Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 61, printed February 17. Reproduced here in for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2020 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

More than 250 attendees listen as University of Washington history professor Dr. Midori Takagi speaks by Zoom on industrial slavery in pre-Civil War Richmond. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

In the largest event ever held about Shockoe Bottom, and one of the last events in Virginia to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of captive Africans, more than 250 people attended an all-day symposium Dec. 7 at the Library of Virginia that examined the history of Black people in the state, with an emphasis on the downtown Richmond district that once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

“Truth & Conciliation in the 400th Year: A Shockoe Bottom Public History Symposium” was co-sponsored by the state library and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which since 2002 has been working to reclaim and properly memorialize this sacred ground.

Presenters at the event included 22 scholars and advocates, 13 of whom hold doctorates in their fields, and three very talented cultural workers.

Among those who spoke were Elvatrice Belsches, an author, filmmaker and researcher for the film “Lincoln;” Dr. Michael Blakey, the anthropologist who led the examination of human remains found at New York City’s African Burial Ground; Dr. Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond; Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Project; Dr. Douglas Egerton, author of “Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802”; Dr. Gregg Kimball, director of Public Services and Outreach at the Library of Virginia; Dr. Midori Takagi, author of “Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865”; Dr. Shawn O. Utsey, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. (A complete list of participants is posted at

Stirring presentations were made by cultural workers Valerie Davis, Nickey McMullen and Joseph Sharif Hakim Rogers.

The symposium also received greetings from Askari Danso and Hassan Shabazz, incarcerated co-founders of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, who traced the present system of mass incarceration to the slave jails of Shockoe Bottom.

Two of the most moving presentations came from Dr. Lauranett Lee, professor of history at the University of Richmond, and Lenora McQueen, an independent researcher from San Antonio, Texas.

At times weeping, Lee described the trauma of enslaved children’s lives as victims of physical abuse and being torn away from mothers and fathers through sale. From the trafficking of Black children in the 19th century, she drew a line to the trafficking in children from Richmond today.

McQueen read a letter written by the woman who owned her four-times-great grandmother, Kitty Cary, to her sister about Mrs. Cary’s last moments before her death, and then stated she was buried in the burial ground most associated with the Medical College of Virginia’s practice of body snatching for anatomical study. This practice was described in a later session as part of the presentation by Rhonda Keyes Pleasants about the East Marshall Street Well Project.

The symposium was intended to raise the collective understanding of the history of enslaved and free Black life, struggles, achievements and legacies from the city’s earliest years, centering on the role of Shockoe Bottom.

A late addition to the program was Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who had been invited to attend and declare his support for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, a community-generated proposal that has won overwhelming popular support. The proposed park would include Richmond’s African Burial Ground; the sites of many auction houses; and at least four slave jails, including the particularly notorious Devil’s Half-Acre; as well as several slave trader offices and supporting businesses.

The plan is opposed by local real estate developers who want the land for profit-making projects, and by corporate leaders who do not want Richmond’s public image associated with the city’s central role in the domestic slave trade.

Unfortunately, Mayor Stoney did not declare his support for the memorial park, instead opting to express general support for memorializing the local history. When challenged by a member of the audience to take a clear stand on the park proposal, the mayor first said he would discuss the matter “after the meeting” and then, when others also spoke out, fell back to asking how the park would be funded.

In fact, with support from the Sacred Ground Project, the nonprofit organization Preservation Virginia had received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to arrange for an economic study of the economic benefits of a memorial park to the city as a whole and its Black community in particular. The mayor’s office had been sent a copy of the study’s report. (See story on page 11.)

The overwhelming consensus of those attending the symposium was that it had been a tremendously important, enlightening and inspiring event that greatly increased public support for the memorial park proposal.

The Sacred Ground Project and its allies are now planning a community meeting to discuss several action proposals for the next steps in the ongoing struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize this sacred ground. Videos of the symposium are posted at this link. [Web admin’s note: I have removed two hyperlinks inactive as of October 2020.]

For more information on the Shockoe Bottom struggle, visit or contact the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project at or call or text 804.644.5834.

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