Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2023 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 71, printed March 22. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

The decades-long struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize Shocke Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade, seems to be nearing its end.

Or is it?

Some serious money is now on the table: $28 million in Richmond’s current capital budget for what the City is calling the Enslaved Africans Heritage Campus (working title), and another $11 million from the Mellon Foundation for the visitors center and interpretive center that is to go into the first floor of the Main Street Station train shed. And there’s the money the Virginia General Assembly allocated for the memorialization of Shockoe Bottom, if it hasn’t already been eaten up by the ill-conceived “national slavery museum.”

(For updates on the Heritage Campus and interpretive center, see the reports on page 11.)

The Defenders have a proposal for how some of this money can directly benefit the Black community. But before we get to that, let’s first go over a bit of the history about how we got to this point and why this small area of land in downtown Richmond is so central to understanding Black history and the history of the country as a whole.

Let’s start at the beginning of the struggle.

Three stages in the struggle

Some 30 years ago, two things happened: The organization Hope in the Cities began to publicize the existence of what has been called the Slave Trail. Present-day advocates call it the Night Walk of Enslaved Africans, the path that captured Africans were forced to walk, at night, from the Manchester Docks on the James River to the slave jails of Shockoe Bottom, and later, from those jails back to the docks to be transported to the slave-trading centers further south.

And at about the same time, Richmond historian Elizabeth Kambourian, while conducting research at the Library of Virginia for a book she was writing about the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel, came across an old city map that had the notation “Burial Ground for Negroes.” It took her years, but she eventually was able to get the attention of others in the city about the existence of one of this country’s first municipal cemeteries for free and enslaved Black people.

In 2001, the Elegba Folklore Society incorporated the burial ground into its guided walk along the Trail of Enslaved Africans. The following week, the Richmond Free Press ran the city’s first news story about the burial ground, written by staff reporter Phil Wilayto, now the editor of The Virginia Defender.

City Council member Sa’ad El-Amin, who at that time chaired council’s Slave Trail Commission, began pressing the City to purchase the cemetery, which was covered by a private parking lot. Councilmember Delores McQuinn, now a state delegate, introduced a resolution for the City to do just that, but it was defeated.

At the time, the 3.1-acre site was valued at just $600,000. Meanwhile, council authorized $1.1 million to shore up the brick wall on the 25th Street side of St. Patrick’s Church in nearby Church Hill, where Patrick Henry, an attorney who did legal work for Gabriel’s owner, gave his famous (and very hypocritical) “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.

It took years of struggle – marches, rallies, petition campaigns, press conferences, packing city council meetings and a civil disobedience action organized by the Defenders, but finally, in 2011, the offending parking lot, then owned by Virginia Commonwealth University, a state institution, was removed and the area seeded in an effort arranged by King Salim Khalfani, then the executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP.

That was the first stage of the Shockoe Bottom struggle.

The second stage was the two-year fight to prevent former Mayor Dwight Jones and the Venture Richmond business organization from building a commercial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. In 2014, under tremendous community pressure, Jones withdrew his proposal from consideration by city council. Many organizations and individuals took part in that campaign, Black, white, Latino, with the leading role being played by the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

The third stage began when the Defenders led a citywide community consultation campaign that came up with the proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, which would include what was now known as the Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground; the nearby site of a notorious slave jail known as the Devil’s Half-Acre; and two more blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where other slave jails, slave trader offices and supporting businesses once stood. The idea was to create a memorial park large enough to prevent any more proposals for inappropriate development on this sacred ground.

City government, under the leadership of Mayor Levar Stoney, has finally embraced this proposal, partly because of the relentless community pressure, and partly because of the feedback the City was getting from organizations like Preservation Virginia; the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the Rose Fellowship, which deals with urban land issues; and even many members of the National Conference of Mayors, who were telling the City what a treasure it had in Shockoe Bottom, in terms of its potential for tourism.

It finally dawned on the politicians that Richmond was literally sitting on a gold mine.

So today, Mayor Stoney and the city council have fully committed to a 10-block Heritage Campus, which incorporates and builds on the Defenders’ proposal for the nine-acre memorial park.

So it looks like this long community struggle has finally succeeded in reclaiming and properly memorializing Shockoe Bottom. Right?

Well, not quite. There’s the question of who’s going to benefit from all this.

The economic significance of Shockoe Bottom

In the 30 years before the end of the Civil War, between 300,000 and 350,000 Africans and people of African descent were sold out of Virginia. Those figures are from the late noted VCU historian and author Philip J. Schwarz, who wrote about it in the first issue of this newspaper back in February of 2005. The newspaper was specifically started to educate the community about the history and importance of Shockoe Bottom. We also had a weekly radio program, DefendersLive, on WRIR 97.3 LP FM, 2005- 2013, which played a big role in popularizing the struggle.

From 1830 to 1865, up to 10,000 people a year were being sold out of the Bottom. New Orleans had a larger slave market, but Richmond was the epicenter, the fountainhead of the U.S. domestic slave trade. It was the warehouse district that supplied the retail markets further south, such as New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Vicksburg and so many more.

Slavery was seen as necessary for labor-intensive agriculture to be sufficiently profitable. Yet, after the Haitian Revolution terrified Southern slave owners, Congress banned importing more Africans through participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the Louisiana Purchase opened up a lot of rich farmland, which is why the domestic trade became so important. Richmond was surrounded by plantations with soil worn out by years of cotton farming, so the region had a “surplus” of enslaved laborers. And with its river, trains and access to the overland Fall Line Trail, Richmond became central to the booming domestic trade.

A center of Black suffering and resistance

That’s the economic importance of Shockoe Bottom. Now for the human history.

Shockoe Bottom was where Solomon Northup, who wrote the book “Twelve Years a Slave,” was held for a night while being transported to New Orleans. It’s where Anthony Burns was held for months after fleeing Virginia, being captured in Boston and returned to Richmond to be cruelly punished for his escape from bondage. It’s where Madison Washington was held before getting put on the brig Creole headed to New Orleans. At sea, he led a successful revolt, took over the ship and sailed it to freedom in Nassau. Shockoe Bottom is the site of so many stories of suffering, torture, degradation, courage, resilience, resistance and ultimately redemption.

It’s where, today, the majority of Black people in this country could likely trace some ancestry.

It truly is sacred ground.

And it’s only because of decades of determined struggle by literally thousands of people that Shockoe Bottom is getting a memorial park, and not parking lots and a baseball stadium.

Who will benefit?

With all this history and all this struggle, why shouldn’t the anticipated financial benefits of Shockoe Bottom’s memorialization go primarily to the descendent community? To the Black community?

Black-owned firms should be first in line to get contracts to design and build the memorial park, visitors center and interpretive center. Black workers should be first to get the jobs. We have proposed an African Market where artists and craftspeople could sell their wares.

And the Black community as a whole should be first to receive the benefits of the the increased sales tax revenue that the City will receive from the expected influx of tourists, who will stay at hotels, motels and Airbnbs; buy meals in restaurants; take local transportation; and visit other local attractions.


The City government expects to reap a windfall from the increase in sales taxes generated by the increase in tourism as a result of the memorialization of Shockoe Bottom. This money would normally go into the general operating budget. And that’s helpful, because former Mayor Jones, who promoted the stadium scheme in the Bottom, maxed out the City’s credit, so there’s very little money available to address Richmond’s many structural issues, like the stormwater crisis.

The Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project is proposing that a substantial portion of this increase in sales tax revenue go directly to the Black community, as a form of collective reparations for Richmond’s central role in the domestic slave trade. Years of attacks on affirmative action by racist, right-wing politicians have made direct racial set-asides illegal. But there’s another way.

Richmond’s public schools are in desperate need of money, for infrastructure upgrades to existing buildings, for new construction, for more teachers, custodians, bus drivers and counselors.

And 55% of Richmond public school students are Black. Another 19% are Latino, 3% are students of two or more races and 2% are Asian. 21% are white.

Earmarking a substantial portion of the increase in sales tax revenue for Richmond Public Schools would benefit all students, the vast majority of whom come from working-class families. But it would especially benefit Black students. And in both the short and long run, that would benefit the Black community as a whole.

There are many practical ways that this proposal could be put into action. One is simply to decide that a certain percentage of the increase in sales tax revenue be directed to Richmond Public Schools. It would have to be over and above what the City normally contributes, and not doing like the state lottery does, by saying lottery profits will go to the schools, but then reducing state aid to the schools to free up money for other “more important” things, like financial incentives to attract already wealthy out-of-state corporations.

Then there’s the TIF taxing tool that was promoted as part of the ill-fated Navy Hill project.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a value capture revenue tool that uses taxes on future gains in real estate values to pay for new infrastructure improvements. TIFs are authorized by state law in nearly all 50 states and begin with the designation of a geographic area as a TIF district.”

Once the Heritage Campus is up and running, property values in the surrounding neighborhoods and business district will shoot up. This wider area could be designated as a TIF district, with the taxes on future gains in real estate values earmarked for the schools.

Richmond has creative people. We’re sure there are many ways to make this happen. But the first step is to acknowledge that what amounts to the commodification of Shockoe Bottom’s history must primarily benefit the descendent community.

Otherwise, the decades of community struggle will have resulted in a hollow victory.

To discuss or support this proposal, please get in touch. Our contact information is available here. For updates on the Shockoe Bottom “Heritage Campus” and interpretive center, see page 11.

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