January 15, 2015

A Letter from Lupita: Why Shockoe Bottom Deserves -- and Demands -- Protection

Written by Erica Stewart, Manager, Public Affairs

Shockoe Bottom in downtown Richmond, Virginia, was once the second-largest slave trading site in the country. Today, it is mostly a patchwork of vacant lots and surface parking.

This is no way to treat the land on which men, women and children were bought, sold, and tortured. Neither is building a major league ballpark upon it, which is exactly what Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones is proposing in his “Revitalize RVA” plan.

This threat prompted us to list Shockoe Bottom to 2014’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and also to name it to our portfolio of National Treasures. We are now working with Preservation Virginia, local leaders, and national experts to shape an alternative development plan that would excavate the archeological remains that lie beneath the ballpark site and uplift Shockoe Bottom as a place for reflection, healing, and learning. (Read more about the project in this previous post.)


Our work caught the attention of actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Patsey in the film “12 Years a Slave,” based on the memoir of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northrup. She was moved to write a passionate hand-written letter to the mayor, expressing her desire to see Shockoe Bottom preserved as a site of conscience. Here’s what she had to say.

Dear Mayor Dwight Jones,

My name is Lupita Nyong'o. I am an actress, best known for my portrayal of Patsey in Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years A Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup.

I learned recently that the "Revitalize RVA" program intends to construct a minor league baseball stadium, among other commercial structures in Shockoe Bottom, over the archaeological remains of America's second-largest slave trading center. I write to ask you to withdraw your support of such a venture.

Evidence of America's slave history simply must be preserved, as the legacy of slavery affects all American people. The tactic of the enslaver was to systematically erase all memory of the African's past; let us not repeat this ill by contributing to the erasure of his past in America too. Though this history is ugly and unjust, Shockoe Bottom is a site of conscience, a place where we can bear witness to the human rights abuses of slavery, learn from the lessons of history, and spark a conscience in people so that they can choose the actions that promote justice and lasting peace today.

And yet you are no stranger to the cause for education and the advancement of society through knowledge. On top of being an accomplished scholar yourself, during your term as mayor, you have seen to the construction of four schools in Richmond. I am confident that these schools are intended to engage students in understanding and interpreting our shared history, stimulating their minds about social issues that concern them, and promoting humanitarian values. A preserved Shockoe Bottom can be an integral part of these students' unique educational experience.

Historical sites like these are valuable not only to Americans, but to the entire world that engages with America. I, for one, originate from Kenya, and had it not been for the preservation of slave history on the plantations in Louisiana and within the walls of museums that I visited, my immersion into Patsey's life and lifestyle would not have been as deep nor as empathetic as it was. I may not have been as equipped to portray her and thus contribute to the cinematic heritage that we now have in the movie, 12 Years A Slave.
We would be appalled if a casino was built over Gisozi in Rwanda, a mega mall was constructed over Robin Island in South Africa, or new condos were erected through the gates of Buchenwald in Germany. Let us therefore not have a baseball stadium sit atop the legacies of slavery at Shockoe Bottom.

I urge you to set aside the baseball stadium plans and, instead, fully involve the public in determining how best to commemorate the past of slavery at Shockoe Bottom.

Lupita Nyong'o

Lupita is not alone in calling for a new vision for the future of Shockoe Bottom, one that does not destroy the layers of history but rather honors them. Over the next week, we’ll introduce you to some of these allies, ranging from college students to citizen activists to national experts. They’ll share with you their unique perspective on why Shockoe Bottom matters and why it deserves our most thoughtful preservation.

We need your voice, too. Join our effort by calling on Mayor Dwight Jones and Richmond’s City Council to reject this stadium plan and look for alternatives that would preserve the historic and difficult legacy at Shockoe Bottom. Together, we can create a compelling future for this important site.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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