Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of the Virginia Defender. Reproduced here on August 14, 2020 for accessibility and archival purposes. To download a PDF of this issue, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto

The New York Times. Washington Post. USA Today. CNN. ABC News. Even Time magazine.

Not to mention the Associated Press story that was picked up by newspapers large and small across the country.

They all carried the news that a well- respected national preservation group has included Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom in its annual list of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2014” in the United States.

In fact, “I would put right at the top of that list, from a significance standpoint and an urgency standpoint, Shockoe Bottom,” Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told The Washington Post.

And what did President Meeks say was the threat to this historic neighborhood?

“We see this as a site of conscience and one that shouldn’t just be quickly covered up with a baseball stadium,” Meeks said.

On June 25, the day after the National Trust story hit the papers, airways and Internet, the Trust and its local affiliate, Preservation Virginia, held a national press conference in Richmond – in Shockoe Bottom, on the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, the most notorious of the half-dozen or so slave jails that once held Black people before or after they were sold in one of the district’s 40 to 50 auction houses.

Speaking for the Trust was Germonique Ulmer, the organization’s Vice President of Public Affairs.

“It is an honor to be here today in Richmond with you all at Shockoe Bottom,” Ulmer told the assembled media and supporters, “a sacred place associated with the suffering and endurance of hundreds of thousands of Africans and people of African descent who were sold into slavery from this location, less than two centuries ago.

“The book and Oscar-winning film ‘12 Years a Slave’ brought to life Solomon Northup’s ordeal and ultimate triumph, when he was kidnapped and transported through Shockoe Bottom and sold into slavery.

Ulmer went on to explain why this small area is so historically significant.

“Shockoe Bottom was the nation’s second-largest trading center during the peak years of the slave trade, when this neighborhood was filled with slave auction houses, slave pens and offices of the slave trade. In 1841, Solomon Northup was held here at the notorious Goodwin’s slave jail before he was transported in chains to New Orleans.

“The same ugly fate was endured by generations of women, men and children in this place. …

“There are many reminders here from the slavery era – both below and above ground – that Americans need to understand in order to know the full story of our nation’s history.”

Ulmer didn’t hesitate to take a strong stand on the reason for the threat to Shockoe Bottom.

“As we all can see standing here today,” she said, “much of Shockoe Bottom has been razed and paved over, nearly erased and forgotten by the American people. And now, Shockoe Bottom is threatened by incompatible redevelopment plans.

“A few months ago, some local members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with my preservation colleague who is here today, Rob Nieweg, alerted us to the alarming plan for the ‘Revitalize RVA’ project, which calls for construction in Shockoe Bottom of a 7000-seat, minor-league baseball stadium, a Hyatt Hotel, a Kroger grocery store, as well as retail space, office buildings, apartment buildings and parking garages.

“We understand that the plan also promises to privately raise $30 million for a slavery heritage museum in Shockoe Bottom.

“While we support the efforts of elected officials to create an economically viable downtown Richmond, and to acknowledge Richmond’s true history, we do not believe these eight blocks of Shockoe Bottom – where we see the convergence of history, archaeology and the immensely important stories of endurance and resistance against injustice – is the right place to build a baseball-entertainment district.

“With the full engagement of the community, especially the region’s African American and descendant communities, the appropriate commemoration of Shockoe Bottom can help to expand understanding and inspire hope. A positive result depends upon the meaningful involvement of the public, of our preservation partners and of our national audience.”

As everyone who is still warm and breathing now knows, Richmond Maryor Dwight C. Jones is trying mightily to convince City Council to approve his $200 million Revitalize RVA development plan, a key part of which involves building a minor-league baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

And he’s trying to do this as this former capital of the slavery-defending Confederacy approaches the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the end of more than 150 years of slavery in Richmond.

So who is this Mayor Jones? Some dyed-in-the-wool Southern racist and Tea- Party-backed Republican extremist?

No, he happens to be a locally prominent, Northern-born, African-American Baptist minister and newly-elected chair of the Virginia Democratic Party.

And he has the support of newly-elected Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who – just one week after taking office in January took the apparently unprecedented step of coming to a meeting of Richmond City Council and weighing in on a local issue: expressing his support for the mayor’s “development” plan.

And while Mayor Jones tries to deflect criticism of his stadium proposal by saying there also will be $30 million for commemorating the Shockoe Bottom slave trade, he neglects to mention that that money is not included in his development proposal.

No, $5 million would come from City Council, $11 million from the state legislature and the other $14 million from a private fund-raising campaign that has yet to be launched. Further, both City Council and the General Assembly have stated that any contribution they make toward memorializing the slave trade is not dependent on or connected in any way with a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium.

Mayor Jones originally unveiled his Revitalize RVA proposal last Nov. 11 at his own press conference in Shockoe Bottom, setting off a firestorm of outraged opposition that has absorbed the city’s attention ever since.

On May – just minutes before City Council was to vote on the plan, the mayor removed it from the council’s agenda, after five of the nine council members – a majority – had publicly declared their intention to vote no.

Mayor Jones has since repeatedly promised to reintroduce the proposal, insisting that some council members and members of the public didn’t really understand it yet.

Meanwhile, stadium opponents are promoting an alternative plan for the Bottom, one that includes economic development but would support an eight- block Sacred Ground Memorial Park and heritage tourism site instead of a ballpark. (See page 7.)

Vice President Ulmer finished up her press conference remarks by saying, “To many of you in the audience, who have dedicated countless hours to this worthy cause – thank you. Your efforts have helped to elevate the importance of this place in immeasurable ways.

“We hope the National Trust’s designation of Shockoe Bottom as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2014 and as one of our National Treasures – where the National Trust is making a deep organizational investment to secure their future – will prove to be powerful tools for continuing to raise awareness and will help rally resources and support to save this endangered site – so that for generations to come we can learn the hard lessons of what happened here at Shockoe Bottom.

“May the legacy of our ancestors be remembered and live on here forever.”

For more information, visit: http://www.preservationnation. org

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