Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


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.

By Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto

We are approaching the end of the year marking the 400th anniversary of the first captured Africans arriving in English-occupied North America, and Virginia’s capital city has yet to properly memorialize its Shockoe Bottom district, one of the most important historical sites for people of African descent anywhere in the United States.

For the three decades before the Civil War, the downtown Richmond area of Shockoe Bottom was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade. It was one of the country’s largest slave markets, second only in size to that of New Orleans.

More importantly, it was the wholesale district that supplied enslaved labor to all the other retail sites in the South: Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Vicksburg and so many more.

So many women, men and children were sold out of this small downtown area that today the majority of African-Americans could trace some ancestry there. But, aside from an empty field, a few markers and some slabs of stone, it remains a neglected area of rundown parking lots.

To their public shame, this neglect lies squarely with the elected officials of the city’s municipal government.

An ongoing struggle

For more than 20 years, Richmonders and their allies across the country have struggled to reclaim and properly memorialize this sacred ground. This effort has involved education, protest, ritual and writings, evolving from an education campaign into a demand for collective reparations, while addressing institutional racism, economic disempowerment and social repression.

This ongoing struggle has had three stages:

(1) The fight to force the removal of a state-owned parking lot from what today is known as Richmond’s African Burial Ground (2002-2011).

(2) Three campaigns to prevent a baseball stadium from being built in Shockoe Bottom (2005, 2009 and 2012-2014).

(3) The present ongoing struggle to win City support for the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park (2015-present).

This community proposal, developed in 2015 from a series of public meetings sponsored by the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, calls for a defined green space that would include the site of the slave jail owned by Robert Lumpkins and known as the Devil’s Half Acre; the African Burial Ground, which was saved by a prolonged community struggle from its desecration as a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot; and two more blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where several other slave jails once operated, along with many trader offices and supporting businesses.

While the two more blocks are important in and of themselves, including them would prevent any more attempts to build a sports stadium or other inappropriate development in the immediate area.

The public wants the Park …

Meanwhile, it has been shown over and over again, at every public forum called to address the future of Shockoe Bottom, that the people of Richmond support the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. This support has grown to the point that the proposal has been included in the official strategic planning deliberations for the City of Richmond, and the Sacred Ground Project has been included in the “small-area” master planning process as a member of the mayor’s newly-formed Shockoe Alliance.

For more information about the community proposal for a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, see

The City already says it wants to memorialize the 1.7-acre Devil’s Half Acre. It already maintains the 3.1-acre African Burial Ground – though it has yet to enact any kind of zoning to protect it from commercial development. And the additional two blocks are just parking lots, owned either by the City or the Loving family, which used to operate a produce business there.

So what’s the problem?

… but the developers, corporations & politicians don’t

First, this downtown land is coveted by profit-motivated real estate developers. And they have been very generous with their financial contributions to elected officials.

Second, the wealthy, mostly white corporate class that really runs this city is horrified by the idea that Richmond might finally honestly examine its past, deal with the ongoing consequences of slavery and the slave trade, and move on to a more truthful future.

It’s been more than 150 years since Black people were bought and sold in the auction houses of Shockoe Bottom. How long must we wait until that sacred ground is reclaimed and properly memorialized? Will it be enough to develop a small memorial crammed between Interstate 95 and the CSX tracks, surrounded by commercial and residential development?

It’s time to bring this struggle to its conclusion.

Why we need the Symposium

In order to try and educate Richmond’s mayor and members of City Council, along with the governor and members of the General Assembly, as to the pressing logic of the memorial park proposal, the Sacred Ground Project is organizing “Truth & Conciliation in the 400th Year: A Shockoe Bottom Public History Symposium,” to be held Saturday, December 7, 2019, at the Library of Virginia.

We are formally inviting Mayor Levar Stoney to join us at the Symposium and declare his support for the community proposal.

This nationally significant event will be co-sponsored by the Library of Virginia, which will present some of the resources it has available for African-American academic topics and family history researchers, as well as the public as a whole.

Through panel discussions and cultural presentations, this all-day symposium will examine the history of Africans and people of African descent in Virginia, from their earliest days to the present, and the important role that Shockoe Bottom has played in that history.

Our goal is to make crystal-clear the historic importance of Shockoe Bottom; its tremendous potential for education, reparations and conciliation; and the great crime that would be committed if its physical presence were lost to inappropriate development.

A centerpiece of the symposium will be presenting the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park as it has evolved over the past four years, highlighting the potential economic, social and cultural benefits for the city as a whole, and particularly for today’s Black community.

We are formally inviting Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to join us at the symposium and to issue a Proclamation declaring his support for the community proposal.

Further, thanks to a $75,000 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage and Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an independent economic benefit and impact study of the Memorial Park proposal is now underway, with a report expected to be released soon.

This study has examined how much the memorial park would cost, how it would be paid for, how it would benefit the city as a whole, and specifically how would it economically benefit the Black community.

The Symposium Program

Invitation to the 2019 Public History Symposium on Shockoe Bottom

The symposium will consist of three panel discussions, each with a moderator and presenters, along with exhibits, breaks for networking and special cultural presentations. Refreshments will be provided, including box lunches available for pre-purchase.

We are at an important historical crossroads. Either we will all reclaim Shockoe Bottom, or it will be lost forever.

We need you in this struggle, and no one else can take your place.

Please plan to join us Dec. 7 at the Library of Virginia to learn more about Shockoe Bottom and what you can do to see that it is finally reclaimed and properly memorialized.

Ana Edwards chairs the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper.

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