Richmond architect Burt Pinnock lives with the same quandary as countless African-Americans: The complete story of his family origins is a mystery.
Pinnock's brother once researched the family tree and traced their mother's side to an Alabama plantation owned by a man named Philpot in the mid-1800s. Beyond that, it's a question mark — at least for now.
State Del. Delores McQuinn's grandfather, the son of slaves, watched a plantation owner burn his family records right before his eyes after he had asked to see them.
A group of Richmonders, including McQuinn and Pinnock, is creating plans for a national slavery museum and genealogy center in the city's Shockoe Bottom district.
Under this dream of an internationally significant museum in downtown Richmond, African-Americans like Pinnock would be able to research their family stories and perhaps find some answers.
At presstime, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission was preparing to unveil architectural drawings and a broad vision for the project at a meeting of City Council's Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee.
McQuinn, chair of the 17-member, Council-appointed commission, says the panel simply wants more serious exploration by the city and other regional groups.
"We're pretty authentic," she says of Richmond's place in the history of slavery. "It happened here, and proof is all around us."
A significant piece of that proof — and the epicenter of the commission's plan — is the Lumpkin's Slave Jail site behind Main Street Station.
For many slaves during the 1800s, a major turning point of their lives was known as the Devil's Half Acre, home to a gallows and a Shockoe Bottom jail owned by slave dealer Robert Lumpkin.
Today, after being excavated and studied, that past is buried again, not in an attempt to forget what happened there, but rather to protect it from the elements that could sweep away other valuable artifacts of that history.
Richmond was the most active slave market after New Orleans, with some 300,000 African-Americans having â€¨passed through here. And among cities that exported slaves throughout the South, Richmond was the top market, according to historians,
On the Devil's Half Acre, African-Americans were held captive, punished and "broken" before being sold off as property.
Archaeological excavation of the site last year uncovered the Lumpkin's Jail foundation, a cobblestone courtyard where slaves were held and a kitchen, as well as artifacts from the period.
In September, the Slave Trail Commission joined the James River Institute for Archaeology and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in an "artifact-washing" event, which allowed members of the public to help wash, tag and document items that had been excavated at the Lumpkin site.
"The energy was almost palpable as people of various ages, races and abilities actively participated in learning more about Richmond's history and being part of it at the same time," says Maureen Elgersman Lee, executive director of the Black â€¨History Museum.
McQuinn says the idea for a slavery museum has been discussed for years by the commission and others in the city, but the Slave Trail Commission's focus intensified when archaeological studies uncovered Lumpkin's Jail and, nearby, what is known as the Burial Ground for Negroes, one of the oldest known cemetery sites in the Richmond area. As the Slave Trail Commission continued work on projects to map and develop the "walk through history" that retraces key points of Richmond's slavery story, other pieces began to fall into place.
In 2004, the commission hired Pinnock's firm, BAM Architects, to design the plaza at 15th and Main streets that surrounds the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue, a monument to healing the wounds of slavery and racial division. Two other former slave ports — Benin in West Africa and Liverpool, England — have similar statues. Richmond's statue was unveiled in 2007 in a ceremony that included local dignitaries as well as Gov. Timothy Kaine and officials from Benin and Liverpool.
Pinnock's firm then worked on the Slave Trail Commission's plan to install commemorative markers along the history walk, which includes points from the Manchester Docks, where slaves arrived on ships, to the slave markets where they were marched.
Late last year, Pinnock teamed up with architects from the local firm SMBW. That firm's partners, Will Scribner and Chris Fultz, joined with Pinnock to create an offshoot firm, Stockton Clay, that combines both firms' resources to compete for projects that might be too large for either to handle alone. "Each firm has its own relationships that are longstanding and strong," Pinnock says, "but at times there are projects like this one where you say, ‘We are stronger together than we are apart.' "
The commission hired Stockton Clay to map out a preliminary plan of how a national slavery museum would occupy the Shockoe Bottom property surrounding â€¨Lumpkin's Jail.
The sweeping vision looks like this: On the 4 1/2-acre sliver of city-owned land between Main Street Station and Interstate 95, bordered by Marshall and Franklin streets on the north and south, would rise a huge piece of modern architecture. It would range in size from 50,000 to 75,000 square feet, Pinnock says, becoming a defining feature of eastern downtown — travelers along I-95 would be struck by its presence. The exterior design of the building, he says, "would take its cues from African folk art."
Pinnock explains that the museum would connect with the Slave Trail and dovetail an experience that would move history tourists around downtown, on both sides of the James River. "Think of the Slave Trail as a necklace," he says, "and this is a very large pearl on that necklace."
Museum in Fredericksburg â€¨Abandoned
The details of how and when such a grand vision will come to fruition in Richmond are unknown. But it seems that the way is possibly clear of any competing projects. Already in recent memory is the stalled effort of L. Douglas Wilder, former Virginia governor and former Richmond mayor, to create just such a museum in Fredericksburg.
In October 2001, a Washington, D.C.-based developer, the Silver Cos., donated a 38-acre site in Fredericksburg to a nonprofit chaired by Wilder for the purpose of creating the U.S. National Slavery Museum.
But during the past two years, little movement has happened on the project, and Wilder's plans appear to be abandoned.
The phone number to the organization's Fredericksburg office is disconnected, and Wilder, now a distinguished professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government, did not respond to a message left at his VCU office.
Fredericksburg's treasurer, G.M. "Jim" Haney, says the nonprofit is more than $50,000 behind on property taxes for the acreage. City Manager Beverly R. Cameron adds that the slavery museum's local operation appears closed. "We have had no interaction with them whatsoever since they closed their doors here in Fredericksburg," he says. "Nor has [Wilder] reached out to us to keep us informed about what he might be doing."
All Eyes on Shockoe, Again
The city of Richmond seems poised to embrace a national museum with a culturally significant subject and create the kind of international profile the region has been so desperate to achieve.
In July, the City Council approved a downtown master plan that promises to transform districts such as Jackson Ward, Shockoe Bottom and Manchester, all of which connect strongly to African-American heritage. The master plan recommends developing and showcasing "heritage tourism" in these districts in an effort to expand what is already a $550 million industry for the city.
Also, recent proposals to move professional baseball downtown have not fared well. And, after all, history is the region's bread and butter.
"Quite frankly, I can't think of a better place for it," says Christy Coleman, executive director of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, when asked about a slavery museum in the Bottom.
She takes pause, though, when considering the many obstacles that a museum of this sort faces, especially in its formative stages.
"The economy has made everyone very skittish," she says, "and African-American museums have an extraordinarily difficult time getting built, as well as getting financial support." Even if there is political and economic will to see the project through, "The key will be long-term sustainability."
Coleman's experience with museums is deep. In Williamsburg, where she was raised, she helped develop and present groundbreaking interpretations of African-American history, including re-enactments of slave auctions. Before coming to Richmond, Coleman was president and CEO of The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, the largest museum of its kind in the United States and one that continues to thrive despite an economic squeeze nationally and locally.
The fact that the Slave Trail Commission is starting with a physical vision for a museum — before first mapping out the stories it will tell and how it will tell them — is something Coleman considers "a huge mistake."
"More often than not, buildings do take over this process, and it's not smart in the long run," she says.
A fledgling museum should begin with a mission statement and a plan of whether it will be a "collecting" institution — one that houses a vast collection of artifacts for display and research — or a "storytelling" institution that strives to communicate knowledge and an experience to its visitors.
"All of these things start coming up that will have an incredible impact on the long-term operations," she says.
Coleman recalls conversations she has had with other museum directors and professionals who have pondered why the United States doesn't already have a notable museum examining slavery.
A consensus, she says, was that the subject matter is often too heavy for American audiences to confront. She notes that the first successful museums recognizing the Holocaust were not built on German soil. Without physical separation, in other words, the psychological impact can be too strong.
A key to successfully showing the story of slavery, Coleman says, is balance.
"If we build it, then in the midst of this horrific tragedy of epic proportions, there has to be some light to be found in there as well," she says. "That is hugely important. There were incredible stories of courage and perseverance."
On Its Head
As an architect, Pinnock says he fully recognizes that the process for this vision of Shockoe Bottom is coming out a bit topsy-turvy.Like McQuinn, he sees the vision as perhaps a way to begin a broader conversation that will allow people and organizations in the region to see the possibilities.
In the meantime, the commission and Stockton Clay have concrete work at hand.
By spring, the Slave Trail will feature 17 new marker signs designed by Stockton Clay that will usher people through a tour of the trail, which will also link with the soon-to-be-completed city portion of the Virginia Capital Trail and the trail of President Lincoln's walk through Richmond on April 4, 1865.
The Lumpkin's Slave Jail site also will receive some landscaping and signage that Pinnock says will transform it into a small park to serve as an interim commemoration until something more meaningful happens.
Something more meaningful, of course, could look like Stockton Clay's architectural renderings, which show a transformation of the land that is now a parking lot north of Main Street Station and bordering the long Eastern Seaboard building that would become the genealogy center under the architects' plan.
The physical obstacles are not small, Pinnock notes. Running beneath the entire stretch of land is the Shockoe Creek Arch Sewer, which falls in the 100-year flood plain. Protecting the Lumpkin site and making the land suitable for a big, expensive building would have to follow the precedent of similar projects that involve excavations of historic sites amid a flood plain, Pinnock says. He points to holy sites in Jerusalem as prime examples.
A ballpark estimate of the project's entire cost, he adds, would be in the neighborhood of $100 million to $150 million; from start to finish, it could take 10 years.
Chris Fultz, one of the three main collaborating architects in Stockton Clay, notes that for him, Pinnock and Scribner, the idea is a huge dream. If the pieces come together, he says, and there is an open request for proposals, international firms will start making their way to Richmond.
But, Fultz adds, Stockton Clay intends to stay in the mix. "We are the homegrown local guys that are passionate about it and want to see it happen."
How to Tell the Story?
Major projects with any level of city funding or involvement have a solid track record of stirring heated debate in Richmond. Think baseball or performing arts or convention centers.
Even among those who share enthusiasm for the notion of a slavery museum, there is plenty of discussion about how best to present the story of slavery and the history of African-Americans.
In an early October meeting of the Slave Trail Commission, when Pinnock showed panel members the museum renderings, debate arose about whether the history of Shockoe Bottom and slavery in general could somehow suffer as more people come to the table.
Who tells the story? And how?
Commission member Shawn Utsey, an assistant professor of psychology at VCU, voiced a concern that a site of cultural and historical value somehow could be undermined by economic exploitation — a further exploitation too familiar in the African-American experience.
These questions seemed to loom on that October afternoon, and it's possible they will swirl more as the commission unfurls its vision.
But McQuinn and Pinnock seem to think this idea will meet favorable public opinion. In early October, Mayor Dwight C. Jones seemed to support the idea of showcasing Shockoe Bottom's history when asked about economic-development efforts in â€¨the district. He referenced President Barack Obama's July visit to Ghana, where he recognized the West African nation's role as a slavery outpost.
"What happens in Shockoe must take into account Lumpkin's Slave Jail. This, by the way, is not a selfish stance on my part but a matter of economic and, I'd argue, social impact. When the president stood at The Door of No Return in Ghana, the question raised by that door is answered in Richmond," Jones says, adding, "but nothing will move forward without input from the public."
The puzzle of Shockoe Bottom is being closely examined by city planners and economic-development officials, with consideration also being given to the Greater Richmond Transit Company, which could soon move its transfer center to the district.
Aside from having to figure out the nuts-and-bolts details of buildings, programming, funding and political will, McQuinn sees the prospect of a museum as one that advances the idea of reconciliation on several levels.
"When I got into this thing, it really was all about trying to help fill a void," she says. "There's a longing, an urge to better connect with your ancestry." The delegate says she has had countless discussions with other black Americans about broken links in their family histories.
This history is responsible for a culture of pain and insecurity among African-Americans, McQuinn believes, and providing a place for them to fill in the blanks could work toward some healing. "Their confidence and their esteem can begin to be lifted because they understand better the origins of their existence."
It's a sentiment echoed by Janine Bell, founding director of the Elegba Folklore Society and vice chair of the Slave Trail Commission. Bell's company offers Slave Trail interpretive history tours, which draw about 30 groups each year. In late October, she was scheduled to host a group of 80 tourists from Philadelphia. The Richmond experience, she notes, is one of several seminal hot spots many African-Americans visit when they are in search of their history. "African-Americans also go to the dungeons on the coast of Ghana and to Benin, to those departure points, to get some sense of where we come from. … You can start to answer the questions you've been asking all your life."
McQuinn is quick to point out that a slavery museum in Richmond likely will not succeed unless it helps build a bridge between black and white communities.
In Birmingham, Ala., this was the hurdle that Lawrence J. Pijeaux found in 1995 when he became president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Civil Rights â€¨Institute.
"We had many challenges here in Alabama trying to develop a civil rights institute. To get the story moving is going to require a champion who is well received in both the African-American and the white community," he says.
He says the institute had to convince the community at large of its mission to improve human relations throughout the world. "One of the concerns was that the institute would bash, for lack of a better term, the white community."
And even if a slavery museum in Richmond proves to be nothing more than a large public discussion, Bell thinks it will help to reconcile the dysfunction that slavery seemed to implant into American culture.
"I think that the education process and the community dialogue have already begun and will continue along the way to be a salve, a release … for people to let go of some guilt and some anger. It'll be a real turning point. When there is an open community dialogue around this dark and bloody era of history, that shines some light on it. There can only be good to come from it.