Slave Trail Seeks to Free City’s History

By Stephanie Power and Anna Yates
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Near the corner of 17th and Main streets downtown is the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, where African slaves arriving at the Manchester docks were held before being sold off.

Down the street, under a parking lot, is an old burial ground for slaves and poor free blacks. There, Gabriel Prosser was hanged in 1800 for planning a slave rebellion.

A few blocks south, among abandoned storefronts and newer buildings, stands a dilapidated brick structure. It was once an auction house where African slaves were lined up and sold as if they were no more than livestock.

Those and other sites helped establish Richmond’s shameful history as a center for the slave trade. Today, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission has created a trail it hopes will lead to reconciliation and understanding.

Burial Ground, on Richmond Slave Trail

Burial Ground, on Richmond Slave Trail

The trail includes the Reconciliation Statue unveiled in 2007 in Shockoe Bottom. The statue depicts two people emerging from one form and embracing. Identical statues stand in Benin, West Africa, and Liverpool, England. With Richmond, those locations represent the “triangle trade” of slavery.

Sa’ad El-Amin, who no longer sits on the commission, founded it in 1998 while serving as a member of the Richmond City Council. He said the statues are symbolic.

“It reflects the attempt for countries and others who were engaged in the slave trade to reconcile the issues and make some atonement and recognition of the wrong that was done,” El-Amin said.

Another project bringing attention to the commission is the archeological dig of Lumpkin’s Jail. Along with other artifacts, the dig unearthed the base of the jail structure.

“It was part of the lost history of that part of Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Slip that’s devoted to the marketing of human flesh,” El-Amin said.

Dr. Philip Schwarz, commission member and retired history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has authored three books about Virginia’s slavery. He said the dig confirmed that the jail consisted of several structures. Development covers some of the complex.

“We couldn’t excavate part of it because that’s under Interstate 95,” Schwarz said. “Back in the 1950s when Interstate 95 was built in Richmond, there was no federal law that required any kind of archeological survey beforehand. So we missed out on that bit, but we got to the main parts.”

Schwarz said another obstacle is ignorance. Most people, he said, don’t know the extent of Richmond’s involvement with slavery. Because Virginia allowed slavery for so long, over time it held and profited from the largest number of slaves in the United States.

“That surprises some people,” Schwarz said. “The largest number meant a large history and the diverse stories to be told.”

According to El-Amin, people and businesses involved in the African slave trade earned huge profits. He estimates the total revenue from slavery in Virginia exceeded $3 billion in today’s dollars.

“It was the largest enterprise in Richmond history,” El-Amin said. “It even eclipsed the tobacco industry in terms of the amount of money made and the amount of involvement. So it was very significant … many don’t acknowledge this travesty in human history.”

El-Amin said ignorance about slavery damages the city.

“It becomes a city of secrets and lies. It’s like having a little secret in the family that no one talks about so it never gets dealt with,” El-Amin said. “Reconciliation can only happen when there’s acceptance, acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility.”

Schwarz agreed that much has been ignored.

“A great deal of history is overlooked. That’s in the nature,” Schwarz said. “Think of how enormous – that is, how far back it goes. But there are people who know that this history has either been ignored or suppressed.”

The commission has made progress informing the public about slavery. It has even received national publicity, with a feature in the March issue of Smithsonian magazine.

El-Amin said there is now a more open dialog.

“People are less uncomfortable about dealing with it,” he said. “Now, the question is how will it play when you talk about marking these sites and preserving these sites and developing a whole tourist industry around these sites – as much as they do with the Confederacy.”

Forming a tourist district is next on the commission’s agenda. Schwarz said this won’t be simple, but making the trail a major tourist spot is important for the future.

“Getting people to learn about history is an uphill battle, because people are so busy,” he said. “We just keep plugging and get converts and do things that are substantial and then make the trail a concrete trail – concrete in the figurative sense.”

Delores McQuinn, a state delegate and former City Council member, chairs the commission. Her legislative assistant, Beverly Crawford, said several projects would solidify the trail as a tourist destination. A museum, genealogical center, relocation of a slave cottage and expansion of the trail are being considered.

The commission is at an important juncture, Crawford said. “What they’re going to do now is redefine their role with City Council so it can expand beyond a trail to a broader purpose.”

Crawford said the commission is beginning to serve a significant national role.

“It’s not just a slave trail commission now; it’s more like a slave commission,” she said. “When you see things like exposure in the Smithsonian, it’s more of a national impact.”

Crawford said it’s important for the country to recognize this history and memorialize it so future generations can learn from what happened.

“Now is the time to mark these trails and burial grounds and historical areas with sensitivity,” she said. “Yes, it is painful, but that’s part of it. You can’t escape the painful part of the memory.”


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