The stench of sewage wafts through Shockoe Bottom next to the remains of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, now a grassy island in a parking lot behind Main Street Station.
The smell on this brisk fall day, it turns out, probably is historically accurate, says Philip Schwarz, a former history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
What once was Shockoe Creek now is a massive underground storm drain below the asphalt. But in the 1800s, when Lumpkin's housed enslaved men and women waiting to be sold at auction, the creek primarily was used to funnel human waste out of the more desirable parts of the city and into the James River.
Shockoe Bottom was a filthy, stinking place filled with disease and despair.
"It was so bad," Schwarz says, that "people who could avoid it would, because it was so wretched."
Not everyone had the privilege of staying away. When the importation of slaves was banned in the early 1800s, Virginia became what was called a "breeder state," and Shockoe Bottom became the second-largest center of the slave trade in the country after New Orleans. Lumpkin's was one of dozens of slave jails. There were dozens of auction houses. Smaller traders worked corners.
All told, says Schwarz, a leading expert on slavery in the United States, hundreds of thousands of slaves were sold here. Wretched as it was, the district flourished.
That doesn't mean what happened there was well known to greater Richmond. Slaves were trafficked in and out of the city at night. White residents preferred to look away from the reality of the trade.
Schwarz recalls an account of two men at the time who traveled to the General Assembly and decided to take a walking tour of the area.
"They were stunned when they walked down to see the breadth of the slave jails because most people just didn't talk about if they were white," Schwarz says. "People up there" — he gestures toward downtown Richmond — "didn't want to see these things."
A decade ago, an anonymous group of developers and business people publicly floated a plan to move Richmond's baseball stadium to Shockoe Bottom. Secondhand reports trickled out following a closed-door meeting with City Council. Details were scarce. Talks died in late 2005 when financing and broad support failed to materialize.
Today it's an open secret that Mayor Dwight Jones is seriously considering the area again as one of two possible locations to build a stadium for the Flying Squirrels, who play in the aging Diamond off the Boulevard. This time around, according to sources who spoke on the condition that they not be named, financing with developers is expected to be worked out before any public announcement. The city is also approaching the project as part of a much larger economic strategy.
But the ultimate success of any plan that puts a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom may hinge on something largely ignored in previous development schemes: How well it addresses the slave-trading history of area.
It's a significant turn in a debate that's raged off and on for a decade. Concerns about placing a stadium on what some call sacred ground have been raised before, but in the larger public discourse the story of enslaved Africans, of shackles, bondage and death, was secondary to questions about parking, traffic and fiscal prudence. After all, for 200 years Richmond has averted its eyes.
The latest incarnation of the plan is expected to address that history head-on. The administration and business leaders are seeking pledges from the corporate community in the millions of dollars to help build a long-fought-for slave heritage museum, according to sources. It would be placed on the site of Lumpkin's Jail and the African Burial Ground behind Main Street Station, between the railroad tracks and Interstate 95. Sources say the goal would be to announce both projects — the stadium and museum — simultaneously as part of a comprehensive plan to transform the Bottom.
It may be the concession that earns the critical support the administration needs from black political leaders who have opposed the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. But while some people have signaled their willingness to compromise, a contingent of historians and activists have made it clear that they aren't on board.
They argue that the historic area was much broader than the narrow swath of land being considered for the slavery heritage site, and that stamping a monolithic development like a ballpark in the middle of it would preclude telling that history of African-Americans in Richmond. Instead, it would become the home of a minor league baseball team whose mascot is a fierce-looking but loveable squirrel.
Interstate 95 was built over the center of the slave burial ground. Main Street Station sits on top of old auction blocks. The anti-stadium activists want to know why the city is considering covering up more of its history at a time when Richmond is rediscovering its past as a center of the slave trade.
"I'm concerned that there's a pattern of this happening in Richmond, that these sacred spaces for Richmond African Americans have been systematically paved over or covered up or somehow destroyed," says Shawn Utsey, who teaches psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The issue is complicated and marked by divides within the community that's long worked to get recognition of Shockoe Bottom's history. But to put it most bluntly: The most politically expedient way for the mayor to get a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom may be to put up the money for a slavery museum. And the fastest way for black leaders who've opposed a ballpark to get a slavery museum may be to fall in line behind Jones.
So the question is: Will it be enough?
By all accounts, an official unveiling of Jones' plans was expected in late September. That date was pushed to October. Now, the best guess is that an announcement will come at City Council's Nov. 11 meeting, though the city is still finalizing deals with developers.
What stadium might a deal produce? By most accounts, one that's pretty similar to what was proposed the last two times around: A playing field would be situated on the four blocks bordered by Broad, 18th and Franklin streets and the train tracks, with the stadium surrounded by street-facing, mixed-use developments. The 17th Street Farmers' Market — which already is being redeveloped — would serve as a concourse.
The city's chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall, briefed City Council members on the Shockoe plans — and the alternative site of a new stadium on the Boulevard — in September. Marshall told council members the latter option likely would require taxpayer dollars, while a ballpark in the Bottom potentially could be financed through the private development around the site.
Jones says he hasn't made up his mind. In an Oct. 21 interview, he told Style Weekly that what he's looking for is a comprehensive plan that generates jobs and tax revenues — and that a baseball stadium is only a small part of that.
"It's about economic development," Jones says. "And it should be about economic development that possibly could include a baseball stadium. And so, if that is one place or another, it's fine."
The administration declined any further comment.Jones may be hedging, but the business community has made it clear that Shockoe Bottom is the preferred option.
Jack Berry, the executive director of Venture Richmond, which has a board dominated by downtown executives, laid out the case in a June editorial for The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Putting a stadium downtown would introduce more suburbanites to a part of the city that's changed rapidly but hung onto its reputation as dangerous and violent, he wrote. For Berry, it's one more step toward turning Richmond into the kind of place it wants to be — hip with a vibrant downtown.
Berry, who declines to comment beyond the editorial, also supports freeing up land on the Boulevard site dominated by The Diamond and its associated parking lots for "high-impact, mixed-use development," which would "pay an enormous amount of new taxes to the city."
The underlying calculus is straightforward: The Boulevard needs to be cleared for development, and few viable alternatives exit outside of the Bottom. Sure, you could put a ballpark in Manchester, for example, but the cost of land acquisition and parking construction could be prohibitive. And while the area may be experiencing a gradual resurrection, a stadium alone would not, as the mayor wants, create an economic windfall.
A main difference in the ballpark debate this time around is how the city is handling it. Unlike the previous two ventures proposed by outside private developers, the plan is coming from within the city. By developing the plan in-house, Jones and his administration largely have been able to avoid public scrutiny until nearly every pertinent detail is nailed down, one of which is how to handle Shockoe's history.
In 2004, Delegate Delores McQuinn was vice-mayor of Richmond's City Council in addition to her role as the chairwoman of the Slave Trail Commission. Under her leadership, the commission came out in strong opposition to the first proposal to locate a stadium in the Bottom. That year, McQuinn was quoted in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, saying plans for a stadium or any other development would "radically and permanently alter the historic character of Shockoe Bottom" and "impair the ability to fully and effectively relate the story of African-Americans in Richmond."
Ultimately those objections had nothing to do with the proposal's defeat. For backers of the stadium, the history of slavery was never on the radar. Delegate Manoli Loupassi, who was on City Council at the time, says developers couldn't work out a deal with then-Mayor Douglas Wilder.
Paul Goldman, who was a chief adviser to Wilder and handled the issue for the administration, says it didn't take long to see it was a bad deal for the city. "I asked them to send me the numbers and it took about 15 minutes to realize it was all smoke and mirrors," Goldman says. "I was shocked that some allegedly intelligent business folks were vouching for something that couldn't possibly be true.
The historic nature of the area had nothing to do with the decision, Goldman says: "It never reached that far."
This time around, McQuinn, a close political ally of Mayor Jones, is more cautious. She didn't return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. During her interview with Style in September, McQuinn said her role in the current debate is to figure out how a ballpark — or any large project — and the Bottom's slave history might coexist. She said the mayor assured her that no development would encroach upon land west of the railroad trestle, where Lumpkin's Jail and the African Burial Grounds rest.
"I've got to be the one, along with the Slave Trail Commission, to be the lead voice in saying, 'How do we make this compatible,'" she said. "How do we make these things gel? How do we take these, whatever is going to happen, and make it work in the best interest of everyone, so that no one, nothing, the history, certainly, is not left out? And I think that's what our responsibility is.
"It is a tall order. But when I know something definite is going to happen, I will be on the front line, OK. I will be on the front line saying if this is going to happen, then this is what must happen along with that."
Other prominent black politicians are similarly circumspect.
State Sen. Henry Marsh, dean of the black caucus in the General Assembly, says he could be persuaded. "If the resources from the stadium would be applied to help create the protection for the slave site," he says, "it might be a win-win for both sides."
City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who sits on the Slave Trail Commission with McQuinn and whose district would encompass a Shockoe Bottom ballpark, echoes Marsh. "There may not be any indication of any jeopardy to the historical artifacts, based on what the presentation is," she says. "But I'm not interested in speculating."
McQuinn said in September that the Slave Trail Commission is looking for construction of a building to house artifacts. "But we are trying to redefine what people traditionally know as a museum, which is a building you just basically walk in," she said. "We are trying to redefine it so that all of it, the ground, the Slave Trail, all of it would be part of a museum, a living, walking museum."
This has been a dream more than 20 years in the making, ever since then-Gov. Doug Wilder pledged to build a national slavery museum in Jamestown. Richmond lobbied hard for the project, which ended up going to Fredericksburg, where it nose dived. By 2008, McQuinn and others were pitching the Fulton Gas Works as a potential site for the museum. A year later, the Slave Trail Commission unveiled plans for $100 million to $150 million heritage center, including a slave history museum, around the recently excavated Lumpkin's Jail site. Last year, McQuinn floated the idea of using existing buildings, such as the Main Street Station train shed and the Seaboard Building, for the museum. The commission has been working for several years with the city's economic development department.
The next phase is "raising millions of dollars to do this work," she told Style in September. To that end, McQuinn and other commissioners met with the governor's office earlier this year to seek funding.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell tells Style that such a project "is important to the telling of the overall history of Virginia and our nation, and would provide many educational and economic development opportunities. The governor looks forward to hearing from those working on bringing such a project to reality as they develop a unified plan on how they wish to proceed."
In his opinion piece, Venture Richmond's Berry wrote that "the heritage site should be developed simultaneously with the ballpark and related Shockoe projects," and suggested that money for the projects would be part of the package.
While the city's 1999 Shockoe Bottom Development Strategy contained a history of the neighborhood that never mentions slavery, its 2011 update commits no such oversight.
In that report, city planners describe a vision of a neighborhood of three districts: innovation economy, urban village, and entertainment and cultural. This last district "forms the heart" of Shockoe Bottom, the report says, and "new landmarks including Lumpkin's Jail, the Slave Trail and a proposed National Slavery Museum will form the base of a new heritage district serving as a national and international draw."
The report contains an artist's rendering of what such a museum might look like and recommends that the city pursue National Park Service recognition of key historic sites within the heritage district.
Breaking ground on a slave heritage site will require time to implement, the report says, and so "should be considered a long-term endeavor, but one that could have a big payoff in cementing Shockoe's identity and attracting visitation from a much wider area."
The report makes no mention of a stadium.
Begin talking about a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, and the fractures start appearing within the coalition that's been working to preserve and protect the slave history sites. There are those willing to compromise on a stadium if other elements are in place. There are those who under no circumstances will accept a stadium.
This latter camp views McQuinn's silence with suspicion, interpreting it as a sign that a deal already has been made. McQuinn waved off such scrutiny of her motives in a September interview with Style, saying she simply won't comment on a plan she hasn't seen and that City Council hasn't vetted.
The Richmond branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution at the end of October denouncing the construction of a stadium in Shockoe Bottom. Preserving and properly memorializing the history of slavery in the Bottom "can assist the city's long-overdue process of truth-telling and racial reconciliation," the resolution says. "We urge Richmond's elected officials to reject any proposal to build a commercial sports stadium in Shockoe Bottom."
The sentiment echoed a protest staged by longtime activists Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards, who've been battling the ballpark issue since 2004. They were joined by high-profile community members such as Christy Coleman, the president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar; Waite Rawls, the president and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy; and Utsey, a professor of psychology at VCU and the former chairman of the school's African-American studies department.
Opponents of a ballpark in the Bottom disagree with the city's assessment that the stadium wouldn't tread on significant historical ground. An inventory produced by the Slave Trail Commission includes one major site within the ballpark's footprint. It's where the Exxon station sits on Broad Street, and once was the location of the city's largest slave jail.
"What's just now emerging is how large a commercial enterprise this was," Rawls says. "People were saying even five years ago, 'Well, the major slave auction blocks were right where Main Street Station is.' But that makes you think the district was only a block long. No. Not at all. It spread for blocks."
There were many supporting businesses in the area, Rawls says: a tailor who made clothes to dress up slaves to help draw a better price. A hospital where an owner would take a sick slave to get him well before sale. Pubs and hotels for people involved with the trade.
The realization raises the oft-asked question: What development would be acceptable? Among those opposed to the stadium, there's no clear consensus. Wilayto and Edwards propose a park with extensive marking and interpretive signage. On the other end of the spectrum, Rawls says mixed-use development in the area is fine as long as Shockoe Bottom retains a historic sense of place. With well-placed markers or even smart phone apps, he says, the stories could be told.
"With a ballpark, the only sense of place is a ballpark," he says. "I mean, they can put signs on the centerfield fence that says 'slaves were bought and sold here,' but you're still in a ballpark.
"We're for development — development that helps you bring out the history rather than bury the history," Rawls says. "The land is being wasted today and the story is not being told. The existing parking lots and gas stations are reminiscent of that time when people in Richmond did not care about this history."
No matter their position on the ball park, all involved say that Richmond's slave-trading past is at long last receiving the attention it merits.
Wilayto and Edwards, who began publishing a newspaper in 2005 specifically to publicize the forgotten history of the area, are particularly gratified by the support they've received.
"No one talked about Shockoe Bottom as a slave market," Wilayto says. "We were able to keep that issue going year after year until finally it's clicking. But it wasn't part of the official culture of the city. They were only barely pulling away from building up the city as a Confederate capital."
"It's really cool that after 10 years of struggle we have made it such an issue in the community that there is across the board support for the reclamation of African-American history," Edwards says. "There's a level of respect that's not there before."
"Shockoe Bottom represents black people's presence or their part in the story of Richmond in a way that is both tangible and inspiring," she says. "It is suffering, but it's also inspiring. ... It's that so many people survived the crap that went on there."
The irony, which hasn't escaped those who've fought to protect and promote the history of Shockoe Bottom, is that a debate over a baseball stadium should do what they've tried to do for years: Draw Richmond's eyes past Monument Avenue to a tiny corner of the city, where hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were sold, bought and imprisoned.
David Herring, a Slave Trail commissioner who is unequivocally opposed to a stadium in the Bottom, says opponents must take seriously any threat to a project or projects that would tell the story of how slavery shaped Richmond and the role Richmond played in the national and international slave trade
"This is going to be a unique opportunity and this will be the only time in anyone's lifetime here in this room that we will get this opportunity," he said during a September commission meeting. "Because of the way the property will be developed and the discovery of Lumpkin's Jail and all the stuff that has been uncovered, we have to take this really seriously because we may never get this chance back." S