Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground

2019 MARKS 400 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST CAPTURED AFRICANS WERE BROUGHT TO BRITISH-OCCUPIED NORTH AMERICA. IT’S PAST TIME TO RECLAIM SHOCKOE BOTTOM!

Originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 59, printed August 23. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

“About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 [tons] arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s].”

— John Rolfe, writing in 1619 about the arrival of the first captured Africans to the English colony of Virginia 

By Ana Edwards & Phil Wilayto

John Rolfe, the illegal alien who became famous for marrying the native princess Pocohontas, was also the businessman who introduced a particularly valuable strain of Virginia tobacco to England, thus creating a market that required large-scale agriculture, which in turn required enslaved labor to be profitable. 

Rolfe must have seen the unexpected arrival of “20 and odd” captured Africans as a gift from heaven, especially after the governor, Sir George Yeardley, put them to work on his struggling tobacco plantation. With a now-profitable crop to sell to the mother country, the ground was set for a successful colony that would lead to the establishment of the United States. So: a bunch of imperialist white businessmen stole land from its original inhabitants to grow a dangerous drug cultivated by stolen African labor – that’s the origin of our country. 

After the successful slave rebellion and independence war in Haiti (1791-1804), the U.S. ruling class became so afraid of a domestic rebellion that it banned the further importation of Africans to the new country. 

But when the French leader Napoleon abandoned Haiti, he also sold off the lands of Louisiana, thus doubling the size of the fledgling United States and offering the prospect of vast new sugar, rice and cotton plantations. But those plantations couldn’t be profitable without enslaved labor, and U.S. participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade had just been banned. 

As a result, the new “planters” turned to Virginia and Maryland, which had “surplus” populations of Africans. This trade in human beings became so profitable and the demand for enslaved labor so great that slave owners would force young fertile women to have babies, since human beings were viewed as a cash crop grown for profit. 

In time, the Shockoe Bottom district in Richmond became the center of this domestic slave trade, centrally located among the plantations of Virginia and offering traders easy transport to the Deep South by the James River, railroads and a 1,000-mile overland route that stretched from Virginia to Louisiana. In the three decades before the end of the Civil War, so many men, women and children were sold out of Shockoe Bottom that the majority of African-Americans today could likely trace some ancestry to this district that once held 40 to 50 auction houses, six to eight slave jails, dozens of trader offices and scores of supporting businesses. As a slave-trading district, New Orleans was larger. But Richmond’s significance was as the wholesale center, the fountainhead, the epicenter of the trade. 

We know the names of some of those held in the hellholes of the Bottom. There was Solomon Northup, who in his book “Twelve Years a Slave,” later made into an award-winning movie, writes of the night he spent in a slave jail there. There was Anthony Burns, who escaped from slavery in Virginia and fled to Boston, only to be captured and returned to Richmond, where he was held and tortured for months in Robert Lumpkin’s slave jail. 

There was Madison Washington, who had escaped to freedom in Canada, then returned to Richmond to try and free his enslaved wife, only to be caught and imprisoned in Lumpkin’s jail. He would later lead a mutiny on the brig Creole as he and other Africans were being transported from Richmond to New Orleans. 

And there was the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel, executed on Oct. 10, 1800, at the town gallows in Shockoe Bottom after attempting to lead what, had it succeeded, would have been the greatest slave rebellion in U.S. history. 

Since Shockoe Bottom is a place of such deep historical significance, you would expect it to be memorialized in a way that helps people understand the central role it has played in U.S. history. After all, other cities have invested heavily in their slavery-related historical sites, if only because they understand the economic benefits that come from tourism. 

THE MEMORIAL PARK

It has taken a more than 20-year, volunteer community effort to educate the public about the importance of Shockoe Bottom. 

It took a massive community struggle to force Virginia Commonwealth University, a state institution, to remove its parking lot that desecrated what is now known as the African Burial Ground. 

It took an even larger community battle to block former Mayor Dwight Jones and the business elite organization Venture Richmond from putting a baseball stadium in the Bottom. 

The latest stage of this protracted struggle is the ongoing fight to win a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, a community-generated proposal that would include the African Burial Ground; the site of Lumpkin’s slave jail, known as the Devil’s Half-Acre; and two more blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where three more slave jails once stood, along with many trader offices and supporting businesses.

That plan for a memorial park, developed through an inclusive process of open community meetings, has won the support of Richmond’s Black community, as evidenced by the views expressed at what has seemed an endless series of city-sponsored forums designed to build support for a much smaller memorial centered around the single site of the Devil’s Half-Acre. 

AN INTERPRETIVE CENTER 

The community is not asking for a new museum. That would be very expensive and would compete for funding and attendance with the nearby Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, as well as Richmond’s Valentine Museum, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the American Civil War Museum, all of which address the issue of slavery – but not Shockoe Bottom. 

Instead, the community proposal calls for an interpretive center, which involves audio, visual and video exhibits explaining the area’s history. The interpretive center, along with sculpture, interactive exhibits and meeting rooms for educational and cultural activities, would all be contained within a beautiful, nine-acre urban park, promoting education, reflection, conciliation – and concrete economic benefits for the Black community. 

The guiding principles for this memorial, as proposed at many community forums, must first be to tell the truth about what happened in this cauldron of human suffering and resistance. The memorial must explain how the vast profits accumulated in the slave trade provided the capital that built the city of Richmond, the state of Virginia and ultimately the United States. It must examine the issue of collective reparations due the descendant community. And it must be a shining example of how a city born in horrific oppression and exploitation can rise above its past and move forward to a more just and equitable future.

SELF-DETERMINATION 

The Black community has shown that it supports this plan. That’s critical, because the guiding principle in the Shockoe Bottom struggle has been the right of an oppressed people to self-determination. As applied here, that means the Black community must have the primary voice in determining the future of this site so central to the African presence in this country. 

Now all we need is for the politicians to resist the pressure from the downtown developers who want this valuable real estate for short-term profit-making and the corporate leaders who dread the world learning the true story of Richmond’s beginnings. 

Richmond will not be judged by what happened in Shockoe Bottom in the past, but how we face and deal with that past today. 

It’s time to properly reclaim this Sacred Ground.

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