Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 62, printed August 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2020 issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

Mayor Levar Stoney announces he has $3.5 million reserved to create the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. In the background, from left: Ana Edwards, chair of the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project; Elizabeth Kostelny, Executive Director, Preservation Virginia; Shockoe Bottom business owner Susan Gaible; archaeologist Ellen Chapman; City Councilman Michael Jones; City Council President Cynthia Newbille; Untold RVA Founder Free Bangura; “Slave Trail” Commission member Rev. Ben Campbell; and “Slave Trail” Commission Chair Delores McQuinn. Except for Jones and Rev. Campbell, all are members of the mayor’s Shockoe Alliance. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

By Phil Wilayo

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 July 28 at a press conference held 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.

Unfortunately, other than a passing reference to “community advocates,” none of the three mentioned the decades-long struggle that brought the city to this moment.

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 HalfAcre have been white-owned.

An Associated Press story about the announcement was carried in The New York Times, adding to the national exposure that Stoney is receiving on this issue.

After the mayor’s press conference, the Richmond Free Press ran a story that questioned if Stoney actually has the authority to allocate money for a new project, or whether he would need to ask permission from City Council.

The Defender wrote Council president Newbille for a clarification. We received this response, from Steve Skinner, from the Council Chief of Staff Office:

“Mr. Wilayto – Per your question – yes, such would need Richmond City Council approval – steve”

We also emailed Mayor Stoney to ask if he thought he had to go through council before he could provide the $3.5 million for the park.

We sent the email on Aug. 7.

A week later, we were still waiting for an answer.

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