Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground

WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH SHOCKOE BOTTOM?

Originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of The Virginia Defender, issue 69, printed July 27. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards & Phil Wilayto

After more than 20 years of confrontational struggle between the community and Richmond’s city government and business elite, many people are asking what’s happening with Shockoe Bottom, the long-neglected downtown district that once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

Well, things are definitely happening, but the City, as well as the leaders of the uniquely opaque National Slavery Museum Foundation (see Questions for the National Slavery Museum Foundation), are doing precious little to share their plans with the public.

Community members attending the 2022 Juneteenth celebration sponsored by the Elegba Folklore Society June 26 at the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground leave offerings for the ancestors. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

So here’s the scoop, as much as we know it at this point.

After Mayor Levar Stoney finally announced his support for the community-generated plan for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, his administration put together something called the Shockoe Alliance that was supposed to help the City come up with a more detailed plan to reclaim and property memorialize the site.

Initially, that body was top-heavy with city officials. Then the composition was changed to bring in what government planning folks like to call “stakeholders” – people or institutions with a vested interest in the issue. So some city officials were removed and new members were recruited – mostly business owners, but also a few community activists and historical preservationists.

Anyway, over a period of about two years, the alliance members made suggestions to the City’s planning department for something called a Small Area Plan. In this case it was a plan for Shockoe Bottom that would be incorporated into the City’s larger plan, called Richmond 300, which is supposed to guide the city’s development through the 300th anniversary of its founding in 1737.

The Small Area Plan then went through a month of public input, mostly through the City’s website, and was updated in October 2021 based on that feedback. The plan was sent back to the City’s Department of Planning and Development for review and more revisions.

The October version of the plan, called the “Pre Plan,” along with a full list of Shockoe Alliance members, is posted on the City website here.

Going forward, the newly revised plan is supposed to come back to the Alliance and then put up for a second round of public input. As of yet, there is no public timeline for that input.

But, as everyone who knows anything about politics knows, the real question is this: Is the City putting any real money into the project?

The answer is yes, which is what makes us hopeful that something will actually happen.

However, the process remains much less than transparent, with a minimum of public input and no indication so far that the Black community as a whole will benefit in any meaningful way from the development of one of the most sacred sites in U.S. Black history.

And those are the issues we’ll examine in the next edition of The Virginia Defender.

In the meantime, we can all be encouraged that (1) the Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot that once desecrated the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground is long gone; (2) despite the best efforts of former Mayor Dwight Jones and the business elite organization Venture Richmond, there is no baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom; and (3) there are concrete plans in the works for a roughly 10-block Heritage Campus that will include the African Burial Ground, the Devil’s Half-Acre (site of Lumpkin’s jail) and enough land east of the CSX railroad tracks to ensure that there won’t be any more profit-chasing schemes to build something very big and very inappropriate on the sacred ground of Shockoe Bottom.

Stay tuned – and stay alert.

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