‘Shockoe Bottom has a role to play’ in elevating African-American history in Virginia

By: - April 24, 2019 11:15 pm

Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, leads a walking tour of the Lumpkin’s slave jail and the African burial ground sites on Oct. 9, 2016. (Charlotte Rene Woods/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Back in the early 2000s, when the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project was launched to uncover an African burial ground in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom from beneath layers of asphalt, Ana Edwards and other advocates couldn’t conceive of a Richmond that would be debating removing Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

Times have clearly changed, the result of a confluence of high profile incidents of racial violence like Charleston and Charlottesville, police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement, and, most recently in Virginia, the blackface scandal involving the governor and attorney general that broke earlier this year.

“The circumstances around the country are very different,” Edwards said.

Those conditions, combined with years of effort by community groups like Edwards’ Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality and other organizations and individuals, have created new momentum behind plans to appropriately commemorate Shockoe Bottom’s dark but crucial history as the site of the burial ground, the second-largest slave-trading market in the United States and the execution of Gabriel, a slave who led a failed rebellion in 1800.

“It can feel glacial,” Edwards said. “But we do feel that we’re in one of those spots that we hoped we all would be in.”

The new Shockoe Alliance, convened by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s office, which will help guide the implementation of recommendations and designs for memorials in an area full of under-acknowledged African-American history, held its first community outreach meeting last week.

The alliance includes representatives from city government, Shockoe Partnership, Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association, Preservation Virginia and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which has advocated for the area for 15 years.

In 2015, the group created a proposal for the establishment of a memorial park encompassing the bottom’s historical sites.

“Within or outside this collaboration our goal remains the establishment of a memorial park that protects what remains of the land that can tell the history of slavery, resistance and progress in Richmond,” said Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground project. “I believe that there is a much greater consensus in the city now about the importance of elevating this history and that Shockoe Bottom has a role to play in helping Richmond move forward through its past.”

This year is also the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ first arrival in the state. In February, Richmond City Council voted to rename Boulevard (which intersects with the Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson monument on Monument Avenue) to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, making it a literal intersection of race and history.

At the state level, Del. Dolores McQuinn, D-Richmond, has gained funding for maintenance of various African-American cemeteries in recent legislative sessions. Following Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal in February, he said that he thought Confederate monuments belonged in museums, echoing a stance he took during his 2017 campaign, and he recently called for the removal of a Jefferson Davis monument at Fort Monroe.

Meanwhile, in January, the General Assembly killed a bill by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, that would have allowed localities to determine what to do with their monuments. His bill had also been previously defeated the year before in a Republican majority subcommittee.

“Even though we worked on the bill before the 2019 session, focusing it on Confederate memorials rather than all war memorials or monuments and providing the subcommittee members with multiple reasons why Virginia law should ensure clear authority for local governments to make decisions about such monuments in their public spaces, the vote was identical,” Toscano said.

He added that with a possible Democratic majority delivered by the 2019 election, the bill could be reintroduced and passed.

The Shockoe Alliance’s upcoming meetings are the latest in long, ongoing process to determine how to best memorialize historical sites in Shockoe Bottom while further developing the neighborhood.

Richmond is among three other cities to receive guidance from the Rose Center for Public Leadership and National League of Cities, and it is the Rose Center fellowship that has spurred the establishment of the Shockoe Alliance. The mayor’s office also created a History and Culture Commission.

One of its first tasks will center on memorializing Shockoe Bottom’s history and steering implementation of recommendations from the Monument Avenue Commission. Since 2016, D.C.-based architecture firm SmithGroupJJR has been attached to memorializing areas of Shockoe Bottom and the firm conducted community outreach that also involved some members of the Shockoe Alliance and students from Richmond public schools.

The city has about $19 million in state and local funding, the Times-Dispatch reported, to improve the Richmond Slave Trail and memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site.

Meanwhile, Preservation Virginia received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust called the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. According to Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia, the grant allows for an economic impact study that will be conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban & Regional Analysis. Preservation Virginia has assembled a resource group with experts in urban planning, equitable development and historic preservation.

“We’re looking at the local experts and people from around the country that can come in and share their models that have worked in other communities,” Kostelny said.

“We don’t think there’s any community that has the same mix as Richmond. We really think this is an opportunity for Richmond to lead on this kind of equitable development opportunity, but we want to draw from the experience of other localities so we can sample what has been effective.”

Kostelny says the resource group met last week and anticipates it producing a report over the summer.

Between the various teams, involved players have a variety of experience and resources to bring to the table.

Bill Martin, director of The Valentine says that museums involved in the commission, such as The Valentine, can provide resources and materials such as artifacts, but that the key to memorializing the area comes from the combined voices.

“There are voices and stories that need to be told,” Martin said. “If this commission can help elevate those voices, that’s an important part of the project.”

Elevating community voices is a strong focus for commission member Free Egunfemi, as an independent member of the commission not associated with an organization. She’s been highlighting history for about a decade.

Egunfemi is the founder of Untold RVA, which has various markers throughout Richmond. Through her years of work elevating the history and stories of the past, she is well connected to communities and can suggest other points of contact who can be brought in or consulted.

Egunfemi says she is excited that the commission can help continue conversations that have already been in play.

“I am self-determined and independently motivated to do this work,” Egunfemi said. “I want to find a way to get in there to amplify the current work, but also look for the spaces that are not being addressed, and find a way to fill in some of the gaps.”

She says there is less need to contract with people outside the city due to the local advocates, historians, and residents in the neighborhood.

“Imagine if there wasn’t someone like myself on the commission to say ‘Hey wait a minute, we’ve already got something. This is the perfect time to throw some resources and education,’” Egunfemi said. “We know that in the past we haven’t had much justice when it comes to celebrating and honoring the contributions of people of color. I think we’re going to get it right this time.”

Editor Robert Zullo contributed.

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Charlotte Rene Woods
Charlotte Rene Woods

Charlotte Rene Woods is a former freelance journalist. She is now the government, climate and land use reporter for Charlottesville Tomorrow.