virginia and Virginians had a lot invested in the old Union and they were not in any hurry to part from it."
The convention's first vote, on April 4, was 90 to 45 against secession. Then came Ft. Sumter, and in a second vote on April 17, 88 delegates voted to leave the Union. Virginia's secession marked the true start of the bloody four-year conflict over the meanings of the Constitution ratified just a few blocks away.
6. Site of Ratification Convention and Monumental Church
Philadelphia built its modern tourism trade around its success as a host to 18th-century executive retreats and conventions, but Virginia provided the brain trust, James Madison and George Washington among them, to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 — and all they did in Philly was write the Constitution. The Virginia brain trust returned to Richmond in 1788 to fight bitterly over whether the Constitution would live or die.
On June 2, 1788, Virginia's leading statesmen met at Theatre Square, the site of the "New Academy," a defunct classical school founded by Chevalier Quesnay; at the time, it was the largest building in Richmond.
"It's described at the time as the most important meeting of Virginia statesmen ever," says E. Lee Sheppard, senior archivist and vice president for collections at the Virginia Historical Society.
The ratifying convention required a theater-sized building for its work. The event was something akin to a Beatles reunion during a Super Bowl halftime show. It lasted until June 25. Spectators bought tickets to attend — and every day sold out.
Players included John Blair and George Wythe, both signers of the Declarationof Independence. Wythe was a key framer of the Constitution. Madison, known as the "Father of the Constitution," also wrote the Bill of Rights. James Monroe was the last Founding Father to serve as president. George Mason wrote Virginia's Declaration of Rights, which helped frame the Bill of Rights. Gov. Edmund Randolph introduced the "Virginia Plan" at Philadelphia that became the Constitution. Richard Henry Lee made the motion to the Continental Congress that led to the Declaration of Independence.
And at center stage was the firebrand Patrick Henry, who refused to go to Philadelphia because he believed the states should remain a loose confederation rather than give power to a strong central government. Henry's aim in Richmond was to stop his fellow Virginians from ratifying the new Constitution. "Even down to the last day," Sheppard says, gathered crowds clung to the drama. "Neither side knows which way it's going to go."
Had Virginia gone the other way — and it nearly did — it seems unlikely the Constitution would have survived. Other state ratifying conventions, in particular New York, awaited Virginia's decision.
The next day, delegates approved something else of national significance: a document currently in the archives at the Virginia Historical Society that lists 20 individual suggestions for a bill of rights that the Ratifying Convention believed should amend the new Constitution.
"It becomes the bedrock of ... the Bill of Rights," Sheppard says. "I think Richmond would have the claim on being the paramount location for this sort of seed of the Bill of Rights. Basically everything you see in the Bill of Rights is embedded in this document."
7. White House of the Confederacy
John Brockenbrough, president of the Bank of Virginia, built his neo-classical mansion in 1818, just down the street from Marshall, who embodied the federalist ideals of a strong Constitution and was anti-slavery. Brockenbrough and his political allies helped create a new political philosophy that drew as its inspiration from Jeffersonian ideals of "states' rights."
"There was this thing called the Richmond Junto, though it's not clear it exactly existed as an organized group," says Jeffrey Ruggles, local historian and author of Unboxing Henry Box Brown, describing a loosely confederated "good ol' boys' club" cast as conspiracy theory.
Brockenbrough was at the center of this group, as was Thomas Ritchie, owner of the influential Republican newspaper the Richmond Enquirer.
"These heirs to these Republican traditions, as time went on — the way they interpreted this political ideology — it evolved more and more around the need to protect slavery," Ruggles says. Their motives were clear: preserve slavery in a state that at the time was shifting politically to the west and away from slavery.
In 1831, "Virginia's legislature actually took up emancipation," Ruggles notes. But it failed. "After that, the attitudes started to harden [for men like Brockenbrough]. It's states' rights, but it's no longer apologizing for slavery. It was a hardening."
8. John Marshall House (1788)
Perhaps no Virginian had greater influence over the Constitution or Bill of Rights than Marshall. As chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he literally defined the branch of government. Like many of his fellow Founders, Marshall shared concerns that the work of his generation in securing liberty for all men was left incomplete. "The Constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens," he once wrote. Marshall owned no slaves and belonged to an anti-slavery society.
Toward the end of his life, Marshall wrote a private letter to a friend referring to "this great debate still going on in America as to what kind of Union we had," says Virginia State Capitol Historian Mark Greenough, quoting Marshall, who concluded by saying that "the outcome of that debate will determine whether or not that Union endures."
In the early 1900s, Richmond nearly demolished the Marshall house to make way for a school. Brighter minds prevailed. The school built next door (which was later bulldozed) was a "white" high school during segregation and later a part of the story of Virginia's shameful Massive Resistance movement.
9. St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Built in 1845 to relieve the growing size of nearby Monumental Church, its location next to the grounds of Capitol Square made it an easy Sunday option for many Virginia politicians, including Civil War figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States. In fact, it was here on April 2, 1865, during Sunday service that Davis was informed that Union troops were marching on the city. Shortly afterward, Davis and his government, along with the city's military defenders, abandoned the city, setting fires to bridges, buildings and supplies as they fled.
10. Capitol Square, Jefferson's Capitol
Recently declared among the most historic buildings in the country, Virginia's Capitol owes its design to Jefferson, who meant it as a tribute to the Palladian styles of Greek democracy and the
At first it reflected those ideals very well, and in 1791, it was here that the Bill of Rights became the law of the nation as Virginia's General Assembly approved it, becoming the necessary ninth state.
The Constitution, adopted in 1788, did little to guarantee personal liberties. On June 8, 1789, when Madison submitted his proposal to Congress, many of the 20 amendments he suggested bore striking resemblance — often cribbing entire phrases — to the 20 amendments proposed by the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 and the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. It was the quest for those rights that inspired Gabriel's plot to storm Jefferson's Capitol in 1800. And it was this same building that Abraham Lincoln insisted be protected by invading Union troops.
It was also the site of many Civil Rights battles — Virginia's legislators led the nation in Jim Crow segregation and Massive Resistance. Today a memorial honors Barbara Johns, a Prince George County student whose protest against segregated schools was the catalyst for a lawsuit filed by attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson and helped form the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
11 and 12. Shockoe Slip, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Kanawha Canal
Contrary to popular stories, Richmond was never a center for the import of slaves from Africa, but from the 1830s to the 1860s, it was at the very heart of something far worse. By the 1830s, Virginia's farmland, nearly exhausted by tobacco cultivation, left plantation owners in search of new income — and stuck with untold surplus slaves. At first, selling slaves to buyers from states farther south seemed likely to lead Virginia to a day when slavery no longer existed here. But the practice proved too profitable for it to pass quietly.
"Historians haven't been able to document breeding [of slaves as livestock] as such," says UR's Ed Ayers, but "common sense would say that something like that happened."
By the 1860s, hundreds of thousands of slaves had been sold "down river" through Richmond's often-brutal slave markets.
Gabriel's story also is etched in its cobblestones. The old Henrico County Courthouse sits on the same location at 22nd and Main where Gabriel and most of his co-conspirators were tried.
Ironically, Shockoe is also the site where the General Assembly voted in 1786 to approve the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Though credited to Jefferson, one of the document's co-authors, George Wythe, helped shape the beliefs his former pupil expressed. Wythe, a Quaker, actually fomented beliefs later espoused by Jefferson, including an abhorrence of slavery.
"Freedom is the birthright of every human being," Wythe wrote in 1806, expressing a sentiment carried forward by Richmond's active Quaker community, including Civil War Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew, well beyond his death.
Skirting Shockoe's riverfront was the Kanawha Canal. Slave labor factored strongly in this trade route that existed before trains and motor-powered boats.
After the Civil War, much of Shockoe's physical history was erased from Richmond's landscape. The city was burned in 1865 as Union troops approached. What wasn't destroyed then had a remarkable tendency in the 20th century to end up paved over to make way for parking lots.
13. Rocketts Landing
Before there was the Port of Richmond, there was Rocketts. From here, slaves on ships were sent south to plantation states such as Georgia and Louisiana. A busy port even in 1800, Gabriel planned to burn it to create the distraction needed to seize the Capitol.
In 1849, a slave named Henry "Box" Brown folded his body into a box and shipped himself from this port to freedom in Philadelphia.
After Richmond's fall, Lincoln arrived here and took a skiff to Shockoe Creek, where he walked to the Confederate white house surrounded and protected by dozens of former slaves.
14. Reconciliation Statue
Richmond dedicated this monument in March 2007, bringing a small measure of closure to the sins of one of the saddest chapters in human history. Sister monuments in Liverpool, England and Benin, West Africa, mark three of the busiest points in the slave trade.
15. Lumpkin's Slave Jail
The "Devil's half-acre" was a place of such agony and perpetual human suffering during the 1840s to the 1860s that it bore worldwide reputation.
Helping cement that sentiment was the detention there of Anthony Burns, a run-away slave arrested in Boston under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. At Lumpkin's, Burns "was destined to suffer, for four months, such revolting treatment as the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveholders can inflict."
Burns documented his stay through letters he wrote and smuggled to supporters during his long captivity.
The story of Lumpkin's attests to Richmond's awkward march toward liberty.
Robert Lumpkin, by all accounts a detestable man, did not live long past slavery's end. His wife, who was black, took the opportunity of his death to improve the lives of men who'd suffered her husband's cruelty. From 1867 to 1870 the jail was the site of a school that became Richmond Theological Institute and Virginia Union University.