Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 60, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
Editor’s note: On Sept. 19, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a story with the headline “Stoney seeks to lease to a developer a Shockoe Bottom parking lot that could sit atop slavery site.”
The story, by Mark Robinson, reported in part the following:
“A city-owned parking lot in Shockoe Bottom may sit atop archaeological evidence of Richmond’s history as a notorious slave-trading hub.
“Mayor Levar Stoney wants to lease it to a developer who donated to his political action committee, an arrangement that would help the developer secure financing for a high-rise hotel.
“The proposed 40-year agreement with Weimans Bakery LLC — an entity associated with Louis Salomonsky — drew condemnation on Thursday from City Council members who decried inaction to investigate and preserve the property’s history.”
For those with short memories or who are new to Richmond, Salomonsky is the high-power real estate developer who has been known to be a generous contributor to a wide range of local elected officials. In 2003, his generosity to a certain member of City Council earned him a prison term for bribery. In response to this development, the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project wrote the following statement:
September 24, 2019
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s attempt to lease to a political contributor a city-owned Shockoe Bottom parking lot that sits on a site of proven archeological significance calls into serious question his commitment to the Shockoe Alliance, a body he formed and tasked with developing a Small Area Master Plan to guide development in this internationally recognized historic district, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.
Shockoe Bottom has been the wellpublicized and well-documented focal point of research, commemoration and struggles to reveal and honor the horrors and resistance of Africans and people of African descent through and beyond slavery.
Many individuals and organizations have made important contributions to this effort, including discovering and marking the Trail of Enslaved Africans; making public the 1809 City map with the notation “Burial Ground for Negroes;” scholarly work on the area by many historians; the archeological discovery of the site of the Devil’s Half-Acre, the slave jail owned by the notorious Robert Lumpkin; and the community struggles led by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.
As the only community organization represented in the Shockoe Alliance, the Sacred Ground Project feels a special responsibility to speak out now and raise the following questions and points:
1. Is the Shockoe Alliance a collaborative body with a true mission, or is it merely a cover to buffer public opinion while behind the scenes things quietly move in the wrong direction?
2. The development of the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park includes the Devil’s Half-Acre, the African Burial Ground and two blocks of parking lots east of the CSX railroad tracks where several other slave jails, many slave trader offices and supporting businesses once were located.
Although support for this proposal has been clear in every public forum called to solicit community input on the future of Shockoe Bottom, neither City Council nor Mayor Stoney has yet taken a tangible position for or against the memorial park.
3. The Seabrook Warehouse site is where enslaved workers once labored in the tobacco industry for private profit – an important example of the industrial, urban slavery in which Richmond was a pioneer. The site abuts the footprint of the proposed memorial park.
Years ago, City Council passed legislation and appropriated $50,000 to conduct research on the Seabrook site, because its significance already had been proven by preliminary research. However, then-Mayor Dwight Jones did not act on the initiative. To date, neither has Mayor Stoney.
To these realities we respond:
1. There is no point in forming city-run committees with no actual power to effect the tasks or changes they were asked to assume. The Shockoe Alliance should be allowed to complete its stated mission of creating a Shockoe Bottom Small Area Master Plan before any further development decisions are made in the district, and specifically before any decisions are made about known historic sites such as the Seabrook Warehouse 1810-1910 site.
2. The already ordered and funded research project on the Seabrook Warehouse site should go forward.
3. The nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park – inclusive of the Devil’s Half-Acre interpretive institution – should be implemented as part of the Small Area Master Plan, reflecting the public and dedicated stakeholder consensus that the history of slavery and the slave trade in Richmond and their significance to the development of the city, the state and the country be the central theme of this district’s next phase of evolution.