Thursday, March 22, 2007

Richmond's Rich Slave History -- Are We Ready For It?

Richmond is finally coming to terms with its past. It's slavery past that is. Not everyone is ready for this, I know, but it is about time that Richmond embraced the truth and acknowledged in the huge role it played in enslaving and selling thousands of Africans.

Most people think of Richmond's rich Civil War history and its role as the Confederate capital -- without fully realizing that Richmond was the slave trading capital of the world for many years.
Few Richmonders know that areas they drive or walk across on a regular basis in downtown Richmond are sacred ground: The Devil's Half Acre, otherwise known as Lumpkin's Jail. The slave burial grounds near Broad and 15th. The slave trail across Mayo's bridge and through Shockoe Bottom. And the slave market itself not far from today's farmers market.

Richmonders and visitors alike don't realize that you can still visit the site where the slave ships docked and unloaded. Or respectfully remember the slave trail where new African slaves disembarked on the south side of the river at Ancarrow's landing and made their way, at night (so as not to offend city dwellers with their appearance or stench after a long journey) to Lumpkin's Jail.

We also remember the stories of hope. And of freedom. Henry "Box" Brown, the slave who shipped himself to freedom in Philadelphia was from Shockoe Bottom and worked there.
And, Lumpkin's Jail, became a school that is today called Virginia Union University, a university that graduated the United State's first (and only) black governor, Doug Wilder. And today, a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, no longer seems a threat to these landmarks...or the potential to revive and remember our black history.

But Richmond's citizens, black and white, are finally embracing the truth....respectfully, I hope. If we do not remember those who suffered, how can we heal its wounds? If we do not remember the wrongs, how can we right them?

The University of Richmond has an actual relic of a slaveship, The Henrietta Marie, on display through May 18th. And starting this week there will be several events commemorating Richmond's slave history. The River City enews reports:

This month Richmond Region 2007 is recognizing 400 years of African American Trailblazers with a weeklong series of events ending in an awards gala chaired by Maya Angelou and Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. The week will begin with a free Community Gospel Concert at the Byrd Theatre March 25. March 26-29 the Living Word Stage Company will present the Storytelling of African American Trailblazers of Virginia. Distinguished national and local guests will assist in the grand unveiling of the Reconciliation Statue March 30 at 15th and Main Streets. The culminating event, the African American Trailblazers Awards Gala, will honor 12 trailblazers in various fields including business, the arts, science and education. For ticket information, call (804) 644-8515.

And forever and for always history in Virginia and slavery in particular will be a controversial and heated topic. Two recent perspectives in Style Weekly (a back page opinion piece by F.T. Rea and a Letter to the Editor about the opinion) continue to prove that point. Rea says:

[snip] In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in public schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph’s veracity. Baseball was my No. 1 concern in those days.
Now those words read quite differently. [snip]

Michael Kelley's reply to the article above was also enlightening:
Looking Back on Slavery in Virginia
F.T. Rea wrote an interesting piece that left out some significant facts regarding the history of slavery in Virginia (“Unvarnishing Virginia History,” Back Page, Feb. 28).The first 20 Africans brought to Jamestown in 1619 were five-year indentured servants, not slaves bound to lifetime servitude. Once they served their indentures, they each received 50 acres of land.

Lifetime servitude -- slavery -- in Virginia and English-speaking America actually came about in 1654 when Anthony Johnson, one of the original indentured Jamestown Africans, sued for and won lifetime servitude of John Casor, another African indentured servant. Slavery in Virginia was begun by a black African.Twice while under British rule, Virginia tried to abolish slavery, but the Crown would not allow it because it was too profitable for the New England merchants shipping slaves and paying fees to the British Empire.According to the U.S. Census of 1860, even though Virginia had a “Black Code” on the books that forbade free blacks and free people of color from residing in the state, there were 64,000 of them living and working in Virginia. They were recorded as owning houses, farms, businesses — and slaves. [snip]

So, where do we go from here? And why isn't Richmond the site of the Slave Museum. This history is here...and the museum should be here too.


TriGirl 40 said...

Triathonmom - thank you for writing this eye-opening and important post. I remember when I first moved to VA and heard stories of just how recently there were segregated schools - or a day that celebrated both civil rights heroes with confederate soldiers. Or how there can be an established Confederate Museum - without an equivalent tribute to the unfortunate slavery that enabled the southern prosperity.

merolaseniorportfolio said...

This is such a coincidence! I came across your blog searching for more information on the slave trail. You posted a comment to my blog recently about the chapter on Westwood in Built By Blacks. It's really great that you lived there and were able to find out so much history on your home, thanks for sharing your story with me. I'm actually going to be showing an exhibit of my photography that focuses on many of the locations that you mentioned here, starting with the Manchester Docks then Lumpkin's Jail and the Burial Ground. I'm photographing these sites at night using a pinhole camera. I was really surprised to find what these places have become and I also believe that a slavery museum should exist there. Check my blog again, merolaseniorpotfolio, for information about my show if you would like to see it, I should have this info up soon. Also my email address is I would love to talk to you more about this subject. Thanks again for your posts!
Shanna Merola