Finding Balance in Truth and Reconciliation at Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom
Historic Shockoe Bottom is at the heart of downtown Richmond, Virginia, and it was the second busiest slave market in the United States between 1830 and 1865. During that antebellum period, virtually every business and building in Shockoe Bottom served the disgraceful purpose of selling human beings; more than 350,000 people were bought and sold there. This sacred ground is historically significant—and tragic—for how central it was to our nation’s trade in human beings. We must do justice to this historic site.
Shockoe Bottom also is remarkable because since the end of the Civil War, the place has been virtually erased, and its harsh memories nearly lost, while Richmond’s Monument Avenue—a boulevard of towering statues that laud Confederate leaders—was erected and celebrated in the same city. Today, Monument Avenue is well preserved as a National Historic Landmark district. By contrast, over time Shockoe Bottom was gradually industrialized and then completely bulldozed. An interstate highway intersected it, and Shockoe Bottom has since devolved into a blighted parking lot.
Before the National Trust started working on our National Treasure campaign to save Shockoe Bottom, three local efforts to preserve its memory were already underway. One was to create the Richmond Slave Trail, which follows the journey of enslaved people, from the riverside dock where they were offloaded to slave pens where they were eventually sold into bondage. Richmond’s official Slave Trail Commission, chaired by Virginia Delegate Dolores L. McQuinn, leads the effort to establish Shockoe Bottom as a place of truth and reconciliation.
Advocates also have worked to recover an African American cemetery central to Shockoe Bottom. For generations, that cemetery for enslaved and free people was covered by an asphalt parking lot. In 2011, after years of struggle, grassroots activists led by the Sacred Ground Project successfully turned the parking lot into a solemn green space with interpretation that marks the African Burial Ground as a sacred space.
The third preservation effort was around an archaeological excavation at Shockoe Bottom. Funded by the City of Richmond and others, an investigation showed that there are extensive archaeological remains throughout the district. Beneath 10 feet of fill dirt, for example, lie the remains of a slave pen called the Devil’s Half Acre where, between 2005 and 2010, archaeologists found the foundations of Robert Lumpkin’s Slave Jail as well as paving stones on which enslaved people once walked.
Shockoe Bottom ... has been virtually erased, and its harsh memories nearly lost.
Taken together, these individual projects—the Richmond Slave Trail, African Burial Ground, and Devil’s Half Acre—reflect an impressive effort to recover the difficult history of Shockoe Bottom and its place in the United States domestic slave trade.
Nevertheless, Shockoe Bottom was not safe from ill-considered proposals for real estate development. In 2014, the National Trust was invited to join the grassroots campaign to stop construction of a minor league baseball stadium on top of this sacred space. The stadium was promoted by then-Mayor Dwight Jones and the city’s real estate development community.
However, an alliance of social justice activists and historic preservationists strongly opposed the stadium. Working closely with Preservation Virginia, the National Trust raised the alarm across the country by featuring Shockoe Bottom on our 2014 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and by designating Shockoe as a National Treasure. Together, we are making a strong case to Richmond city leaders that Shockoe Bottom is nationally significant and merits thoughtful preservation.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o was moved to join our National Treasure campaign, penning a heartfelt letter to Mayor Jones, urging him to drop the stadium plan and drawing the connection between Shockoe Bottom and similar places, including Robin Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
By October 2015, in a stunning victory for preservation, city officials scrapped the baseball stadium proposal, and social justice and preservation activists turned to the challenge of proposing a better vision for the future of Shockoe Bottom.
To this end, the National Trust worked with the Center for Design Engagement to help local stakeholders refine and promote their community-generated proposal for a memorial park at Shockoe Bottom, a concept that would “marry” commemoration, interpretation, and equitable economic redevelopment. The Sacred Ground Project has been the main champion for the memorial park.
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Pursuant to the proposal, nine acres of land in Shockoe will be turned into a space for contemplation and reflection on the cruelty of and suffering caused by slavery, but also the courage and endurance of those who had been enslaved here. Those extraordinary themes are embedded in individual sites throughout Shockoe Bottom.
Robert Lumpkin’s Slave Jail at the Devil’s Half Acre, for example, was transformed into a school for free African Americans shortly after the Civil War. The Freedmen’s school grew, moved, and became Virginia Union University in downtown Richmond, an esteemed Historically Black University (HBCU).
Although the idea for a memorial park had already been conceived by local activists, the National Trust’s role was to offer our institutional knowledge of preservation best practices to strengthen the existing proposal and to bring this innovative solution to a broader, national audience.
For instance, the National Trust immediately saw Shockoe Bottom’s potential as a “site of conscience” and as a part of the international network of such historic places that bring difficult history to light and spark public dialogue to address modern-day injustices. Using previous examples of preservation strategies at places like Manzanar, one of 10 camps where Japanese American citizens were unjustly incarcerated during World War II, we added some of the themes and practices around such sites of conscience to Shockoe Bottom.
The National Trust also is helping local advocates officially recognize Shockoe Bottom as historically significant through the concept of a traditional cultural property (TCP) listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although these TCP sites may have lost their original physical integrity, they retain their historic significance through the living customs and traditions of their local communities.
Again, we are using past examples of traditional cultural properties—which are most often used to recognize cultural landscapes that are revered by American Indian tribes—to explore the strategic benefits of listing Shockoe Bottom as a TCP on the National Register.
It is our hope that the park will serve as a counterbalance to the imposing character of Monument Avenue.
In the current stage of this National Treasure campaign, the National Trust, Sacred Ground Project, and Preservation Virginia together are using a $75,000 grant provided by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to analyze the most effective ways to promote equitable economic redevelopment in the downtown neighborhoods adjacent to Shockoe Bottom. As preservationists and as advocates for social justice, we know that one way to acknowledge the modern-day legacies of slavery is to promote equitable economic revitalization for descendant communities that have long been at a disadvantage.
As a new year begins, we are gratified that Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney has publicly expressed his support for an expansive strategy to commemorate Shockoe Bottom, and that he has incorporated key concepts from the community-generated memorial park proposal into his new unified vision for Shockoe Bottom. This is a significant victory for preservation.
In March, May, July, and September 2019, we understand Mayor Stoney will host a series of public meetings to gather feedback and galvanize support for the unified vision, which centers commemoration, education, and equitable economic redevelopment.
We know that Mayor Stoney seeks to bring together the diverse stakeholders who are striving to honor Shockoe Bottom, and we hope that in the next year the community will achieve its long-standing goal of securing a positive future for this evocative National Treasure.
When Shockoe Bottom is finally transformed into a memorial park, it is our hope that the park will serve as a counterbalance to the imposing character of Monument Avenue. We believe that, by recognizing the full stories of Richmond’s complex history and by promoting Shockoe Bottom as a center for commemoration, education, and equity, Richmond can continue its ongoing work of fostering truth and reconciliation.