By Phil Wilayto for The Virginia Defender
Originally published July 29, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.
RICHMOND, VA, July 29 — In a major milestone in the decades-long struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize the downtown area that once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has publicly committed $3.5 million in City money to create the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.
Stoney, who is facing four challengers in the November mayoral election – all of whom have also endorsed the park – made the announcement at a noon press conference held yesterday at the site known as the Devil’s Half-Acre where the notorious slave jail owned by Robert Lumpkin once stood.
Also speaking and – for the first time endorsing the community proposal for the memorial park – was Delegate Delores McQuinn, chair of Richmond City Council’s “Slave Trail” Commission, and City Council President Cynthia Newbille, who represents council on the commission.
Joining them was Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. The Defenders participated in the 10-year struggle that in 2011 succeeded in removing a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot desecrating what is now known as the African Burial Ground; led the two-year campaign that blocked the corporate-promoted plan to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom; guided the community process that in 2015 produced the proposal for the nine-acre memorial park; and since then has led the campaign to win popular support and finally the mayor’s financial commitment to the park proposal.
In her remarks, Edwards credited the work of thousands of engaged people with making Shockoe Bottom an issue that could not be ignored, and specifically cited the ongoing “uprisings to protest historic injustices” with helping to produce the political will to commit to the memorial park. She also took the opportunity to list the seven main demands of the Richmond protests.
Mayor Stoney said the $3.5 million for the memorial park is already available from “surplus” City funds, and is separate from a budget request he will make to City Council for $25-$50 million to be spent over five years for general memorialization in Shockoe Bottom. As for a timeline for developing the park, he said it would be up to the Shockoe Alliance, the network he created to address issues in the Bottom, to develop the specific plans. Edwards, McQuinn and Newbille are all members of that group.
Significantly, Stoney, McQuinn and Newbille each described the proposed park as including the African Burial Ground, the Devil’s Half-Acre and two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where at least three other slave jails once were located. Those two blocks, a sticking point in the Defenders’ negotiations with the City, were included in the community proposal in order to block further attempts at inappropriate development in the area, such as a stadium.
Asked about a timeline for developing the park, Mayor Stoney told the Defender that the $3.5 million was already available, but designing the park would take some time. Asked if the Black community would receive the primary financial benefits of the park’s development, Stoney said that entities receiving contracts would have to have the “expertise” necessary to do the work, but that “Black and Brown voices need to be involved.” To date, most of the conceptual, design and development companies hired to do work on the Devil’s Half-Acre have been white-owned.
Does the mayor’s financial commitment to the park mean that the struggle has been won? No, not yet. But Mayor Stoney has been receiving steady feedback from other mayors and national historical consulting companies that properly developing Shockoe Bottom as a sacred site and tourist destination would have great financial and political benefits for the city. At a time when he is under heavy criticism for his promotion of the controversial and failed Dominion Energy-backed Navy Hill development project and the brutality of his police department’s suppression of local anti-racist protests, he evidently has decided that finally committing to the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park is in his best political interests.
Going forward, the Defenders’ role will be to ensure that the true story of what happened in Shockoe Bottom is told, and that the primary financial benefits of the memorial park go to the descendant community.
For more information on the park proposal, see:
“The Significance of Shockoe Bottom,” 2019, by Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards
Media coverage of the July 28 press conference:
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Stoney announces multimillion-dollar proposal to commemorate Shockoe Bottom slave trade“
Richmond Free Press, “Slave memorial and museum gets jumpstart under mayor’s plan“
WTVR Channel 6, “Mayor announces investment in slave ‘memorial campus’ in Shockoe Bottom“
WRWK Radio, “Interview with Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto“
Categories: Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground