Richmond Advocates Respond to Mayor's Statement on Shockoe Bottom

Dec. 15, 2017

℅ Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality
Richmond, Virginia


The statement released Dec. 13 by Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney addressing the future of Shockoe Bottom contains an important declaration:

"The sacred grounds contained within Shockoe Bottom, in particular, the Shockoe Valley footprint, is a nationally significant historical area we will protect and honor. In doing so, we have an opportunity to create a cultural and international destination that will not only educate, but also promote contemplation, dialogue, reconciliation, and ultimately, healing."
We are heartened by this promise to protect and honor the deeply significant Shockoe Valley, site of the origins of Richmond and its history as the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade. This represents a formal recognition of the importance of this area, and a position from which a productive, collaborative process can be engaged.

However, we are also deeply concerned. The mayor announced that a team of experts and advisors from the Rose Center for Public Leadership, a land-use project of the National League of Cities and Urban Land Institute, would be coming to Richmond in February to review what he called “the City’s plan” for Shockoe Bottom. This team would “... engage the community through additional interviews with stakeholders and make additional recommendations on how we are moving forward to enact our vision for the area.”

This administration has not yet presented a “plan” for Shockoe Bottom, so to what is this statement referring?

There already is a “vision for the area.” It has been thoroughly vetted and has won broad support.

The community-generated proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park would include the site of the Devil’s Half-Acre (Lumpkin’s Jail Archaeology Site), the African Burial Ground and two undeveloped blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where other slave jails, trader offices and supporting businesses once thrived.

This proposal was developed over five months of public meetings culminating Aug. 15, 2015, in a unanimous citywide vote. The proposal was repeatedly and overwhelmingly reaffirmed by community members at every public meeting held by former Mayor Dwight Jones’ competing Richmond Speaks process and by the subsequent and ongoing series of workshops and public meetings held by the SmithGroup JJR consultant group. And unlike those expensive City-sponsored processes, the community process did not cost Richmond taxpayers a single dime.

The memorial park proposal has been endorsed by the Richmond Branch NAACP, Richmond Crusade for Voters, Fall of the James Chapter of the Sierra Club, Route 5 Corridor Coalition, Preservation Virginia; Richmond notables such as Viola Baskerville, Dr. Leonard Edloe, John Moeser, Martha Rollins, John Mitchell Jr., Philip Schwarz; and national organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Historians Against Slavery, the Solomon Northup Foundation and many other state and national organizations, historians and preservationists.

Based on our experience over the past several years, we have little faith in the City’s approach to Shockoe Bottom. Delegate Delores McQuinn, who has chaired City Council’s Slave Trail Commission, certainly deserves credit for championing Richmond’s history through city and state legislation. But the commission stood down during the long community struggle to reclaim the African Burial Ground, and actively promoted the former mayor’s developer-driven scheme to build a baseball stadium on the sacred ground of Shockoe Bottom.

It is alarming that the City has yet to take steps to secure the African Burial Ground with protective zoning. It has stalled on processing the application for “Old and Historic” designation for the Burial Ground and Devil’s Half-Acre sites, and the mayor’s statement in essence announces another delay in securing that protection.

More alarming, Mayor Stoney has just recently expressed his support for a state proposal for high-speed rail in Richmond that would include the building of parking decks on land bordering the CSX railroad tracks intended to be the eastern section of the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

All this raises a question: What is Mayor Stoney’s vision? Is it to properly memorialize one of the most important sites in Black history? Or is it to accommodate the wealthy and politically influential downtown developers - especially the major Shockoe Bottom developers - who have long coveted this sacred ground for personal profit?

In the coming days, we will be consulting with our community allies and our partners in preservation as we redouble our efforts to reclaim this irreplaceable site that once again is in danger.

In this process we reiterate that we are more than willing to work with city officials to collectively move this process forward. At the same time, we reaffirm that we will not rest until Shockoe Bottom is reclaimed and properly memorialized in a way that accurately and fearlessly tells the story of the suffering, resistance and immense profit-making that took place there. We need a process of truth, as well as reconciliation.

And that process and memorialization must primarily economically benefit the city’s Black community, something that the City’s efforts up to now do not address.

Ana Edwards - Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project
Rev. Rodney Hunter - Pastor, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
Lynetta Thompson - Community Advocate & Former President, Richmond Branch NAACP
Phil Wilayto - Editor, The Virginia Defender

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