Richmonders want a physical site that recognizes the city’s long overlooked role in the domestic slave trade and its implications. But when and where will they finally receive it? (Photo illustration by Steve Hedberg)
Richmond long has had all the elements needed to tell the story of the domestic slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction to an international audience.
“It had battlefield stories [of both black and white soldiers], home front and political stories, industry and cemetery and hospital stories. It had spies and unionism,” says David Ruth, superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park.
What it has not had is the vision, the coordination, the will or the way to tell those stories, the full story, to a broader audience, and, indeed, to the region itself.
“And Richmond languished. It languished for years,” Ruth says.
What exists is a lopsided historical landscape — the grandeur of towering Confederate heroes on Monument Avenue is juxtaposed against the nearly invisible markers of the city’s slave-trading past on an isolated patch of land behind Main Street Station and in the shadow of an interstate.
Ruth credits Edward Ayers, a nationally known Southern scholar and recently retired president of the University of Richmond, for finally leading community discussions — the first in September 2009 — that highlighted how Richmond’s stories could be woven together.
Now, almost seven years later, the region is seeing an unprecedented flurry of activity around various aspects of that history. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is scheduled to open in spring 2016. [Editor's note: The Black History Museum and Cultural Center is now scheduled for a spring 2016 opening, not February as stated in the print version of this story.] The Richmond National Battlefield Park will grow from 2,870 acres to 3,500 acres this year. A new American Civil War Museum, the merging of the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy, could break ground this summer. A city commission is crafting a plan to commemorate the 1.1-acre Lumpkin’s Jail site, the largest holding facility for slaves in the city. And a community activist group is pushing equally hard to take the city’s plan and expand it into a 9-acre memorial park in Shockoe Bottom that would require some private land acquisition.
Many of these projects come with unanswered questions and unfunded costs. All are taking place against a renewed debate about how the Confederacy is represented and symbolized in modern times. The June mass shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have sparked a national debate on the appropriateness of Confederate flags in public spaces. Soon after the massacre, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution urging their churches to remove any Confederate battle flags, and at the end of November, the vestry at Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal, known as the Cathedral to the Confederacy, voted to remove any use of the flag within the church.
At this point, no one knows how successful Richmond will be in its efforts to broadly reinterpret the Civil War in multiple perspectives for new generations, while pulling back the covers on the dark history of the domestic slave trade and the political gamesmanship of the Reconstruction era.
Ayers says the combination will be a much more arresting story than any told before. “I think people will really be amazed at how powerful it is,” he says. “I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t think the city has a responsibility to address these issues.”
State Del. Delores McQuinn, chairwoman of the city’s Slave Trail Commission, says that while the history of the slave era cannot be rewritten, “we can rewrite the story. It must be an authentic story. It must tell the truth.”
By the Civil War, the value of slaves in the South was triple to quadruple the value of all finished goods and services produced by the United States, says Jack Trammell, a Randolph-Macon College professor, and author of The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of The Old Dominion. Richmond, he says, was the “heart and soul” of the engine that powered the slave economy.
In 1857 alone, according to an article in the Richmond Examiner, the sale of human beings in Richmond amounted to $3.5 million or close to $400 million today. The slave trade also powered Northern capitalism. Trammell said slave traders put their earnings in Northern banks, where investment opportunities were better. The city of Richmond also profited in a direct way. In 1861 alone, the city of Richmond realized $10,000 in revenue from the licensing and taxing of the slave trade.
Various historians have estimated that as many as 350,000 men, women and children were sold and sent south through Richmond.
The story of Richmond’s slave history centers on Shockoe Bottom, where the epicenter of the discussion and debate is Lumpkin’s Jail, more evocatively known as the Devil’s Half-Acre.
Two groups — the Slave Trail Commission and the community advocacy group the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality — are each working on plans that would incorporate Lumpkin’s.
Ana Edwards, a founder of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, wants to see a historic overlay district to protect specific sites in Shockoe Bottom. (Photo by Chet Strange)
In 2014, the state earmarked $1 million for planning a Lumpkin’s Jail “pavilion” and $1 million for Richmond Slave Trail improvements in the 2016 budget. An extra $4 million for construction of the pavilion and another $5 million for a slavery museum will be reimbursed after construction. The city has set aside $8 million.
“People are agreeing that Lumpkin’s Jail should be the site for the commemoration of slavery. People have been disagreeing what kind of memorial that might be,” Ayers says. What is clear in all the debate about how slave heritage could be memorialized is that Shockoe Bottom is largely still a blank slate.
Richmond’s City Council established the Slave Trail Commission in 1998. Its mission was to preserve the history of slavery in the city. The commission, which has had up to 17 members, oversaw the installment of the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue at 15th and Main streets in 2007; the installation of 17 Richmond Slave Trail markers in 2011; and laid the groundwork for the archaeological assessment performed at the Lumpkin’s Jail site. It also has come under fire for its lack of meeting minutes, open commission seats and lack of new appointees. In September, McQuinn told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the body was “transitioning” to a foundation and has no staff to record minutes. That nonprofit, the National Slavery Museum Foundation, was registered with the State Corporation Commission in 2011. Its IRS nonprofit status has been suspended because tax filings were not submitted, said commission member the Rev. Sylvester Turner on Dec. 14.
McQuinn, a minister, former member of City Council and current state delegate, long has been the face of the Slave Trail Commission.
Del. Delores McQuinn, a minister, former member of City Council and current state delegate, long has been the face of the SlaveTrail Commission. (provided photo)
McQuinn says her first journey in the footsteps of slaves from Ancarrow’s Landing, also known as the Manchester Slave Dock, to Shockoe Bottom, set her to trembling. “I found myself just in distress, just anguished … almost a sense of travailing at certain points over by Ancarrow’s Landing. I couldn’t explain to you today what happened. But something happened on that trail that changed my entire life and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing,” McQuinn says.
“The greatest challenge of this process has been lack of resources,” McQuinn says.
“We did the excavations in 2006 and here we are in 2015, and we don’t have anything there yet.” McQuinn acknowledges that the scope of the project could grow, but a finite sum is available right now. “We are not just stopping at one place.”
The lawmaker says that blacks now want to know their origins, and want to follow their roots. Slavery, and later the oppressive Jim Crow era, put blacks on an uneven playing field with whites, she says. “I don’t know if there will ever be a level playing field for what has been taken from African-Americans.”
Her vision of how Richmond should proceed in remembering its slave history starts with continued development of the Slave Trail and an interpretive building that would hold the artifacts found at the Lumpkin’s Jail site in 2008. That dig, beneath a parking lot behind Main Street Station yielded a rich snapshot of the deprivations slaves lived through before arriving at the auction block.
The archaeological work, extensively chronicled by the national media in 2008, was conducted on behalf of the Slave Trail Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.
The findings include a cobblestone courtyard, a retaining wall that divided the site into distinct levels, and the remains of the jail itself 15 feet below ground. Thousands of artifacts, from a carved bone ring to a wooden toothbrush and ceramics, have been found there, according to archaeological reports. The jail later became a school for former slaves and their children that blossomed into Virginia Union University.
In late 2009, the commission unveiled a 4.5-acre plan that included a national slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom — visionary renderings produced, in part, to protect the site from a proposed GRTC bus transfer station in the Main Street Station Train Shed. An iteration was then folded into Mayor Dwight Jones’ 2013 Shockoe plan, which bundled a new baseball stadium and commercial development with the museum. Jones’ plan was torpedoed by the public, which had no formal input. McQuinn supported the mayor’s plan.
In fall 2015, (after state money had already been earmarked for specific projects), the commission began a series of community meetings under the umbrella of “Richmond Speaks.”
The city hired a consultant, Joy Bailey Bryant of Lord Cultural Resources in New York City, to lead the “Richmond Speaks” forums for $86,000. Among other projects, Bryant led teams for planning the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
McQuinn says she has been disheartened by the “disruptive spirit” displayed at some of the Richmond Speaks meetings, including a Dec. 10 meeting where one man came up the center aisle and declared the process “bankrupt.” “[They] have not said one thing about all the people coming together at the table.”
For McQuinn, the best part of the past five months has been sharing the Lumpkin’s story at all the city high schools. “You can see the enlightenment through their eyes, and so many of them wanted to be part of something afterward.”
Lord Cultural Resources released a draft community engagement report in late November. It included “key findings” for how residents want the Lumpkin’s Jail site developed — a site lying only three blocks from the state Capitol and within an eight-block neighborhood where the slave trade thrived. The overwhelming consensus from 450 “in-person engagements” was that the project’s footprint needed to be larger. The report also said that adjacent sites could be developed “as funding comes available.” The General Assembly will be briefed on the “Richmond Speaks” outcomes this month.
One “Richmond Speaks” community participant who attended a meeting at Huguenot High School, said, “I want this site to express the whole story; tell of the atrocities ...” Ralph White, the former James River Parks System director who attended the Dec. 10 session, said that explaining how our country was built on “the condition of slavery” needs to be incorporated. “It seems we need to talk about the implications of how we have all benefitted from slavery.”
In 2013, Mayor Jones’ efforts to tie a minor league baseball stadium and extensive commercial development to a proposed $30 million slave heritage site collapsed in the face of determined preservationists, adverse public opinion and financial realities that leaned toward trying a regional approach for building a stadium to replace The Diamond on the Boulevard.
Among those determined preservationists were the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. That group envisions a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park where people would walk among public art monuments, historic markers and interpretative sites representing aspects of the city’s history over 300 years, from Patrick Henry’s speech to Lumpkin’s Jail and the nearby African Burial Ground, as well as a historical overlay district to protect some of the land in Shockoe Bottom from “inappropriate” commercial development.
The Defenders mobilized protests, on the streets and in City Council chambers, against Mayor Jones’ plan.
“Our pressure was key in the victory of reclaiming the African Burial Ground (a former Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot at East Broad and 15th streets) in 2011, and critical in the pressure to prevent Revitalize RVA (the baseball stadium proposal),” says Ana Edwards, a 2002 founding member of the Defenders.
In March 2015, the group initiated a community process for developing an alternative proposal for Shockoe Bottom. The group also has questioned the need for outside, paid consultants.
More than 100 people participated in its four community brainstorming sessions about the historical and commercial development of the Bottom. Of those 100, 26 volunteered to develop a community proposal for Shockoe Bottom. This proposal also calls for the development of a comprehensive heritage tourism development plan and suggests that the Memorial Park be overseen by an independent, nonprofit organization working with a community advisory committee. The plan was presented to City Council on Sept. 28.
Green space, connecting to the existing Trail of Enslaved Africans, signage, a website and a self-guided walking tour are the first stage of this plan. Stage two would be the development of an interpretative center, a space that would not compete with the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and perhaps be housed in the nearby Main Street Station Train Shed.
“The main economic benefits from developing the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park would come from increased tourism, enhanced by a higher profile Richmond would gain from leading a national effort to re-examine this country’s history,” the group’s report says.
Edwards attended the Dec. 10 “Richmond Speaks” community report meeting and has spoken with Bryant. After hearing the key findings, Edwards told the crowd, “There seems to be agreement that the site needs to be expansive, but the concern is that there doesn’t seem to be anything in place to secure the land. We believe the first step is securing the area, protecting it from inappropriate use.”
This fuller Richmond story also unfolds along the banks of the James. The American Civil War Center, adjacent to the Richmond National Battlefield Park’s headquarters at the Civil War-era Historic Tredegar Ironworks, has been where many visitors have started their Richmond experience in the past. Its mission was to tell the story of the war from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African-Americans, soldiers and civilians.
A new building will rise there called the American Civil War Museum, and it will incorporate the collections of the American Civil War Center and Court End’s Museum of the Confederacy. The two groups merged in 2013.
Co-CEOS of the new American Civil War Museum, Christy Coleman and Waite Rawls III. (Photo by Chet Strange)
According to Waite Rawls III, now co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, international visitation jumped from 10 percent to nearly 20 percent from 2012 to 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. “That’s a sharp difference,” Rawls says. “Other museums’ long-range visitors may come from Short Pump. Ours come from Australia.” This means they stay longer and spend more money.
A contemporary addition was planned for existing center, but the concept has changed. “If everything manages to go well,” says museum co-CEO Christy Coleman, “we could break ground as early as the summer … We’ve made a course change and went back to, ‘Let’s start again.’ ”
The $38 million undertaking, Coleman says, will reflect changes in interpretation. The new building will feature a main exhibition gallery and a smaller rotating gallery. The museum also has hired BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, California, to create an immersive, 12- to 16-minute theater experience.
The Museum of the Confederacy’s collection will receive state-of-the-art exhibitions. Other artifacts must be acquired or borrowed. As Rawls explains, “On Clay Street, you’d see a Confederate regimental flag that might’ve been captured by a Union soldier. But there’s another part of that flag’s history: Joe Jones of the 122nd NY, who captured it. So, here’s a picture of Joe Jones and the Medal of Honor he got for capturing the flag and how when he came down in (the) 1920s for a reunion, he gave it to the Confederate museum. This gives an artifact, interpreted all this time in one way, a far richer story.”
The more nuanced interpretation is combined with Tredegar’s own significant history as a Southern armaments producer, and the nearby islands that had their roles to play, too. For instance, Belle Isle served as a prisoner-of-war camp and Brown’s Island was where a 1863 factory explosion killed many working-class young women.
Coleman adds that while many know the Civil War battle narrative, the tangential stories are the ones with staying power and will get visitors to return.
“Where does the visitor connect, even if his ancestor wasn’t a slave owner or enslaved, or maybe they weren’t even in this country then and didn’t participate?” Coleman asks. “The war resonates in the country to this day. Our goal is tell the stories well visually and have visitors participate physically. And we want them to come back, that there’ll be a sense of discovery.”
In August, Tasha Chambers became the new executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia — a mere five months before its scheduled move into the Leigh Street Armory and just as the “Richmond Speaks” began.
While the Black History Museum focuses on post-emancipation storytelling, Chambers says it will cover slavery in a new permanent timeline exhibition, “In Pursuit of Freedom, Equality and Justice.”
Chambers, who is new to the museum world, has met other museum directors in town, including Coleman and Paul Levengood from the Virginia Historical Society, and she says they have been encouraging and willing to lend a hand. “I’m sure there will be collaborations after we get open,” Chambers says, mentioning the future development of a tourism passport. “Someone needs to take the lead so that we are all working together.”
During “Richmond Speaks” meetings, some discussion ensued about making sure that whatever was placed in Shockoe Bottom was sustainable and didn’t overlap with other institutions, such as the Black History Museum.
“I’m frustrated to have to constantly answer that question,” Chambers said after the draft “Richmond Speaks” report was issued. “I’m not sure if the Valentine and the Virginia Historical Society, with similar types of collections, get the same type of feedback from the community.”
There is room for all this storytelling, Chambers says. “We can’t just put black history in one box. Definitely more than two organizations can cover 400 years of African-American history.”
Harry Kollatz Jr. and Susan Winiecki contributed to this report.
Richmond: Trailing Behind
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is light-years ahead of Richmond in telling of its role in the slave trade. In 1938, Ryan’s Slave Mart was purchased by Miriam Wilson and turned into a privately run museum. The city purchased the site in 1987. In addition to that site, about half of $75 million has been raised to build the 42,000-square-foot International African American Museum at Gadsden’s Wharf. Former Mayor Joe Riley, who left office in early January after 40 years, is fundraising for the nonprofit formed to build and run the museum. Funds have been earmarked by the city, county and state for the museum. Private donors and corporations also have made pledges. Construction is slated to begin next year, and the museum is scheduled to open by the end of 2018. The museum will include an area dedicated to the history of Emanuel AME Church and those lost in the 2015 mass shooting there.
Alexandria was home to one of the largest domestic slave-trading companies in the country, Franklin & Armfield. Isaac Franklin and John Armfield led the forced migration of thousands of blacks from Virginia into the Deep South through the 1840s. Their office was converted into the Freedom House Museum in 2008. Also in the city is the Alexandria Black History Museum, which oversees three properties. The black history museum itself is devoted to exhibiting local and regional history and incorporates the Robert H. Robinson Library, originally constructed in 1940 following a sit-in at the segregated Alexandria Library. The Watson Reading Room, established in 1995, is a space in which to learn about the diversity of African-American cultural traditions. And the museum also oversees the African-American Heritage Park: a 9-acre green space and wetland. The museum also helped with a memorial project at Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.