Pitting the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park against the needs of poor & working people in Richmond is a hypocritical attempt to kill the park proposal

On July 28, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney held a press conference at the Devil’s Half-Acre (Lumpkin’s Jail) to announce that, with the removal of the city’s Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, it was time to turn attention to Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade. 

At the press conference, Mayor Stoney clearly stated that $3.5 million in city money was immediately available to begin the process of creating the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, long demanded by the Richmond community. However, just days later, media investigations revealed that, not only would the $3.5 million have to be approved by City Council, but several council members would oppose the use of any new-found funds for anything other than addressing housing and other critical social needs during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Now, almost two months later, Mayor Stoney has attempted to introduce a resolution to city council calling for $1.7 million to be used for the Memorial Park. The headline of the Richmond Free Press framed the moment as “Affordable housing or slavery memorial park may be next funding question for City Council.” 

This will not do. There is no either/or here. During the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, the people’s health and housing needs must come first.  

The Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality was founded in 2002. We are known for working to reclaim and properly memorialize Shockoe Bottom, but also for fighting for the survival of our communities: exposing the city’s shortcomings in addressing lead-poison hazards; opposing gas heat cut-offs in the winter; promoting the rights and well-being of prisoners and jail inmates; exposing police abuse; supporting efforts to help the houseless; and much more. In the midst of this pandemic, we are NOT demanding that millions of city dollars be spent on the Memorial Park.

What we ARE demanding is a firm commitment by the mayor and city council to creating the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park in a process that includes meaningful community input and ensures that the financial benefits of the park’s construction and operation primarily go to those descended from the enslaved people bought and sold in Shockoe Bottom and other slave-trading districts.

The first step in moving forward in this process would be the long-overdue creation of protective zoning for the Memorial Park’s footprint: the 3.1-acre African Burial Ground, the 1.7-acre Devil’s Half-Acre and the two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks that once included several other slave jails and slave trader offices. 

Such protective zoning would cost the city nothing, but would set it on the road - as funding becomes feasible - to create the Memorial Park. Failure to take this step would expose all the rhetoric about concern for this sacred ground to be nothing more than that: empty rhetoric.

There are two other points that need to be addressed:

First: A Free Press story has stated that the Memorial Park would cost a total of $38 million. That is not correct. That figure includes other elements, such as parking. The only projection to date for how much the park itself would cost is $8.5 million. This was the figure published in the Shockoe Bottom Memorialization Community and Economic Impacts report produced by VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis for Preservation Virginia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Sacred Ground Project. 

Second: In the course of recent discussions about the future of Shockoe Bottom, there has been a concerted effort to give credit where credit is not due. Mayor Stoney and others initially stated that it was the mayor’s Shockoe Alliance and other bodies that developed the proposal for the memorial park. Not only was this factually incorrect, it seemed a transparent attempt to dismiss and negate the decades-long community struggle that has been responsible for getting the memorialization of Shockoe Bottom to this point in the first place.

A little history lesson is in order: The Shockoe Alliance, which includes the Sacred Ground Project, was formed in 2018. The Community Proposal for a nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park was unveiled in 2015, after an extended community process led by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders. (See http://www.sacredgroundproject.net). And it came from a community keenly aware of its own priorities: affordable housing and health care; a viable public transit system; living-wage jobs; public safety without police brutality. 

Developing the proposal, with the assistance of the Center for Design Engagement and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, did not cost the city a dime. Under the leadership of the Sacred Ground Project, scores of historians, preservationists, archeologists, architects and activists contributed their time, expertise and resources to develop and finess the proposal. Meanwhile, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on competing plans, with most of the money going to white-owned firms.

We understand that this whole issue has been controversial. Shockoe Bottom is valuable real estate coveted by politically influential “developers.” These developers and other real estate interests are generous contributors to local politicians. Further, powerful business interests in the city and beyond do not want Richmond to be associated in the public mind with its horrific history as the country’s major wholesale center for the immensely profitable trade in human beings.

We also are aware that, after nearly two decades of public education, community organizing and mass protests, the Richmond community, and especially its Black residents, have made it abundantly clear that it wants a proper memorialization of Shockoe Bottom, with repeated and consistently expressed support for the nine-acre Memorial Park.

Therefore, we are challenging Mayor Stoney and every member of Richmond City Council - and every candidate for council - to declare their support for protective zoning for the footprint of the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. Times will change and financial priorities will shift, but taking this one simple step will ensure that we finally are on the road to creating the park.

Meanwhile, the concept of the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park has been included in the small-area plan for Shockoe Bottom being developed by the Shockoe Alliance. It is now part of the strategy for Richmond’s evolution between now and 2037 when the city will mark its 300th anniversary. The Memorial Park will become part of the infrastructure of a reimagined public history landscape that will help this city tell more of its truths to everyone who comes here. 

In 2011, after a decade-long community struggle. Richmond’s African Burial Ground was reclaimed from its desecration as a VCU parking lot. In 2014, after a two-year struggle, the community succeeded in blocking plans to build a baseball stadium on this sacred ground. The current campaign to win the Memorial Park is the third stage in this ongoing struggle. 

We understand that the politicians, developers and corporate interests have been waiting for the community and its advocates to tire and drift away. We would like to assure them that that will not happen. We have been fighting for nearly 20 years. And we remain determined to continue fighting until this historic struggle is finally won.

Sept. 21, 2020

ANA EDWARDS - Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project

PHIL WILAYTO - Editor, The Virginia Defender