Can Reconciling Slavery’s Legacy Shape Richmond’s Future?

March 22, 2018 - (6 min read)

Among city leaders and economic development professionals, it has become conventional wisdom that history can be a neighborhood’s greatest asset. Historic buildings, businesses, streets and public spaces offer the opportunity to tell the stories of a place’s unique identity — and done right, it can provide fuel for authentic revitalization, compete for private capital, public investment and people.

But some neighborhoods have histories that are difficult to talk about.

Perhaps this is because part of their story is deeply painful to parts of the community. Or perhaps it is because of fears that trying to understand what connections exist between that shameful past and the problems of the present could potentially alter the status quo.

As a participant in the Rose Center for Public Leadership’s Land Use Fellowship, Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, Virginia, asked the Rose Center to help his city find a shared vision for the Shockoe Bottom area, adjacent to downtown. Mayor Stoney and his team hoped to help Shockoe Bottom leverage its historic assets to create a destination, while also sustainably protecting its cultural and historic heritage.

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Many cities possess places that offer these kinds of opportunities and pose such challenges — but very few have the local history and national significance of Shockoe Bottom. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it has largely been razed and paved over, with the exception of some preserved buildings — including the majestic second Renaissance Revival-style Main Street Station and train shed, a national historic landmark built in 1901 and restored in 2003.

While it may not be widely known, Richmond was also a center for the transfer, sale and exchange of enslaved Africans in the U.S. — second only to New Orleans. Much of this history took place in Shockoe Bottom.

Over the past 20 years, advocates and government have partnered to identify locations of significance in the telling of Richmond’s enslavement heritage. In 2006, with funding from the city, state and other partners, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission began a groundbreaking archaeological excavation that yielded the remarkably intact remains of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail complex, confirmed the location of its associated African Burial Ground, and found more than 16,000 artifacts — all in a part of Shockoe Bottom known as “The Devil’s Half-Acre.”

A Richmond Slave Trail historical marker describes the African Burial Ground adjacent to the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail.

Over the years, Shockoe Bottom has been the site of many big dreams and failed schemes for redevelopment — primarily due to its proximity to downtown and the scale of public investment in the station. A renovation of the station as a shopping mall in the 1980s was unsuccessful, as was a planned minor league baseball stadium. Preservation activists helped scuttle that plan, which they saw as a threat to its archeological heritage, and proposed several ideas of their own for how to memorialize the site.

After touring the site and meeting with more than 50 stakeholders and local experts during the week of February 5, the Rose Fellowship’s panel of visiting experts offered a plethora of recommendations focusing on the public realm, land use, development, economic opportunity, education and governance. But they first began their presentation with a different message: that Richmond needs to have a bigger conversation about truth and reconciliation, about race and what has happened here, and how to move forward before it can dig into the future Shockoe Bottom.

“We all believe that for Richmond to move forward as a really inclusive community, that everybody needs to understand the story of the past,” said panel co-chair and Richmond Rose Fellowship faculty adviser Colleen Carey, founder and president of the Cornerstone Group, a Minneapolis-based development company. “And if you can’t talk about it, it sort of just haunts you in a  different way that doesn’t allow you to thrive.”

Can a public process offer the opportunity for both reconciliation and a shared vision? In the eloquent words of Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams:

“Listening to the panelists, it became painfully obvious how shallow our efforts have been. We’ve been more eager to commemorate than excavate this history. …

“Our shortcuts in pursuit of this project have led us into a labyrinth. The overuse of a cliché makes it no less true: You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. … [A] project largely confined to the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail site and African Burial Ground was described as one that should have connectivity as far away as Church Hill, the James River and the South Side. Main Street Station itself was suggested as the site of a museum; Shockoe as the location of a school whose curriculum could be tied to the Bottom’s history.

“The panelists gave us a pathway … that, if followed, have the potential to make us a less divided and more equitable city. Inclusion and equity — hardly Richmond’s historical watchwords — were recurring themes. An inclusive table of representatives would champion the heritage project. Richmond should establish an Office of Equity and Inclusion, along the lines of those in Seattle, Asheville and Raleigh, N.C., and Fairfax County. It should embark upon both a community engagement and truth and reconciliation process.

“The panelists appeared determined not to have this commemorative project heap yet another insult or injury on the descendants of African slaves. The sentiment was obvious: The erection of brick or bronze memorials is compromised without a foundation of trust. The presentation itself had the look of an effective trust-building exercise. A diverse audience, including Richmond’s inherently skeptical activist community, appeared both engaged and impressed by the depth of the presentation. Lots of work remains, and the realization of this vision could take a decade or more. But a project defined by a lack of shared vision seemed that much closer to coming into focus.”

Now in its ninth year, the Daniel Rose Land Use Fellowship is an annual program of NLC in partnership with the Urban Land Institute that provides technical assistance on a local urban development challenge in four large U.S. cities each year. In addition to Richmond, the 2017-2018 cohort includes Tucs Salt Lake City and Columbus, Ohio.

GideonBerger_2017june_DC.jpgAbout the Author: Gideon Berger is the program director for the Daniel Rose Fellowship in the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use.