Staff Report - The Virginia Defender

RICHMOND, VA -- More than 250 people attended an all-day symposium Dec. 7 at the Library of Virginia that examined the history of Black people in the state, with an emphasis on the downtown Richmond district that once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

“Truth & Conciliation in the 400th Year: A Shockoe Bottom Public History Symposium” was co-sponsored by the state library and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which since 2002 has been working to reclaim and properly memorialize this sacred ground.

Presenters at the event included 22 scholars and advocates, 13 of whom hold doctorates in their fields, and three very talented cultural workers. Among those who spoke were Michael Blakey, the anthropologist who led the examination of human remains found at New York City’s African Burial Ground; Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond; Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Project; Douglas Egerton, author of “Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802”; Gregg Kimball, director of Public Services and Outreach at the Library of Virginia; Midori Takagi, author of “Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865”; Shawn O. Utsey, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. (A complete list of participants is posted at www.dec7symposium.org.)

The symposium also received greetings from Hassan Shabazz and Askari Danso, prisoner co-founders of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, who traced the present system of mass incarceration to the slave jails of Shockoe Bottom.

Two of the most moving presentations came from Lauranett Lee, professor of history at the University of Richmond, and Lenora McQueen, an independent researcher from San Antonio, Texas.
At times weeping, Lee described the trauma of enslaved children’s lives as victims of physical abuse and being torn away from mothers and fathers through sale. From the trafficking of Black children in the 19th century, Lee then drew a line to the trafficking in children from Richmond today.
McQueen read a letter written by the woman who owned her four-times-great grandmother, Kitty Cary, to her sister about Mrs. Cary’s last moments before her death, and then stated she was buried in the burial ground most associated with the Medical College of Virginia’s practice of body snatching for anatomical study. This practice was described in a later session as part of the presentation by Rhonda Keyes Pleasants about the East Marshall Street Well Project.

In and of itself, the symposium was intended to raise the collective understanding of the history of enslaved and free Black life, struggles, achievements and legacies from the city’s earliest years, centering on the role of Shockoe Bottom.

A late addition to the program was Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who had been invited to attend and declare his support for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, a community-generated proposal that has won overwhelming popular support. The proposed park would include Richmond’s African Burial Ground; the sites of many auction houses; and at least four slave jails, including the particularly notorious one known as the Devil's Half-Acre; as well as several slave trader offices and supporting businesses.

The plan is opposed by local real estate developers who want the land for profit-making projects, and by corporate leaders who do not want Richmond’s public image associated with the city’s central role in the domestic slave trade.

Unfortunately, Mayor Stoney did not declare his support for the memorial park, instead opting to express general support for memorializing the local history. When challenged by a member of the audience to take a clear stand on the park proposal, the mayor first said he would discuss the matter “after the meeting,” and then, when others also spoke out, fell back to asking how the park would be paid for.

In fact, with support from the Sacred Ground Project, the nonprofit organization Preservation Virginia had received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to arrange for an economic study of the economic benefits of a memorial park to the city as a whole and its Black community in particular. The mayor’s office had been sent a copy of the study’s report.
The overwhelming consensus of those attending the symposium was that it had been a tremendously important, enlightening and inspiring event that greatly increased public support for the memorial park proposal.

The Sacred Ground Project and its allies will be calling a community meeting to strategize on the next steps in the ongoing struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize this sacred ground.
Video of the symposium is posted at https://www.facebook.com/watchparty/436702803897186/ and https://www.facebook.com/sacredgroundproject/videos/2764209483600532/?hc_location=ufi. It and photos will be posted soon at the website www.dec7symposium.org.

For more information on the Shockoe Bottom struggle, visit www.sacredgroundproject.net or contact the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project at DefendersFJE@hotmail.com or call or text 804.644.5834.