Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

Note: This statement was sent Jan. 9, 2022, to all members of Richmond City Council and local, national and international media. We believe it is a good argument about why, yes, there needs to be a slavery/slave trade museum or interpretive center in Shockoe Bottom, but why it doesn’t need to be a $220 million legacy project for people who have played a very mixed role in the ongoing struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize what once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

We invite you to read the statement and make up your own minds.

To: The Honorable Members of Richmond City Council:

At its regular meeting on January 10, 2022, Richmond City Council is expected to approve two ordinances dealing with funding for Shockoe Bottom, Richmond’s downtown district that once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

The ordinances are:

Number 2021-270, which would add “$1 million to the Heritage Campus for the purpose of procuring design services and associated community engagement.”

And Number 2021-337, which would give “$300,000 to the National Slavery Museum Foundation for the support of planning and fundraising activities for the establishment of a national slavery museum at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail / Devil’s Half-Acre site in Richmond.”

We have not come here tonight to oppose this funding. Rather, we applaud the fact that the City is posed to finally begin the concrete work of reclaiming and properly memorializing the sacred ground of Shockoe Bottom, something we have spent the past 20 years trying to encourage the city government to do.

But we do have some concerns, and some suggestions for addressing those concerns.

Let’s first address the $1 million intended for the Heritage Campus.

We have spent the last two years actively and in good faith participating in the Shockoe Alliance, a collaborative process initiated by Mayor Stoney that produced a “small area plan” for Shockoe Bottom that is supposed to guide future development of the area.

That plan for a 10-block Heritage Campus incorporates the community-generated proposal for a nine-acre memorial park that would include the Devil’s Half-Acre, site of Robert Lumpkin’s slave jail; the African Burial Ground, once covered by a state-owned parking lot; and two more blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where slave jails owned by Silas Omohundro, William Goodwin and other slave traders once stood, along with many trader offices and supporting businesses.

The Heritage Campus would be much more than just a much-needed urban park with landscaping and walking paths. Proposed ideas include a museum or interpretive center, public art, interactive kiosks, genealogy center, conference and performance spaces, a symbolic recreation of Shockoe Creek and more, as money becomes available.

Thanks to the relentless advocacy work carried out by dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals, it is now well-known that so many people were sold out of the 40-50 auction houses of Shockoe Bottom that today the majority of African-Americans could likely trace some ancestry to this small historic area. There are few places in the country that could claim to be as important to understanding the history of today’s Black community and, indeed, the United States as a whole – and few places that could draw more tourists to explore this story.

That is why we are deeply concerned that the City’s attention could turn away from the Heritage Campus proposed by the Shockoe Alliance to an up-to-$220 million national slavery museum being promoted by a private foundation about which the public knows very little.

In July of 2020, Mayor Stoney held a press conference to announce that he had $3.5 million available for moving ahead with developing the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, the proposal for which came out of an open community process sponsored by our organization, the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

It later came out that the amount available was actually $1.7 million, and that was to go for procuring the privately-owned lots located within the proposed nine-acre memorial park. Now we have recently learned that that money was never spent and the privately owned lots were never acquired.

As advocates, we have been left to first applaud the announcement of the $3.5 million, then express concern that that amount was reduced to $1.7 million, and now to state our further concern that the private lots have not yet been acquired. This is not an example of municipal transparency and does not lay the groundwork for community trust going forward.

Further, the $1 million now being proposed is to go “to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities’ Enslaved African Heritage Campus project … for the purpose of procuring design services and associated community engagement.”

Procuring design services from what entity? Another virtually all-white company like SmithGroup JJR that has received most of the money already spent on design for the slavery museum?

And what kind of community engagement? The same kind of previous public meetings that allowed residents to express opinions but without any real decision-making power?

Then there is the issue of the National Slavery Museum Foundation.

This entity was founded in 2011 by a few executive board members of City Council’s Slave Trail Commission. Sometime in 2019, without public notice or input, those board members dissolved the commission, leaving Richmond, for the first time in decades, without an official body tasked with preserving local sites related to slavery and the slave trade.

The commission itself had operated for years without producing legally required meeting minutes or detailed financial reports. It refused to process applications from people asking to join the commission. In the end, all its few remaining members had exceeded their term limits as laid out by the City.

As for the museum foundation, after its first few years it was “suspended” by the IRS for failing to file tax returns. Today the foundation seems to have no online presence, no public list of its board of directors – if there is one – or any financial reports. This is not a record of openness, transparency or competency.

The only thing we know for certain is that the foundation’s three directors were members of the former Slave Trail Commission’s executive board, and that its president is the former commission chair – the same chair who previously promoted putting a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

The foundation’s stated mission is to design, build and operate a slavery museum on the site of Lumpkin’s jail, known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, one of a half-dozen similar jails once located in Shockoe Bottom. Neither the Slave Trail Commission nor the foundation have shown any interest in memorializing the rest of Shockoe Bottom. In fact, to this day, a decade after a long community struggle resulted in reclaiming the African Burial Ground, that site still has no protective zoning.

The proposed museum was originally estimated to cost $100 million. That’s $30 million more than the International African American Museum being built in Charleston, South Carolina, to explore that city’s central role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Now we are told that the actual cost of the Richmond museum will be between $180 and $220 million, because someone finally remembered that the museum is to be built in a floodplain – something that advocates have been pointing out for years.

The private, for-profit company chosen by the City to come up with a plan for the proposed museum is SmithGroup JJR. Museum promoters have touted the fact that SmithGroup worked on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. What they don’t mention is that SmithGroup was one of four companies that worked on that project, and while the other three are Black-owned, SmithGroup is a virtually all-white company.

In fact, out of 49 principals listed on its website, only one is African-American. One. This demonstrated lack of commitment to internal diversity and inclusion alone should have been enough to disqualify the company from leading the effort to tell the story of slavery and the slave trade. Instead it has already received more than $2.5 million in City money, and is poised to receive much more.

We want to make it clear that we are not opposed to creating a museum in Shockoe Bottom devoted to exploring the city’s role in the domestic slave trade. What we are questioning is both the cost of the proposed museum and its location.

No one denies that memorializing the site of Lumpkin’s jail, which after Emancipation became the first meeting place for the school that would eventually become the HBCU Virginia Union University, must be an important part of any Shockoe Bottom memorialization. The Smithsonian Magazine called its discovery in 2008 the most important archeological find in the country in a decade. The proposal to remove the fill now covering the site in order to reveal the still-intact stone foundation is a good one and should be a significant part of the Heritage Campus.

But that does not mean the site requires a $220 million structure, built in a floodplain.

Both the museum proponents and the Shockoe Alliance small-area plan call for an interim “interpretive center” or museum to be constructed in the Main Street Station Train Shed, which already exists within the footprint of the Heritage Campus.

The Train Shed was part of the $51 million federally-funded project that in 2003 renovated the Main Street Station. It’s a majestic building that provides a panoramic view of the proposed memorial area and overlooks the Devil’s Half-Acre. The City describes it as “Richmond’s premier venue, an expanse of steel and glass that’s two football fields in length.” It’s a beautiful space that can accommodate thousands of guests, and the City has yet to assign it any permanent use.

And it’s already elevated above the floodplain.

On Nov. 16, 2021, NSMF board members Rev. Ben Campbell and Rev. Sylvester Turner made a presentation about their museum project to the Virginia House of Delegates Appropriations Committee, whose membership includes NSMF chair Delegate Delores McQuinn. In their presentation, Campbell and Turner included the estimated cost of “the development of pilot and experimental exhibitions which can be sited in the Main Street Station in advance of the construction of the museum building.”

Their estimate? $350,000 – $700,000.

As of the end of 2021, SmithGroup JJR had already received more than $2.5 million in contracts for just the “pre-design” stage of the museum project.

It seems obvious that the Main Street Station Train Shed would be the best permanent site for any museum or interpretive center, starting modestly and expanding as public and private funding becomes available.

And in public meeting after public meeting, the community’s clear preference has been for an expanded memorial site, not a single museum building.

At the Appropriations Committee meeting, a handout made available to the committee members stated that “The Smith Group was hired to lead us through a process for development of the Lumpkin Jail Site, over 500 people from every community group engaged in a series of workshops and focus groups. (sic) The overwhelming consensus was that we should build a museum.”

That assertion is a total misrepresentation of public opinion on this matter.

Beginning in 2015, five organizations held more than 20 public hearings on the future of Shockoe Bottom. First were the five public meetings hosted by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, a process that produced – by unanimous vote – the proposal for a nine-acre memorial park. Then another series of meetings was held under the name of Richmond Speaks, organized by then-Mayor Dwight Jones. Then came the hearings sponsored by the Rose Fellowship at the request of Mayor Stoney; the meetings held by the Center for Design Engagement, associated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; and finally the meetings held by SmithGroup JJR.

We attended virtually all of these meetings, and in not one – including those organized by SmithGroup – was there “overwhelming consensus” for a museum. Instead, concerns were raised about the cost, the floodplain and competition for visitors and funding with existing Richmond museums, especially the nearby Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

Rather, the overwhelming sentiment was for the community-generated proposal for the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. The popular view was that the City should acquire the nine acres, impose protective zoning, landscape the site and then move to create the other park features as money became available.

This still seems to us to be a reasonable plan, expanded to the 10-block Heritage Campus proposed by the Shockoe Alliance.

These are our proposals for addressing what we view as serious flaws in the present process for memorializing Shockoe Bottom:

First: Going forward, there must be complete public transparency about what decisions are being made, how they are being made and who is benefiting from them.

Second: There must be a formal mechanism for meaningful participation in the decision-making process by representatives of the Black community and its allies who have demonstrated a long-time commitment to the reclamation and proper memorialization of Shockoe Bottom.

And third: There must be a firm commitment that any financial benefits to be realized from the planning, construction and operation of a physical memorial in Shockoe Bottom – contracts, construction jobs, operational jobs, internships, marketing opportunities, etc. – go primarily to the descendant community.

We applaud Mayor Stoney, City Council President Cynthia Newbille and former Slave Trail Commission Chair Delores McQuinn for finally, in July 2020, endorsing the community proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. We recognize the leading role that the former Slave Trail Commission played in the construction of the Richmond Slave Trail (which advocates refer to as the Trail of Enslaved Africans); in the erection of the Reconciliation Statue at 15th and East Main streets; and especially the excavation of the Devil’s Half-Acre.

However, it also must be remembered that some of these same former members of the commision, including its chair, regretably worked to undermine the long community struggle that ultimately succeeded in forcing Virginia Commonwealth University to remove its parking lot that desecrated the African Burial Ground; actively promoted Mayor Jones’ proposal to build a commercial baseball stadium on the site of slave jails in Shockoe Bottom; and for years ignored the community demand for a nine-acre memorial park.

While these individuals deserve a place at the table, the future of Shockoe Bottom cannot be left solely in their hands.

We respectfully ask members of council to consider our concerns and our proposals for addressing them. Together, we can ensure that future generations will applaud our collective efforts to reclaim and properly memorialize one of the most important and as yet undeveloped sites in the entire country, not only for the Black community, but for the country as a whole.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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

PHIL WILAYTO – Editor, The Virginia Defender newspaper

Categories: Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground

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