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Solomon Burison is playing hooky on a recent warm, sunny day along the crumbling remains of the old stone Manchester docks overlooking Rocketts Landing. The shad are running in the slowly rolling James River, and the pails of his fellow fisherman are full.
But not for Burison. "Catch and release," he says, mantralike. He has no bucket and catches for sport. He smiles contentedly as he tosses back a healthy shad the length of his forearm.
Today, the Village at Rocketts Landing rises from the ruins of 100 years of decay, pollution and neglect. Its toxic ground is capped with asphalt as federally required remediation to protect condo dwellers willing to drop $500,000 for a view of the river.
At the Manchester docks, Burison is not alone. Professionals AWOL from downtown high-rises stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor and unemployed fishing for their evening meals. It's a sunny spot where on some days the fish school so thick they all but beg for a hook to pull them clear.
Today it's hard to find reminders of Richmond's wretched past. A dozen yards from where the fishermen stand on the Manchester side are two weathered markers noting the "Commerce and Industry" that once ruled here. They serve as understated reminders to the industry that made Richmond an economic power in the 1800s -- the domestic slave trade. On one sign, slavery shares billing with a tribute to a motorboat factory that once cranked out world-class speedboats nearby.
The other marker acknowledges the old docks as the beginning of Richmond's Slave Trail, a humble walk that winds through woods and across heavy downtown traffic past some of the most historic, but least known, places in the nation.
The markers barely scratch the surface.
Like cattle, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were herded from the bustling slave auctions of nearby Shockoe the center of Virginia's lucrative slave export market and loaded onto boats for the long passage south. At one time, more than 10,000 souls passed through this port each month on their way to the misery of Deep South plantation slavery.
Prepping his line for another cast into the murky waters of the James River, Burison, who is black, says he's a product of Richmond Public Schools. Now a successful professional he has the look of a man who likes his jeans starched and pressed with an education that took him far past Richmond's closed classrooms, he says he didn't even know about the Slave Trail until last year.
And it wasn't until today that he knew its significance: As many as 10,000 men, women and children a month, up to 100,000 a year.
Burison's smile vanishes. His moistened eyes stare for a long time across the river's slow-moving waters. Words come slowly.
"Jesus," he says, finally. "I think more people need to know that."
Most Richmonders think they know their city's slavery history: that this was the capital of the Confederacy, a city built on the forced labor of slaves imported from Africa. Few know that Richmond once was also a major center of the nation's domestic slave trade, the industry that replaced the infamous middle passage from Africa after the abolition of the international trade in 1807. Few realize that the slave trade in Richmond, some believe, was the city's biggest industry. Its tentacles ran throughout the local economy from 1807 to 1865.
At the close of the 18th century, Virginia politicians lobbied alongside international abolitionists to ban the taking of slaves from Africa. But their motives clearly were not closely tied to deep Christian values or justice. It wasn't long after the 1807 ban that Virginia took its unholy place as the nation's clearinghouse for souls. First, this trade flowed through Virginia's northern port of Alexandria on the Potomac River. The city was convenient to Maryland, another big supplier of bodies to the massive plantation states of the Deep South.
The economic motives behind Virginia's push to ban African slave imports were clear: The state's plantations were no longer profitable against the corporate-sized plantation industry farther south: "Virginia grew wheat and slaves in the 19th century," says Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.
Many Virginia planters had transitioned to less labor-intensive farming of crops like wheat, leaving an idle slave population essentially now surplus farm equipment that was of immense value to their Deep South peers who could no longer count on endless labor supply from overseas.
Richmond, with its central spot and favorable access to rivers, canals and railroads snaking all through state and to the coast, overtook Alexandria as the state's leading slave market. Estimates of 10,000 people monthly moving through Richmond are high. Other historical sources place the number during the 1840s between 1,000 and 8,000. They were sold at the dozens of slave auctions that made up Shockoe's business district from14th to 21st streets and Dock to Broad streets.
The Civil War ended the trade, but even up to the fall of the city in April 1865 occupied first by a black Union infantry outfit symbolically sent into the city following a path up from Rocketts Landing the trade continued unabated. Records of the time show individual slaves, healthy field hands, selling for upwards of $2,000. Women described in newspaper advertisements as being healthy and of childbearing age were priced above all but skilled tradesmen.
For the century and a half since those black troops marched among the city's burned remains, Richmond has maintained its image as a sleepy city. Content but still struggling with its place in history as the former capital of the Confederacy, the city has never quite come around to contemplating the extent of its role in the slave industry.
What is buried beneath the proud marble heroes' shrines lining Monument Avenue is something truly profound: It is the specter of history that's always there in the shadows of Lee, Stuart and Jackson. And just out of sight of modern Richmonders, who may or may not understand why zippy marketing slogans such as "Easy to Love" always sound so uneasy when spoken.
There's nothing easy to love about slavery. It's even less lovable knowing that at one time it perhaps was Richmond's major industry.
At the height of the nation's domestic slave trade in the 1830s until the eve of the Civil War, Richmond was the center of that trade. Some modern historical sources from the 1830s to1865, more than 3.5 million slaves who were bred as part of a statewide industry were sold through Richmond and shipped out of its port and into perpetual misery.
"It's absolutely awe-inspiring to think how many people were moved through here," says David Herring, co-founder of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (A.C.O.R.N.). The organization is part of an ongoing effort to preserve this forgotten past in hopes of making Richmond's history whole again.
For lack of broad public support, those efforts have gone only as far as saving the occasional structure, overseeing some minor excavation work and establishing a living history walk Richmond's "Slave Trail." But, says Herring, that's hardly proper acknowledgment for a city that "is the Ellis Island for America's African-Americans."
Indeed, the trail even runs backward from the way it should. Today, it leads from the docks into the city as it would have for newly arrived Africans who survived capture and transport across the Atlantic Ocean.
The majority of blacks who passed through Rocketts came at it from the other direction, beginning their lives on Virginia farms. Many were the product of purposeful breeding efforts by masters whose only intent was to take them from their families and sell them South.
Herring and some others want more than a slave trail. Maybe a museum. Most certainly state, local and maybe federal recognition of Richmond's historical significance.
"I've talked to local [tourism] officials when you talk from a tourist's standpoint, they as a tourism corporation recognize what that means for the whole state of Virginia to bring [people] here to educate them about this," he says. "The kind of dollars it would take would have to be federal, state and local to build the Slave Trail, the Lumpkin's Jail, an African-American genealogy center all of the components all of that could happen right here in Shockoe Bottom.
"It should be priority No. 1 for the city and the state," he says. "We should be raising money right now to make this happen."
While Ellis Island is preserved, restored and interpreted for thousands of visitors who come each year seeking connection to their roots, Richmond's history is capped off like a hazardous waste site.
Lumpkin's, the old slave market at Cary and 15th streets, now provides monthly or daily parking rates for commuters. The old Negro burial ground final resting place of an untold number of souls and perhaps of rebel slave leader Gabriel Prosser, who was hanged there provides parking for VCU Medical Center staff. A historical marker for the site is down the block on Broad Street. Attempts by a local black history group to add signage at the lot have been rebuffed. Says one member of the group: "We were told the people who parked there complained that it made them uncomfortable to read about it."
And then there's Lumpkin's Jail, a notorious slave holding pen and auction house known in its time as among the most brutish of the dozen such facilities in town. If Richmond was the central city of the country's original sin, Lumpkin's was, to many of the victims of that sin, the lowest rung of hell. Once called the "Devil's Half Acre" by its victims, Lumpkin's today is mostly covered by a city-owned parking lot.
To say that Richmond's most valuable real estate is its downtown parking spaces may be the biggest understatement in Virginia history. Maybe even U.S. history.
"The fact that all of this is buried is sort of symbolic, I suppose," Herring says. "But you never heal anything unless you confront it. We need to dig it up, rebuild it and show it to everybody so that this city can finally come to terms with itself."
There is no well-documented historical record of any organized breeding program or industry, says Jeffrey Ruggles, the Virginia Historical Society's associate curator of prints and photographs, who also wrote a book on Richmond's slave history.
The lack of documentation by Virginia's slave owners and traders about breeding methods or numbers frankly seems quite natural, Ruggles says. "If it comes to breeding, you're never going to find documentation," he says. "I just don't think that's something they'd express themselves on."
The Civil War Center's Coleman disagrees.
"Records? Oh, there's plenty," she says, pointing to records from some Virginia plantations now archived with the state. "And there are slave narratives. The documents are there and have been there for a very long time."
At the trade's epicenter, Lumpkin's Jail, only one ledger survives showing just a few short pages of names and accounting data. The rest of the jail's records, according to tradition, were destroyed by a flood of Shockoe Creek, which now runs underground. Modern historians are as divided as slavery supporters and abolitionists were 150 years ago on whether slave breeding was widespread or institutionalized.
But a perceived lack of such records kept by individual property owners doesn't mask the facts that can be observed in macrocosm, Ruggles says.
"The Southern owners may have found ways to justify slavery, but they weren't really boasting about it," says Ruggles, who suggests census data from Virginia at the time might help illuminate the numbers somewhat, as it could be compared to the numbers of people later brought to market elsewhere. "There's no question that Virginia was an exporter of slaves at some point. As far as statistics on that, I think some people are doing some research right now to get some actual numbers."
Until then, the true tally remains illusive.
The official James River Park System estimate places the number as high as 10,000 slaves a month moving through Richmond. Reports contemporary to the time when slave exports from Virginia were at their height put the yearly total closer to 20,000 for the entire state. That would drop the total number possibly passing through Richmond from 3 million over 30 years to closer to 600,000, assuming that all slaves sold out of Virginia departed from Richmond.
But whether those numbers were in the millions or the hundreds of thousands hardly would have mattered to the people who suffered by the practice.
"American Slavery As It Is" was published in 1839 by abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld. In the book, published as evidence against slavery, Weld uses the speeches and writings of well-placed Virginians of the era as proof of the horrors of breeding, including an 1832 speech by former Virginia Governor Thomas Mann Randolph to the General Assembly.
"It is a practice and an increasing practice in parts of Virginia to rear slaves for market," Weld quotes Randolph as saying, showing the governor to be sympathetic to the plight of blacks. "How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country, bear to see this ancient dominion converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market, like oxen for the shambles."
Weld also preserved the writings of the editor of the Virginia Times in Wheeling (West Virginia was then still a part of Virginia) in 1836: "We have heard intelligent men estimate the number of slaves exported from Virginia within the last twelve months at 120,000 each slave averaging at least $600, making an aggregate at $72,000,000."
In Richmond, one historical account documents local Richmond auctioneers Dickinson and Hill logging total sales in the year before the Civil War of $2 million, or a least $45 million in today's dollars.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Charles C. Pinckney explained that Virginia "will gain by stopping importation [from Africa]. Her slaves will rise in value and she has more than she wants."
The facts found underfoot in Shockoe and at Rocketts and Manchester represent something that for many years Richmonders may simply have not wanted to know.
Though perhaps not intentionally buried, those parking lots in Shockoe were conveniently covered and most city leaders likely felt it was better that way, says Nicole Hood, outgoing interim director of Richmond's Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
"The attempts through benign neglect or deliberate erasure or overall master cover-up plan, all of those efforts don't negate the historic fact," Hood says. "You can wipe away the evidence of it. Does it become worse when you have no evidence of it? Or can you cause a people to forget that the circumstance happened? What we're left with often in this community is a really uncomfortable limbo, where there is no historical accuracy. There is only questioning."
"We've tried desperately to insulate ourselves from these unpleasantnesses," says Selden Richardson, president of A.C.O.R.N., who also wrote the book 'Built By Blacks,' which examines the black community's contributions to Richmond's development. "I guess it's human nature. Maybe we're doing better than most in this city."
It's often the way with such powerful reminders and why people would rather romanticize the less unpleasant parts of their history. And in the case of Richmond's then all-white power structure, there was also the desire to maintain the authority that took a hit with the end of slavery.
"That's what they wanted to do, erecting those monuments on Monument Avenue," says Paul Mullins, chairman of the anthropology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana. A native Richmonder, he now devotes a portion of his research to Indiana's similar paving over of important black historical sites. "They [city leaders] wanted to exclude African-Americans from that discussion and from all public rights."
He agrees with Nicole Hood's belief that historical exclusions or at least the physical erasures didn't necessarily happen as part of a cohesive plan and that "technically it's preserved" under asphalt blankets, capped and waiting for the right time to be revealed.
"I think everybody wants to embrace it, and is interested and curious," Mullins says. "We just have to put the questions on the table. For a variety of reasons we still don't publicly put them on the table. We end up not having a conversation about one of the most important issues of modern American life."
That conversation, once it begins, he says, may include "some moments of fidgeting and discomfort. We spent so much time learning to be racist, it's not all going to come apart in one afternoon of a couple of site tours.
"It's too easy to distill it to a villains-and-victims kind of history," Mullins says.
And even easier just not to look for the victims, says Hood. "There's fear of assessing blame," she says. "Of upsetting the current status quo upsetting the way people interact right now. [It is] an incomplete conversation that haunts us all. That never lets us go."
If more isn't done to provide a more complete accounting of facts, "it's [always] going to be really hard to invite the world here and say participate in our limbo," she says, referring the city's tourism industry.
Taking racism apart has already started, in Mullins' view of Richmond's historical interpretation. Museums like Tredegar, the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Virginia Historical Society and repositories like the Library of Virginia take pains to preserve, interpret and make known Richmond's slavery legacy.
Even The Museum of the Confederacy has come around to recognizing that slavery and the slave trade in Virginia contributes to a greater understanding of the histories they're more traditionally associated with preserving.
"The White House of the Confederacy does a really solid job of memorializing captivity," Mullins says, calling their interpretation "really complex."
It's easy to write of such efforts, but "my guess is they really are interested in those kinds of things," he says.
But all of the combined efforts of these institutions can't take the place of a museum dedicated to taking a fresh look at history in a way that puts all parties on an equally important footing, say critics of current efforts. Tredegar tries, says Coleman, but its efforts are confined to 10,000 square feet.
"What white people know about black people is often negative," says Janine Bell, who heads the Elegba Folklore Society, another organization that leads tours along the current Slave Trail, and for blacks going to a "white" museum, it would be difficult to clear the air of that sort of negative undercurrent. "When is it that our stories become important in the mainstream conversation?"
Bell says that the histories need to be combined if there ever will be a real telling, and it needs to happen in the context of some sort of a museum or facility dedicated to the message.
"It could be like an altar call," she says. "People just need to get in the same place of agreement and believe it would be very powerful. And it's not going to be in a place where anybody feels overexposed."
Maybe one of the marquee messages of the current interpretation of Civil War and antebellum Richmond history could become a shared space, Bell says.
"Heritage, not hate," she says, leaning back in her chair to speak softly the familiar Sons of Confederate Veterans mantra with a half smile. "That could be the slogan for both sides."
It wasn't too long ago Richmond had its chance at a proper museum to memorialize the city's important role in the nation's slavery past. It came in the guise of one of Richmond's most favored and fortunate sons.
In 2001 L. Douglas Wilder returned from an inspiring trip to Africa and trotted out his plan to establish a slavery museum in Virginia. As envisioned, it would do all of the things that had never been done to commemorate the plight of black Americans.
"I was at the table when we tried to get the slavery museum here," says Richmond City Councilwoman Delores McQuinn, another leader in Richmond's Slave Trail effort. "I'm telling you, the City Council without any feasibility study the city manager [Calvin Jamison] and [then-Mayor] Rudy McCollum and council committed ourselves to whatever it would take to bring that slavery museum here. There wasn't an individual around that time that wasn't committed to bringing it here."
In the end, Wilder sold his slavery museum downriver. Or, more precisely, up Interstate 95 to Fredericksburg, a city with far fewer connections than Richmond to the more visceral parts of slavery's history.
A developer there enticed Wilder with promise of land and material support (the developer got an interstate off ramp, partly as a result of the museum deal).
Today a single statue, a twisting, writhing body seemingly emerging from the earth, is all that's been placed on the Fredericksburg site of Wilder's museum, which has suffered from slow progress.
Wilder recently told an inquiring Associated Press reporter that he was "finished explaining anything" when asked about the project's delay.
Wilder, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.
Even if Wilder saw fit to take his vision out of town, McQuinn keeps trying here.
She and others with Richmond's Slave Trail Commission have worked for years to find a final resting place for the two-room Winfree House, one of the city's oldest known structures that served as home to former slave Emily Winfree and her children.
In an interesting twist, the Winfree House and the history of the slave trade in the Bottom didn't come to public light until four years ago, when plans for a new ballpark to be built just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market pitted proponents of the park with preservationists and then-Mayor Rudy McCollum and McQuinn. The issue of potentially disturbing the area's slave-trading history essentially nixed the ballpark proposal.
Today, the Winfree House project remains only half done. The house was moved from an industrial parking lot on the Manchester side of the river very close to the docks there and eventually came to temporary rest on the back of a flatbed trailer parked in a city lot behind an Exxon station on East Broad Street. With the hope that it could serve as an interpretive stop on the Slave Trail walk, what's lacking is money and a permanent site.
But other projects are very much done.
Last year, McQuinn proudly oversaw the placement of Richmond's Slavery Reconciliation Statue at East Main and 15th streets, one of three such statues placed at locations key to the history of slavery. Wilder missed the unveiling, with some media reporting that he'd skipped the event to do fundraising for his own museum efforts.
In the minds of some of the Founding Fathers, slavery was their fledgling country's original sin. The nation, even to some of those early eyes, had fallen before it even rose up. Slavery provided, in its way, a symbolic parallel to the original sin that cast man from Eden and but also to Cain's heartless murder of his own brother, Abel.
Confessing ones sins can be painful, acknowledges McQuinn, but it can also be liberating.
When the truth comes out, "you begin to have conversations at kitchen tables or at the school or at the university you begin to have conversations and you gain more knowledge," McQuinn says. "We have done well in terms of telling [antebellum history] in parts, but once this history is unearthed, once we get to the point where the knowledge of it is made known to the world, then the puzzle is complete."
It's more than time that's wasted in delaying, in McQuinn's view. In some sense, she says, there's a much deeper urgency to confronting the past now.
"In terms of the division, the gap between the races and classes is there, but you'll begin to have a lot more conversations about what has happened," she says. "I don't want to continue over my lifetime to continue to be ignorant. I don't want to continue to be blind or closed-minded that there was a contribution of a people and that the knowledge of that contribution has not been made available to everybody."
McQuinn, an ordained minister, relates another part of slavery's legacy to the Bible.
"Going back to biblical times, one of the great strengths of a man was to be able to go back and connect himself to a lineage," she says. Jewish and Christian texts are full of who begat who, but few black Americans have this powerful identifier that most of their white neighbors take for granted.
It seems like a simple thing, but "when I'm in a room and people are talking about their heritage and 'my great grandfather came from here or there' when I hear that, it's always been a part of me that's missing, a void," McQuinn says. "I have conversations with [black] people over and over again with people saying I wish I knew where I came from. This emptiness has caused destruction in the African-American community."
It's the same for Hood, a respected historian, mother of two and minivan-driving modern woman.
"The thing that makes it difficult, quite frankly, is you don't get the name of that person," she says. "This happened; you're the result of this. You might get a first name. You might get a farm."
But for the collective memory of black America, you also get Richmond if Richmond is ready to give itself.
"What you have are these residual places. The question we're asking is how you present those in a compelling way, that appropriately honors how significant they are and that reflects the sadness, the unfortunate sadness of these historic events," Hood says. SClick here for more Cover Stories