Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 58, printed November 8. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2018 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post (pending). For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

Longtime advocates for Shockoe Bottom have sent an Open Letter (see below) to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney asking him to finally take a stand on whether he supports the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre memorial park. 

The letter states that advocates “… are tired of seeing this process dragged on indefinitely. We suspect the purpose is to try and wear down the supporters of a proper memorialization of Shockoe Bottom.” 

The release of the letter was covered by Channel 8 ABC news. [See the ABC coverage here.]


Oct. 8, 2018 

Dear Mayor Stoney, 

Oct. 10 will mark the 218th anniversary of the execution of the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel. It has now been more than a quarter century since Richmond historian Elizabeth Kambourian uncovered the existence of Richmond’s African Burial Ground, one of this country’s very first municipal cemeteries to accept Black people, many of whom were enslaved. 

It has been 10 years since the city’s “Slave” Trail Commission discovered the actual foundation of the buildings comprising the Devil’s Half-Acre, the jail complex for enslaved Africans owned by the notorious Robert Lumpkin. 

It has been seven years since a protracted community struggle forced Virginia Commonwealth University to remove its parking lot that desecrated the African Burial Ground. 

It has been four years since an intense community struggle succeeded in blocking plans by the Venture Richmond business organization and former Mayor Dwight Jones to build a baseball stadium in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, which for decades before the end of the Civil War was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade. 

It has been three years since the Community Proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park was adopted after a five-month series of open community meetings in a process led by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. That park would include the Devil’s Half-Acre, the African Burial Ground and the two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks bounded by East Broad, East Grace and North 17th streets, an area that once included several jails for enslaved people, including those owned by Silas Omohundro and William Goodwin. 

Since that process, there have been several City attempts to upend the Community Proposal by sponsoring other series of community meetings: one by Richmond Speaks and two more by SmithGroup JJR. In every meeting, the overwhelming preference expressed by community members was for the nine-acre park. 

Because of its unique importance to African-Americans everywhere, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1949, has declared Shockoe Bottom a national treasure, as well as one of the most endangered historic sites in the country. That evaluation has been seconded by the Rose Center for Public Leadership in a process that you yourself initiated. Both the National Trust and the Rose Center have emphatically stated that any memorialization of Shockoe Bottom must be larger than any one single site. The National Trust has endorsed the proposal for a nine-acre memorial park. The Rose Center has stated that an even larger area should be memorialized. 

Advocates have spoken with you about this issue many times, There have been formal meetings in your office and informal talks in the community. Always you say the same thing: you would like to see a memorial larger than the Devil’s Half-Acre, but never clearly stating your support for the memorial park. 

Meanwhile, serious City money is being spent in what seems to be an endless series of discussions, meetings, reports and presentations. Little if any of this taxpayer money has gone to the Black community. Instead, it has been paid to private, for-profit, predominantly white companies that have simply duplicated the community process that produced the proposal for the memorial park – a process that did not cost the City a single dime. 

And while all these endless discussions continue, real estate and development deals are being made in the Bottom that would threaten the viability of the memorial park. You yourself have promoted designating the Main Street Station, which the Rose Center suggested could be the site of a slave-trade interpretive center, as the city’s center for high-speed rail, which would entail building more parking areas next to or on the footprint of the proposed park.

Mr. Mayor, we are tired of seeing this process dragged on indefinitely. We suspect the purpose is to try and wear down the supporters of a proper memorialization of Shockoe Bottom. We want an definitive answer to the following question, and we would like it now: 

Do you support the Community Proposal for a Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, to include the site of the Devil’s Half-Acre, the African Burial Ground and the two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks bounded by East Broad, East Grace and North 17th streets? 

Mayor Stoney, it is past time to take a stand. Are you for or against the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park?


Florence Breedlove – Member, RVA Archaeology 

Ellen Chapman, PhD – Co-Founder, RVA Archaeology 

Ashley Collier MSW 

Leonard Edloe – Pastor, New Hope Fellowship 

Ana Edwards – Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project 

Danita Rountree Green – Co-founder, Coming To The Table – Richmond (CTTT-RVA) 

Rev. Rodney Hunter – Pastor, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church 

ICE Out of RVA 

John Moeser – Emeritus Professor, Urban Studies & Planning, VCU 

Queen Nzinga 

Joseph Rogers – Member, Steering Committee, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. 

Martha Rollins – Co-founder, Coming To The Table – Richmond (CTTT-RVA) 

Queen Zakia Shabazz – United Parents Against Lead 

Lynetta Thompson – State Advisor, Virginia State Conference Youth & College Division 

Richard Walker – Founder, CEO, Bridging the Gap – Virginia 

Phil Wilayto – Editor, The Virginia Defender 

To add your name to this letter, please email your name and how you want to be identified to:

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