Breaking the Chains 

While Virginia prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of its secession from the union, Richmond searches for how best to tell a most difficult story: its role in the domestic slave trade.

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Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn addresses an early morning crowd of about two dozen people near the Lumpkin's Jail excavation site during Civil War and Emancipation Day, April 17.

EBONY AND IVORY do them no justice. On a warm, overcast Saturday morning, Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn, donning a traditional, peach-colored African Sandja wrap and Wanguisi headdress, kicks off a day-long tour of the former Lumpkin's Jail site and slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom. Waite Rawls, bow-tied and mustachioed, oversees a bustling Museum of the Confederacy on Clay Street, next to Jefferson Davis' presidential residence.

A quarter of a mile separates Rawls and McQuinn, and their respective historical sites, but the degree of separation is incalculable. What stands between them is nothing more than the greatest trauma in American history: the enslavement of a people, the commoditization of Africans. If you could locate on a U.S. map the physical root, the ground zero, the very place that launched 150 years of political, economic, social and psychological divisions in the United States, all roads likely would lead to Richmond.

The path rolls down the hill from Davis' White House into the Bottom, just north of Main Street Station and the old train shed below Interstate 95. This is where the toll of the city's great economic engine in the mid-1800s lies, in an unmarked slave burial ground, around the gallows where Gabriel Prosser was hanged. It is beneath the parking lot adjacent to the Seaboard Building, under the aluminum stage where McQuinn stands while sporadic gusts of wind whip behind her.

A couple dozen people sit in folding chairs and stand off to the side, framed by a vast emptiness. That the tour begins here less than two weeks after Gov. Bob McDonnell's now-infamous proclamation making April Confederate History Month, originally with no mention of slavery, is ironically coincidental and illuminating. Whether or not McDonnell's proclamation was a simple oversight or a strategic political play isn't the point. It underscores the great challenge the city faces in a renewed push to tell the story, the whole story, of the role of slavery in Richmond history.

That story has never truly been told. Across Virginia, historical and cultural attractions draw millions of visitors each year, attracting tourists who want to explore and understand American history. But when it comes to Civil War attractions, traditionally the focus has been on the pageantry, the battlefields, the heroes of battle — not the root cause: the domestic slave trade. Despite the contention by some people that slavery was secondary to states' rights as the impetus for war, even the Museum of the Confederacy relinquishes. Downstairs, an exhibit acknowledging the slave trade attests: “As Jefferson predicted in 1819, the political dispute over slavery later proved the cause of disunion.”

 

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Maureen Elgersman Lee, an academic who joined the Black History Museum and Cultural Center as executive director in October 2008, says marketing a slavery museum will require drawing on more universal and uplifting ideas — like triumph over adversity — to broaden its appeal.

When Maureen Elgersman Lee, executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, first moved to Virginia three years ago, she says she was struck by the level of discomfort and lack of discussion surrounding America's trauma. “My surprise was that slavery hadn't been dealt with. There was this unease with slavery,” she says. “For Virginia to be uneasy about it, that was amazing to me.”

Much of the “leading scholarship” on slavery comes out of Virginia, Elgersman Lee says, yet there's little public discussion, or public recognition, of the slave trade's role in the city. While there is no doubt recognition of the contributions of African-Americans, it's typically celebratory, honoring African culture and the heroes of Emancipation, sans the suffering and pain of human bondage. The story of the slave trade, particularly its role in 19th-century Richmond, is largely glossed over.

In some instances, it's paved over. Under Rawls, the Confederate museum's biggest problem of the last five years has been overcrowding by an ever-encroaching VCU Health System, and a public backlash against a proposal to move the White House for fear of disturbing its historical context. The biggest obstacle confronting the former Lumpkin's Jail site and the slave burial ground, believed to be buried under a satellite Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot, has been proving that they even exist.

The same holds true politically and culturally. McDonnell's proclamation is case in point: “It was an error for sure,” McQuinn says of the governor's slavery omission, which he later corrected. “It cannot be cured with the inclusion of a few words.”

Standing on a stage as empty as the surrounding parking lot April 17, McQuinn, chairwoman of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, is becoming the face of that reconciliation, the unraveling of revisionist history propelled by so many Confederate sympathizers and Civil War buffs who prefer a romanticized, hoop-skirted storybook.

“We have to stop running from our past and start claiming it,” she says, with a send-off to those gathered: “Let's have an awesome day exploring our history!”


IF RICHMOND IS to reclaim its history, it first must figure out how to market it. The events of April 17 represent an early trial balloon. Museums and cultural sites across the city coordinate an all-day showcase that's billed as a preview of the sesquicentennial planned for next year, the 150th anniversary of Virginia's secession from the union and the start of the Civil War. It draws thousands, and it offers a glimpse of the movement to incorporate slavery into a central tourism theme.

“We're caught in a very interesting time,” says Christy Coleman, who took over as president of the American Civil War Center at Tredegar in April 2008. “Will it be our 15 minutes or will it be something we could build on?”

The issues are complex, but they're at the heart of the mission that drives Coleman and other members of the recently formed Future of Richmond's Past, the University of Richmond committee driving much of the recent discussion of how best to tell the story.

It's particularly important in a city that's still largely divided along racial lines and suffering from the remnants of slavery and segregation, as evidenced by the concentration of poverty afflicting the city's majority black population. The racial divisions are all around us, says Janine Bell, founder of the Elegba Folklore Society.

“Recently I was on the campus of the Collegiate School [a private school off River Road] and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of this wealth,'” Bell says. At the public Thomas Jefferson High School in the city, she says, her daughter once complained the school ran out of toilet tissue: “Just look at the irony of that.”

It's no wonder that slavery is so difficult to talk about, particularly among blacks. Coleman, who served as president of the country's largest black history museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, from 1999 to 2005, says only about 5 percent of visitors to the Tredegar museum in Richmond are black. Many African-Americans, particularly the older generation, simply aren't interested in reliving that history.

Cleo Graham, a retired computer technician and a self-described history buff from Henrico County, joins the April 17 events to tour the Lumpkin's Jail site and slave burial ground. “I wasn't aware of Lumpkin's Jail being right here,” says Graham, 58, in one of the nearby informational tents. “My skin was really tingling over there.”

A native of Florence, S.C., Graham, who is black, wonders whether his ancestors ever came through Richmond. It's no accident that he's come here alone. He says most of his family members don't really want to talk about slavery, but he implores his grandchildren to pay attention. “It's really a sad part of our history, and we have to learn from it,” he says. “If you don't remember where you came from, you're bound to repeat it.”

 

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Christy Coleman, a former character interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, stands in front of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, where she is now president. The museum drew about 21,000 visitors last year.

Coleman says history needs to not only be told, but felt.

“When you experience the trauma that was the slavery experience in America, you ought to experience it the way it was,” says Coleman, who got her start working as a character interpreter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1982, bringing to life the narratives of those who lived as slaves. She recalls visitors going through powerful emotional experiences in the process. Coleman was particularly fond of playing a character named Hattie, she says, whose “function was to show that even in slavery some had the ability to move about.” Hattie sold poultry and was literate, which often surprised visitors. “If it was important for your work, then you learned it,” Coleman says.

As an interpreter she'd spend the day improvising, never breaking character. Some visitors would follow her around all day; she also recalls a tourist allowing a child to kick one of the interpreters, as if to complete the narrative. “There were tensions when we were out there,” Coleman says, but the experience had a profound effect on her.

“That experience at Williamsburg changed my life path forever,” she says. “I just realized that this is what history is really about, the people who lived through extraordinary times.”

While few people argue against the importance of telling the entire story, whether Richmond can become a major tourist destination by focusing on the slave trade is open for debate. It's uncharted territory.

A few years ago Charleston, S.C., began a push to incorporate slave history into its many Civil War attractions, and in November 2007 opened as a museum one of the only known slave auction houses still standing, the Old Slave Mart, built in 1859.

“The reception that we've gotten has been wonderful,” says Nichole Green, director and curator for the Old Slave Mart Museum. The museum focuses on the slave auction experience and the economics of the domestic slave trade. “We use a price chart from Richmond,” Green says.

Visitation in the first full year, in 2008, was more than 23,000, which came with little advertising and marketing. As for the visitors, less than half are black, something Green says is a challenge for all museums that focus on slavery. The reactions can swing wildly. Some visitors become “so emotional that they have a hard time going through,” Green says, while others are so enraptured they can't get enough and complain of wanting more.

Stephanie Yuhl, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross who has studied Charleston's tourism industry, says marketing the realities of slavery as a tourism draw is only in its early iterations. “It's kind of a new testing ground,” says Yuhl, author of “A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston,” which uncovers the political and economic ramifications of Charleston's tourist trade.

“It's a part of history that people want to learn about, but it's not ‘feel-good,'” Yuhl says, especially in a city such as Richmond. “The wounds might be a little bit more raw because of the locale,” she says. “It's not easy to talk about race in America. … But the more you run from it the more it will assert itself more aggressively in the future.”

Indeed, if Richmond is to have a chance it will start in the Bottom with the Slave Trail and the push to memorialize the slave burial ground. The markers along the path are going up during the next few months, and recently the commission began hiring consultants to help plan for its future, which includes a tentative idea for a national slavery museum next to Main Street Station. After former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg hit the ice earlier this year — staff has been dispatched and fundraising efforts suspended until the economy improves, Wilder informed the state — talks of building something similar in Richmond has gained momentum. There's no official timetable for a museum in the Bottom, but the discussions have begun, says McQuinn, head of Slave Trail Commission.

Six years ago, the commission nearly lost control of its most prized possessions when plans arose for a new ballpark just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market. Last year another ballpark proposal was issued, promising not to encroach on the Lumpkin's site, but it died a quicker death.

 

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University of Richmond President Ed Ayers speaks at Civil War and Emancipation Day in Shockoe Bottom. For Ayers, who spearheaded the event through his leadership with the Future of Richmond's Past, says the April 17 event shows “that there are enormous numbers of people of goodwill, of all kinds of backgrounds, around here who are ready to talk and to listen.”

One of the most important allies to the Slave Trail Commission has been University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, a nationally renowned history professor and author of “The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

“There's no way to get through it but through it,” Ayers says while mingling with a small crowd in the Bottom April 17. Ayers has become a powerful advocate for the Slave Trail Commission and the telling of the “whole story.”

But how can you break through the divisions and the political differences and sell Richmond history untainted and unfiltered? Ayers doesn't blink: “It's the greatest story in American history — the freedom of 4 million people,” he says. “It's a story of triumph.”


TO TELL THAT story will require more modern triumphs. The coming together of McQuinn and Rawls, head of the Confederate museum, just might qualify.
They met for the first time at Polly Cole's house in Church Hill, in 2005, about a year after Rawls took over as executive director of the struggling Museum of the Confederacy. A native of Franklin and a banker by trade, Rawls graduated from Virginia Military Institute and is described by most as possessing that uniquely Southern charm.

Cole recalls the first time Rawls pulled up in his red SUV, while she was out walking her dogs, and asked to see the house. Built in 1861 by tobacco trader William Yarbrough, the two-story Greek Revival house includes a guest house in the back, originally servants' quarters, and an English basement that was used as a doctor's office at the turn of the 20th century. Cole invited Rawls inside and was smitten.

 

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Waite Rawls, executive director of the Museum of the Confederacy, says the story of slavery is an integral part of the Confederate story, and can't be separated. The museum logged some of its highest-ever visitation numbers during a groundbreaking 1991 exhibit on slavery titled “Before Freedom Came.”

“Waite and I hit it off immediately,” Cole says. They struck up a conversation about history and the Civil War. “The vision that Waite talked about in terms of the Civil War was much more the way I grew up,” Cole says. “It was just an intellectual view rather than a racist view.”

Cole, a friend and supporter of McQuinn, then a city councilwoman, arranged for Rawls and McQuinn to meet at her house. “I just thought it was important because of Waite's views that people get to know him in the African-American community,” Cole says.

McQuinn says the two started talking and realized there was an opportunity to work together. Rawls assured her he wasn't interested in glossing over slavery. “We began talking,” McQuinn says. “How do you integrate this history? How do you get to the point that we can have this discussion without angering people?”

Rawls reciprocates. “You can't talk about the history of the Confederacy without talking about slavery,” he says, relaying a story about a man who approached him after he took over as director of the museum, telling him, “I don't want to see an exhibit on slavery.” Rawls shot back: “Forty percent of the people who lived in the Confederacy were slaves. That's indicative of our main constituency.”

McQuinn was a little tentative at first, she says, but figured she needed to have an open mind. “He can bring a certain constituency to the table and I can bring a certain constituency to the table,” she says. They found some common ground, but McQuinn says they had some “candid discussions, too.”

 

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Richmond Delegate Delores McQuinn, chairwoman of the Slave Trail Commission, says the city has an opportunity to “emancipate” future generations of African-American children by confronting the city's role in the domestic slave trade.

While having lunch a few months ago, Rawls says he even joked that he and McQuinn swap speeches at an upcoming event, just for kicks. “Everybody expects her to be the voice of black people and me the voice of white people, so let's switch speeches,” Rawls recalls of the conversation.

Of course, they didn't. Completing Richmond's story takes time, especially in a town where the mere sight of the Confederate flag elicits racial tension.

“There are people who are still living off the wealth of slavery,” McQuinn says. “There are still people living in poverty because of the aftermath of slavery.” But she says the timing is right. Richmond is ready to begin the conversation.

“It's going to help all of us be better people,” she says.

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