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Dec. 11 2020 Media Release on: Gov. Northam’s announcement of $9 million for Shockoe Bottom historical memorialization

MEDIA RELEASE from the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality

Statement by the Virginia Defenders on Gov. Northam’s announcement of $9 million for Shockoe Bottom historical memorialization: 

There’s something missing

RICHMOND, VA, Dec. 11 — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam today announced that his upcoming state budget will include nearly $25 million “to transform historical sites and advance historic justice initiatives in Virginia.”

The proposed allocation includes $9 million for “the development of a Slavery Heritage Site and improvements to the Slave Trail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. This funding will support efforts to preserve the area known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, or Lumpkin’s Jail, as a historical site.”

In addition, nearly $11 million would go “to support efforts to transform Monument Avenue, the historic section of Richmond that was built around Confederate statues as a permanent memorial to the Lost Cause;” $100,000 “to support the Virginia Emancipation and Freedom Monument project on [Richmond’s] Brown’s Island;” and $5 million “to repatriate tombstones from the former Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. and create the Harmony Living Shoreline memorial.” 

While we applaud the governor’s attempt to address the long-term inequities in the allocation of state resources for historical preservation, his statement raises some serious concerns.

On Monday, Dec. 14, we will formally ask Gov. Northam for a meeting to discuss these issues.

For nearly 20 years, community activists have worked to educate the public about the great historical significance to the Black community of Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade, and to demand its reclamation and proper memorialization. 

The first stage in this protracted struggle resulted in Virginia Commonwealth University removing its parking lot that for years desecrated what is now known as Richmond’s African Burial Ground. The second stage succeeded in stopping the effort by corporate leaders and city government to build a commercial baseball stadium in the Bottom. 

Since 2015, the third stage of this ongoing struggle has focused on promoting the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park to include the Devil’s Half-Acre, where the notorious Lumpkin slave jail once stood; the 3.1-acre African Burial Ground; and two more blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where at least three more slave jails once were located along with numerous slave trader offices and some of the many businesses that supported the enormously profitable slave trade.

This proposal, widely endorsed at the many public hearings sponsored first by the Defenders, and then by Mayor Dwight Jones’ Richmond Speaks project, the SmithGroupJJR and the Rose Fellowship, now has been incorporated into the Shockoe Bottom small-area plan being developed by Mayor Levar Stoney’s Shockoe Alliance.

And yet, while Gov. Northam’s announcement mentions a “Slavery Heritage Site” and improvements to the “Slave Trail,” it states that “This funding will support efforts to preserve the area known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, or Lumpkin’s Jail, as a historical site.” There is no mention of either the first municipal African Burial Ground or the two blocks east of the railroad tracks. 

Further, the governor’s statement includes the assertion that “Hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons were forced to pass through Lumpkin’s Jail,” as if this one site constituted the entire Shockoe Bottom slave trade, ignoring the existence of the 40-50 auction houses in the Bottom, as well as the half-dozen or so other slave jails and large trading complexes that contributed to the scale of that human trafficking. 

In other words, there is no mention, no funding allocated, for the rest of the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. the admittedly modest size of which still would much better express the enormity of Richmond’s slave-trading enterprise from which the majority of today’s African-Americans could likely trace some ancestry. Yes, the slave-trading district of Shockoe Bottom was second in size only to that of New Orleans, but its true significance lies in the fact that it was the wholesale center that supplied the retail markets throughout the Deep South. It was in fact, the fountainhead of this inhuman trade.

It is worth noting here that, nine years after the reclamation of the African Burial Ground, Richmond’s city government has yet to enact any kind of protective zoning for that sacred ground.

We are well aware that “developers” known for their financial generosity to local politicians strongly covet the as-yet-undeveloped land in Shockoe Bottom, and that powerful corporate figures are opposed to Richmond’s national image being expanded to include its central role in the domestic slave trade. These two factors are what have made reclaiming and properly memorializing Shockoe Bottom such a long and difficult struggle. But it is a struggle that has captured the imagination and dedication of thousands of community members determined to see it come to a positive conclusion, with a nine-acre memorial park.

As volunteer advocates who have devoted nearly 20 years to this effort, we call on Gov. Northam to clarify what he means by a “Slavery Heritage Site” and whether this would include the memorial park. And, if so, we ask him to publicly declare his support for protective zoning for the footprint of the full nine acres. This really is the critical next step in the proper development of Shockoe Bottom.

In addition, we would caution the governor about spending $11 million for the transformation of Monument Avenue. The now-empty pedestals that once supported statues of four Confederate leaders, and the one that still supports the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, are transformation enough for now. Too many Virginia households are facing a tsunami of evictions, too many workers are without jobs and too many small businesses are facing financial ruin to justify spending state money on what would essentially be an attempt to mollify homeowners along Monument Avenue who felt inconvenienced by this year’s Black Lives Matter protests by building up their already significant property values.

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

Phil Wilayto – Editor, The Virginia Defender newspaper 

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