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Richmond, Virginia Torn Between Modernization, Historic Preservation

  • Penelope Poulou

Before America's Civil War in the 1860s, the southern city of Richmond, Virginia, was home to the nation's second largest slave trading district. Today, the neighborhood known as Shockoe Bottom is targeted for development and modernization. But residents and historic preservationists worry that those plans will endanger its legacy. While Richmond’s mayor advocates a much needed revitalization plan for this largely blighted African-American community, many fear that the district’s past, still buried under its asphalt-paved parking lots, could be destroyed by developers’ bulldozers.

“This is history that has been gone from us for so long we are just now been able to reclaim it,” said local activist Ana Edwards, adding that excavations could reveal what happened to the 400,000 African men and women who were brought to Richmond and sold in its slave auctions.

But Richmond's economy is hurting, says city mayor Dwight Jones.

“We have 26 percent poverty rate and so it is very important for us to expand our tax base particularly if we are going to give them money we need to give to schools and improve infrastructure.”

He wants to revitalize Shockoe Bottom, the city's downtown area, by building a baseball stadium, apartment buildings, grocery stores and a hotel where parking lots now sit.

Many local business owners support the plan because they feel they would benefit from higher foot traffic and crowds coming to baseball games. Restaurant owner Juan Braxton calls the proposed stadium and adjacent developments a much needed business anchor. “The whole neighborhood is built by individual entrepreneurs. So, this development is do or die for this area.”

Edwards does not oppose the mayor’s plan, but she feels it’s not appropriate for the Shockoe area. Underneath its parking lots, she says, where the proposed baseball stadium would stand, lie archeological treasures from Shockoe Bottom’s days as a center for the slave trade, more than 150 years ago. Those treasures were paved over by thoughtless development of the historic downtown area in the mid-20th century. According to Robert Nieweg, field director and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “In Richmond, and in Virginia and in the South in generally, there has been a conscious effort to erase and forget hard chapters of American history.”

Archeologists have unearthed a part of that history in the area. A memorial marks the site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, where thousands of slaves were held, and the African burial ground next to it.

But Nieweg says the tribute should be much wider in scope and depth.

“Shockoe Bottom is a place of conscience. There are sites of conscience across the world and they function to both remind us what happened historically but also give us an opportunity today to deal with the repercussions of that kind of history, make connections in our hearts and our minds to things that are happening today," he explained.

Nieweg says the Shockoe district would benefit more by focusing on international historic tourism than on baseball fans. According to Ana Edwards, preserving Shockoe Bottom would also allow Richmond to commemorate the history of its slaves as much as the history of its slave owners. She contrasts the slaves' graveyard, a modest expanse of grass with a few stone markers, to the well manicured, ornate cemetery where the white conferederate solders are buried.

“You don’t find anything that lets you know that Black people had almost anything to do with this city and its evolution. …There are stipulations that no sculpture can be taller than the monument of [Confederal general] Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue," she said.

Delores McQuinn spent nearly 20 years identifying and marking the trail that brought enslaved Africans to Richmond's auction blocks. Now the city’s slave trail commissioner, she sees the Mayor’s plan as the only way to fund a much needed slavery museum and additional memorials on Shockoe’s slave legacy. And if his plan falls through?

“I imagine that we will continue to have asphalt here for a very long time," she said.