Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Autumn 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 70, printed December 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

While Richmond’s city government seems committed to constructing its planned 10-block “Herritage Campus” in Shokcoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade, it looks like a lot of work – and study – needs to be done before the first shovelful of soil is turned.

Plans for the campus that includes the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground and a possible National Slavery Museum at the Devil’s Half-Acre can’t begin until more information is gathered about the impact of building in the city’s oldest district, which sits in a floodplain. To obtain that information, Richmond’s Department of Public Works has contracted with the engineering firm Greely and Hansen to conduct a three-part study to determine exactly what can and cannot be built in any part of the area.

According to the city’s Stormwater Management website page, building in floodplains is discouraged. The most applicable reason in the case of the Lumpkin’s Jail / Devil’s Half-Acre site, where proponents of the slavery museum want to build, is that, “New development can change the amount of impervious area that does not absorb rain. This increase in water running across the surface of the ground can cause streams and rivers to become overtopped when historically they did not before new buildings and parking lots were built.”

Runoff affects nearby waterways, but in this case it would first affect streets and street-level residential and commercial buildings, creating particular and expensive challenges for any new construction – such as a large museum, which already is projected to cost between $180 and $220 million.

This concern also affects the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground, the 3-acre parcel north of East Broad Street, because any structures built there to support visitors or public art installations – even if far smaller than those planned for the proposed museum site – also will need to comply with certain weight and density criteria.

In addition, very little is known about how the design of the Burial Ground area will need to be created in concert with planned upgrades to the City’s combined sewer-stormwater system. Shockoe Creek became a key channel in that system in the 1920s when it was converted into a culvert that runs underground within the African Burial Ground and Lumpkin’s Jail footprints south along with Gillies Creek to the James River.

“Currently, DPW is leading the study on the floodplain and floodway to determine what is buildable in the study area,” said Burt Pinnock, a Richmond-based architect who has designed several local memorial projects. “I’m not sure what agencies will be involved in the planning. I’m not aware of a current contract for the planning, because the scope cannot be accurately defined until the environmental impact work is completed.”

The bottom line is that the city “wants to get [the study] done before engaging anybody to do anything down there.”

At this point it seems unlikely that the City would want to renege on its commitment to properly memorialize Shockoe Bottom, but exactly what will happen, and when, is still unclear.

And so the struggle continues.

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