Phil Wilayto of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project introduces Ajamu Baraka, a human rights activist and vice-presidential running mate to the Green Party’s Jill Stein. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
It's a gorgeous early evening at the end of an early autumn day in Shockoe Bottom in a well of green and quiet surrounded by the roar of rush hour Broad Street and the clank-thud of hopper car freight trains. One is heading north and another, at this moment, stilled on the southbound trestle. Beyond the clamorous assault on the hearing is the wet sweet scent of grass freshly cut away from historic signs marking the site of the African Burial Ground of 1750 to 1816.
The recent activity is attested to by a sweat-shining, muscled man in a damp T-shirt holding a deflated football under one elbow. He announces, as I’m gazing upon the bright flare of sun on the flat sward ahead, “You know I just cut that grass back,” nodding his head and raising a shoulder toward his accomplishment. “I’m a private citizen. This is something the city should be doing. I take pride in my city. I did it because it should be taken care of with respect.” At that he turns, perhaps annoyed by my stunned expression, and stalks off, his lone figure dark against the green until, like an apparition, he vanishes.
Green Party vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka endorses the Sacred Ground preservation plan. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
People cluster around the steps leading down toward the burial grounds. Some hold SAVE SHOCKOE BOTTOM signs. Reporters are here for a news conference by Ajamu Baraka, a human rights activist and vice presidential running mate to the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Baraka plans to be in Farmville this evening at the Longwood University venue for the vice-presidential debate between U.S. Sen.Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Richmond, and Republican Mike Pence. While Baraka won't be on the dais tonight, he'll be responding to the same questions via Democracy Now!
The intention, too, is announcing Sunday’s 14th Annual Gabriel Forum to take place at the African Burial Grounds site from 3 to 6 p.m. The day commemorates the execution of slave uprising leader Gabriel at the town gallows in Richmond’s African Burial Ground, a major contributing site for the Richmond Slave Trail. An announcement of the event says, "We will dedicate this Gabriel Forum to all those who have died at the hands of police, and all those who today risk their lives and their freedom to protest those extra-legal killings."
That day, too, will mark the inauguration of the Untold RVA portal signs and cellphone audio tour with landscaping and beautification completed by Groundwork RVA and portal construction by activist and former mayoral candidate Farid Alan Schintzius.
The downtown plain, reclaimed from a parking lot after more than a decade of insistence by preservationists, historians and citizens, is at the grassy heart of controversy concerning the constant tug-of-war between the city’s development plans and the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which has kept up a campaign against the Shockoe ballpark proposal and led a community-sourced effort to conserve a section of Shockoe to protect the old African Burial Ground and sites of slave auction houses including the unearthed foundations of Lumpkin’s Jail.
Their effort is called the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. Phil Wilayto, one of its primary spokespersons and editor of the Virginia Defender newspaper, describes to Baraka the significant points of the site. He pitches his voice above the urgency of a train horn while pointing to the CSX logo on the north-trundling train. “That’s the latest conglomeration of railroads that profited in the slave trade here,” he instructs, adding that latter-day Richmond corporate descendants including CSX, Wells Fargo and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, among others, should join in an effort of reconciliation and reparations to atone for their role in the institution of slavery that warped the consciousness and cultural development of not just Richmond, but the nation.
This gathering was also prompted by the recent announcement by the administration of Mayor Dwight C. Jones that the city is preparing to engage the Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR to create a museum around the foundations of Lumpkin’s Jail. The notorious 19th-century slave holding pens and auction site of Lumpkin’s transitioned into the first classrooms for what became Virginia Union University. Mayor's office spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said she could not offer any specifics about the project until after the active procurement period.
On Monday morning (Oct. 10), the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, joined by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Mayor Dwight Jones, will hold a Lumpkin's Slave Jail Development Ceremony at the 15th and Franklin site.
SmithGroup co-designed the just-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington D.C. Wilayto, in his remarks, underscored how a group portrait of the firm showed it to be majority white. That said, it should be noted that the chief architect of that project, David Adjaye, is black. The Defenders' concern is that minority contractors and sub-contractors are employed for whatever museum construction is undertaken in Shockoe.
The group's contention is that the Lumpkin’s site isn’t comprehensive enough for the proper memorialization of the enormity of the relentless horror that occurred in Shockoe until the fall of Richmond in 1865. “This was the epicenter of the domestic slave trade in the United States through the Civil War,” Wilayto says. The counter proposal, as vetted in community hearings, constitutes a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. Two thirds of the proposed park is already set aside: the Lumpkin’s Jail site and the African Burial Ground, which included the city gallows where Gabriel and his collaborators were hanged. The slavery-era Winfree Cottage, now sitting stranded by the Lumpkin’s Jail site, could become incorporated. (For a comprehensive look at efforts to memorialize Richmond's slave trade history, see our January feature "It's Time We Tell the Whole Story")
Wilayto criticized the city's plan for its lack of scope, even though its price tag takes up $19 million in state and city money, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Unlike our proposed memorial park, it does not include any zoning protection for Shockoe that would allow for appropriate or disallow grossly inappropriate development right up to this sacred ground.” Wilayto calls into question the city’s intentions toward public discussions. He refers to email revelations made by the Times-DIspatch pertaining to current mayoral candidate Jack Berry, the former chief of Venture Richmond, who championed the Shockoe stadium effort.
All this is occurring while Charleston, South Carolina, is preparing to open its more than $70 million International African American Museum and the one in Washington is already receiving visitors, while Richmond agonizes over this idea (along with the baseball stadium). And in historic Jackson Ward's Leigh Street Armory, the Black History Museum and Back Cultural Center of Virginia just opened.
Granted, African-American history is not strictly about slavery, but there is an inextricable connection. The difference in Richmond, Wilayto explains, is the paramount importance and undug potential of the Shockoe sites. There's been little archaeological investigation of the burial grounds, nor a search for the sites of the William Goodwin Jail on 17th Street between Grace and Franklin; the Silas Omohundro Jail under the Exxon gas station and the Seabrook Tobacco Warehouse Building at 17th and Franklin. The warehouse used slave labor.
"Charleston's museum is examining their city's role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade," Wilayto says. "If you could expose those foundations, and allow people to walk where their ancestors walked in chains, don’t you think people would want to come experience that?”
Baraka states that his presence here isn't coming off the campaign trail, but an integral part of the effort. He’s followed the Richmond story for some time and he sees that while the mayor has a plan, the community is putting forward one of its own that is more embracing of the slave history and legacy of Shockoe. “Many people think this is a local struggle; in fact it is a national struggle,” he says, his voice rising in stridency against the uncompromising beat of Broad Street traffic, “because of the importance of this spot to the slave trade in this country. This is a fight not only to preserve the memory and memorialize the site, but educate people and talk about the implications of the slave trade and everything that developed from that point. He adds, “We are connecting this struggle with all the other community-based struggles throughout the country.”
Meanwhile, in Richmond, there is a new mayor and change-over in City Council pending, and possibly a more favorable outcome for the Sacred Ground plan. "We beat them on the stadium, we beat them on the Burial Ground," Wilayto emphasizes afterward. "Now they're going to build at Lumpkin's because they have the money and the power. That's fine. They're starting the Memorial Park for us. But the Burial Ground is off the table for development. People will go to prison defending that site, not jail, prison."
Green Party vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka discusses apathy, voter suppression and restoration of rights to former felons, with 5th District City Council candidate Montigue Magruder (far left). (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
This weekend also sees the conclusion of the the 101st Anniversary of the National Association for the Study of African Life and History (ASALH ) Conference. ASALH was founded by Virginian Carter G. Woodson, the originator, too, of National Black History Month.
And on top of all this, Nate Parker’s theatrical film account of the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton County, “The Birth of A Nation," opens nationally this weekend and is on screens around Richmond. During interviews about the movie, Parker has faced questions about a 1999 rape charge of which he was acquitted.
On Nov. 19, Parker is speaking at the Richmond Forum.
Nat Turner was born into slavery four days prior to Gabriel’s execution for his plan to end the practice in Virginia.