A lecture series traces the story of African-Americans in Richmond 

Chains of History

The crisp cool of Richmond Hill's sanctuary has for years drawn pilgrims seeking solace. Nestled in a scenic, historic portion of Church Hill, the former monastery is within eyeshot of the city's present that is visible among the hustle and bustle of downtown.

Yet this fall, what was once the Monte Maria Monastery is the site of a series of discussions about the central problem of the Southern experience over the centuries: race.

The series, which continues for the next seven weeks, began last week with a lecture by veteran Virginia State University Professor Edgar Toppin, who addressed the origins of slavery in Richmond during the 17th century.

"Virginia had a good number of free blacks during this period," Toppin says. Learning about that history provides an opportunity to better understand the roots of the city's ongoing racial issues, he adds.

It was during the 17th century that the Colonial white Virginians began to use African slaves exclusively. "It's kind of the story of how it all began," says The Rev. Patrick Wilson, Richmond Hill's assistant pastor for public ministry and the person responsible for the series.

For the first few decades of Virginia's existence, white indentured servants were often used to fill the growing demands of the area's thriving plantation economy. Ben Campbell, Richmond Hill's director, says this shift is not always fully understood by the public. "There is the radical fact that Virginia had a kind of white slavery for the first 30 years of its existence."

It was that initial treatment of white Englishmen by white Englishmen that paved the way for the social acceptability of black slavery in the South, Campbell says.

The roots of Richmond's status as a slave-exporting Mecca were also planted during the 17th century, says Wilson, who is African-American. As a hub of the "down river slave trade," in later years after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, Richmond sent many African-Americans to parts south such as New Orleans.

"Not only do you have the plantation economy develop," Wilson says, "but you have the idea that the people who would build that economy would not benefit from the fruit of that labor."

Then things began to change. The 18th century will be covered during the second lecture in the series, on Sept. 25, by VCU history professor Philip Schwarz. It was during this period that a small, but growing, minority began to speak out against slavery. Among them was George Wythe, who believed slavery was a violation of equal rights, Schwarz says.

The rest of the series discusses African-American history up to the present day — perhaps revealing some surprises, Campbell says. "It's amazing what is now known, but has not become a part of the public consciousness," he says.

Richmond Hill's goal with the series is to educate the public beyond what they may have learned in school through textbooks. Wilson says the lecture series will be videotaped for future use by area schools. Richmond Hill hopes to have an impact on how the issues surrounding race are taught in social studies classes across the city. "And this is a way of doing that," Wilson says.

The series serves the Richmond Hill's goals, Wilson says, by facilitating better understanding between the races through education. While there has been some talk of reparations for slavery on the part of some in the African-American community, Wilson has different aims.

"I'd would rather you keep the check," Wilson says, "and love me as your brother."

The series concludes Nov. 6 with a lecture devoted to race and modern Richmond from 1950 to the present.

Wilson also hopes the series will take on extra meaning in light of the Sept. 11 tragedy in America. Indeed, he says, its goals of improved education about the origins of America's own problems will help improve the understanding of the motivation behind such acts.

"Anything we can do that furthers the understanding of the race issue," Wilson says, "is for the good."


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