Panelists at the March 7 hearing at Virginia Union University on the "Lumpkin's Jail Site Project" (photo by Susan J. Winiecki)
City of Richmond, if you don’t listen to these voices, your Shockoe Bottom memorial to the enslaved will be a half-truth. That was the message from last night's hearing on the "Lumpkin's Jail Site Project."
After almost an hour of introductions, presentations and history quizzes in a very warm room at Virginia Union University, the crowd got down to the heart of the matter: The ancestors of the enslaved, along with allies, let representatives from the city and SmithGroupJJR, the hired planning firm, know that they wanted a role in the planning and building from the onset, they didn’t want the $19 million project labeled “Lumpkin’s Jail” and they wanted the scope to include far more than the site where Robert Lumpkin penned humans before taking them to the auction block.
Attendees wanted the nation to know how the entire neighborhood and city supported and thrived from the sale of humans.
The city’s visual from last night was not good, either. While moderator Al Dobbins is African-American, the four people who were seated at the table are white.
One of the evening’s most moving speakers was resident Florence Breedlove, who sat in front of me. “I almost left when the gentleman said that we are only here to talk about Lumpkin’s Jail,” she said. “I started to leave when I saw four white people sitting on the stage. “
“It was the Devil’s Half-Acre. It was not a pleasant place. We should be in charge of this. You are not understanding our passion,” Breedlove told the panel. “You don’t have a clue. This thing is going in the wrong direction.”
Breedlove said she attended school in Richmond and never learned about what went on in Shockoe Bottom. “No one wants to accept that this was ugly. Now is the time. Shockoe Bottom was a terrible place.”
Right before Breedlove spoke, UntoldRVA historian Free Egunfemi criticized the city, its Slave Trail Commission and the SmithGroupJJR for not including and compensating local historians for their knowledge, mentioning the consulting fees that the city is paying to groups from outside Richmond. “The trust is gone. …The city needs to work with the grassroots organizations and get the story right.“
Waite Rawls, a Church Hill resident who was the director of the Museum of the Confederacy and now is president of the American Civil War Center Foundation, said that the city and the planners need to work on protecting more land and sites related to the trade of the enslaved in the Bottom beyond the Lumpkin’s Jail Site from the onset. “I think you’ve gotten the scope wrong.”
Petersburg resident Pamela Bingham, a descendant of slave rebellion leader Gabriel from Henrico County's Prosser Plantation, emphasized that this project is far bigger than Richmond.
“We are all watching Richmond,” she said, adding that this project cannot just be about the jail. She wanted oral history to be incorporated and equitable participation. “I don’t mean tokenism. I mean inclusion.”
Ralph White, the former director of the James River Park System, said he didn’t hear the word “emotion” in the descriptions used by the SmithGroupJJR. “This was a site of sanctioned torture.”
Truth and reconciliation is what Marty Jewell wanted. “Nothing should be done until there is a truth and reconciliation process,” he said, alluding to the businesses in Richmond, throughout Virginia, those in the North and those in the deep South that supported and prospered from the domestic slave trade in Richmond — banks, hotels, clothiers, cotton mills, transportation companies, the newspapers that ran auction ads, and insurance and legal practices. (Read more in the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab's "Hidden Patterns of the Civil War.")
“There are a lot of untold truths. There are truths that need to surface. It’s time for truth telling,” Jewell said.
For further reading, see Virginia author Maurie McInnis' essay in the New York Times on "How the Slave Trade Built America" and USA Today's article about documents linking modern companies to slavery.