Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Autumn 2021 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 66, printed October 25. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. For other stories in this issue or to see the full PDF, see the Autumn 2021 post here. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

At this point it’s clear that something big is going to happen in Shockoe Bottom. That’s the long-neglected area in downtown Richmond that for 30 years before Emancipation was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

The Shockoe Alliance, a working group created by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, has come up with a proposal for a 10-block Heritage Campus that includes the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre memorial park. That would include the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground just north of East Broad Street between I-95 and the CSX railroad tracks; the site of Lumpkin’s jail, known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, just south of East Broad Street; and two more blocks east of the railroad tracks where three or possibly four other slave jails once stood, along with slave trader offices and supporting businesses.

This evocative mural stands behind the City plaques that explain the history of Shockoe Bottom’s African Burial Ground. It was erected by a community group. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

However, the Defenders have raised several concerns:

  1. What entity – public, private or a combination of the two – will own the Heritage Park? That’s not addressed in the Shockoe Alliance proposal.
  2. Who will be in control of telling the story of Shockoe Bottom, including the suffering, the resistance, the accumulation of capital from the slave trade and the ongoing need for reparations?
  3. How will the Black community be represented in decision-making about the campus?
  4. How will the Black community materially benefit from the development and operation of the campus?

Our concerns have grown since The Virginia Defender submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City for information about how much money has already been spent on the separate project to develop a slavery museum on the site of Lumpkin’s jail. That project began before the mayor launched the Shockoe Alliance and, after a contentious series of public meetings, has been moving along, with little public scrutiny.

We have received many hundreds of pages of documents from the City and are only beginning to sift through them. But what we have learned so far is sobering.

Back on April 27, 2018, the City of Richmond, in partnership with the then-still-existing Slave Trail Commission (see story on page 11) issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for “the services of a professional architectural / engineering firm to provide complete architectural, engineering, archeology, and museum exhibition development services for the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, located at 1500 E. Franklin Street, in historic Shockoe Bottom.”

You’ll notice the RFP does not mention the African Burial Ground, a site reclaimed through a sustained community struggle ignored and sometimes opposed by the Slave Trail Commission.

The firm the City chose was SmithGroup JJR, a Detroit-based international architectural, engineering and planning firm, which since that time has been engaged in what is called “pre-design.”

Proponents for building a slavery museum on the site of Lumpkin’s jail have touted the fact that SmithGroup played a role in developing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Actually, SmithGroup was one of four firms involved in that project. The other three are Black-owned. SmithGroup is not.

In fact, of the company’s 49 partners, directors, principals and designers listed on its website, only one appears to be AfricanAmerican.

Odd that this was the firm chosen to head up planning, designing and building a slavery museum.

Museum proponents had been saying the project would cost more than $100 million and argued in an opinion piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that only such an expensive institution could convey the enormity of the slave trade as practiced in the Bottom. (The Defenders countered that a 10-block Heritage Campus would accomplish the same thing just as well, if not better.)

However, a feasibility study presented by SmithGroup to the City in late September reported that the actual cost of building a museum on the site of Lumpkin’s jail would be between $184 million and $220 million. (This information was reported in the Oct. 21 edition of the Richmond Free Press.)

And money is already being spent.

According to information we received from the City, the first of four contracts to be awarded to SmithGroup, this one for the “predesign” phase of the project, was for just over $2 million – $2,016,659.21, to be exact.

This year the contract was revised and the price tag went up nearly 25 percent, to $2,509,486.66, which includes additional work done or to be done related to floodplain/ floodway feasibility and design changes.

Oh yeah, that’s right. The Lumpkin’s jail site is in a flood plain.

Good catch.

And that realization apparently is what led SmithGroup to come up with the new figure for what the museum would cost to build: Not $100 million, but up to $220 million.

Meanwhile, with the old Slave Trail Commission having been unceremoniously dissolved some two years ago (again, see the story on the next page), the last remaining members – Del. Delores McQuinn, the Rev. Ben Campbell and the Rev. Sylvester L. Turner – apparently have launched a new venture, called the National Slavery Museum Foundation.

We asked Del. McQuinn and Rev. Campbell if another entity had been created to carry on the work of the Slave Trail Commission, but were not given any information. (Again, see the story on the next page.)

Curiously, a City website, lumpkinsjail. org, has a timeline that states that, in 2013, “The National Slavery Museum Foundation is established to preserve and interpret authentic sites and artifacts in Richmond to tell the story of the slave trade.”

In a letter published in the Oct. 21 edition of the Richmond Free Press, Rev. Turner stated that “a foundation is in place” and that “we have raised more than $30 million for its [the museum’s] development.”

It’s not clear if that amount is separate from the money already allocated from the City and the Virginia General Assembly for general memorialization in Shockoe Bottom.

In June of 2020, Mayor Stoney announced plans to invest more than $38 million in developing both the museum and the memorial park. City Council later supported investing that amount.

Gov. Ralph Northam has said he will ask the General Assembly for $9 million. It has been reported elsewhere that that amount would be for the museum alone. However, in a telephone conversation that Defender Ana Edwards and this writer had with the governor earlier this year, Northam said the money would not be earmarked for a museum, but rather could be used for the development of Shockoe Bottom in general.

In addition, while getting a tour of Shockoe Bottom last spring by Ana, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner raised the possibility of federal money for the Bottom. That apparently would depend on Congress agreeing to lift the existing ban on funding so-called “pork barrel” local projects.

At any rate, add it all up and the money allocated, proposed and suggested doesn’t come anywhere near $220 million.

Rather than a museum, which was never a community demand in any of the more than 20 public meetings held by various groups about the future of Shockoe Bottom, the Defenders have been arguing for an interpretive center, which relies more on audio and visual presentations than the collection of artifacts. It’s much less expensive than a museum.

But whether it’s a museum or an interpretive center, honoring the site of Lumpkin’s jail, which gave birth to what eventually would become Virginia Union University, should be an important part of the Heritage Campus.

And the place to locate that museum or interpretive center should be in the existing Main Street Station train shed. It’s a large, beautifully renovated space that overlooks the Devil’s Half-Acre on one side and the sites of the Omohundro, Goodwin and other jails on the other.

And it’s above the floodplain!

Further, although it’s been years since the train shed was renovated, the City has yet to decide what it wants to use it for, so it’s available.

All food for thought. Meanwhile, we’ll keep poring through the hundreds of pages of documents we got from the City and will report on more findings in the next issue of the Defender.

Categories: Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s