Spirits in the Outfield 

Five years later, the latest ballpark proposal confronts an old foe: Richmond's slave history.

click to enlarge news05_slave_jail_200.jpg

In 2004, when the first Shockoe Bottom ballpark was proposed, preservationists helped nix the deal by raising concerns about the project's impact on the site of the largely unexplored Lumpkin's slave jail.

Five years and two archeological digs later, the new ballpark proposal is running into similar resistance — only this time there's a heap of recently discovered history.

The excavation of Lumpkin's slave jail in Shockoe Bottom is proof that Richmond's long-buried history as a center of the 19th-century domestic slave trade is of national significance. And there's new evidence that other such important archeological sites nearby could reveal more of Richmond's buried history. 

“The Lumpkin's jail excavation proved to be one of the most intact archeological sites in Virginia, and there's strong preliminary evidence that there are other resources adjacent to it just to the south that should be explored,” says David Herring, director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

Specifically, Herring's excited about recently uncovered photographic evidence of another slave jail next door to Lumpkin's.

Earlier this fall, Herring says, Jeffrey Ruggles, associate curator for prints at the Virginia Historical Society, showed him an enhanced detail from an old photograph held by the Library of Congress.

The photo, showing a view from Church Hill — looking down Grace Street shortly after the fall of Richmond to Union forces in 1865 — is similar to one historians more commonly reference in their work on Lumpkin's. Unlike an older photo of Lumpkin's, this one hasn't been damaged by time. And Ruggles says it also provides a straight-on view of a building complex next to Lumpkin's.

“It's another jail,” he says, noting that the photo was taken by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner within weeks of the April 3 Richmond fire. “[The second] jail shows up in other photos too, but on this one it's clearest.”

By comparing this photo with other historical records, Ruggles says he believes the jail likely belonged to George Washington Atkinson.

Ruggles plans to discuss his finding, and the broader slave history of Shockoe Slip, at a symposium at the society on the Boulevard on Feb. 28 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Two things make Ruggles' discovery significant. First, the Atkinson jail appears significantly larger than Lumpkin's. Second, by its location in the photo, Ruggles says, he believes Atkinson's could also re-emerge from the parking lot it's under.

“This other slave jail appears to be conveniently located in the site between the Lumpkin's jail and the Seaboard [railroad] building, so I think you could theoretically take your excavation south and uncover this [jail], too,” he says. “That's as long as we're thinking big.”

A four-year-old study by Kim Chen, an architect with Richmond's Johannas Design Group, indicates there might be quite a few things under the noses of anyone hoping to undertake a major reshaping of Shockoe Bottom.

Among the possibilities, Chen says, are numerous sites of former slave jails. The Omohundro jail, another notorious slave pen, was at the current site of the Exxon on East Broad Street, Chen says — under the proposed ballpark's deep right field.

And then there's the parking lot next to the McDonald's, site of the offices of another antebellum trader.

Any of these sites could still yield history, Chen says. Many are in the way of the proposed ballpark and its associated housing, restaurant and retail development.

“To me, it's really interesting, when you look at all the buildings that were in that area that were associated with the slave trade, and how virtually none of them are left,” Chen says. “Every jail is gone. That, to me, is just mind-boggling. It all seems very deliberate to me.”

Her 2006 report served as a nomination to the state Department of Historical Resources seeking federal designation of Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom as historic districts. That designation, which is the first to acknowledge the district's central importance to the slave trade, was granted late last year. An older historic designation of Shockoe made “absolutely no mention of the slave trade” as an industry, Chen says.

Which isn't surprising considering how effectively buried much of that past has been. No matter how deliberate this effort to erase the past, Chen says, not all of it is gone.

“There actually are a couple [remaining buildings],” she says, noting a handful identified in her research that were associated with slave businesses, and that still exist.

“We had identified a house at … 211 N. 18th St. we believe was the home of a guy named Ash Levy who was a trader,” Chen says.

Less certain than his residency is whether the house may also have served as storefront for his other business: “He also operated a clothing store that specialized in slave apparel. It was so when they took them to auction, they would dress them up a little bit. … so they would look more presentable.”

The Highwoods Properties proposal is by no means silent about its responsibility to preserve history. The developers promise in their proposal that the Lumpkin's jail site will be protected, and that private development will remain “at a respectful distance and not hinder future archeological or interpretive uses of the city.”

How much of that history is another question. Certain locations are integral to the taxing district that would be set up to fund the project. Balancing that is the proposal's promise to create a museum or research facility to provide tourism and education opportunities related to the Richmond Slave Trail.

Pete Boisseau, a spokesman for the ballpark developers, says he's well aware of the area's historical significance beyond Lumpkin's.

“There were somewhere between 14 and 17 slave jails in that area,” he says. “It seems that Richmond could lay claim that Richmond was the largest slave-trading center in the country.”

As preservation goes, he says Lumpkin's is different from the other sites.

“Something good came out of Lumpkin's,” he says. The building became a school for freed slaves in 1867, which led to the establishment of Virginia Union University. “I don't know of a similar pleasant ending for any of the other slave jails,” he says. “I don't hear any hue and cry that we ought to set aside this whole area like we are Lumpkin's Jail.”

The lot where Lumpkin's — and perhaps Atkinson's — are located appears to be an area where there's plenty of room to negotiate with regards to proposed construction.

“[Highwoods developers] were very mindful of the history in this area and that there may be other sites in this area that nobody knows about,” says Rachel Flynn, Richmond's director of community development, who met with developers two weeks ago. “They're taking the history very seriously. If more were to be discovered, they would work with the city.”

Phase three of the Highwoods plan includes a parking deck, hotel and office space west of the Main Street Station train shed and south of Lumpkin's, but the existing plan doesn't contemplate Atkinson's. That said, Flynn says, “They didn't say if we can't have that in the plan, the whole deal won't work.”

Soon, Lumpkin's, which took 150 years to re-emerge into the light of history, will be at least temporarily recommitted to the grave. Plans are being developed to stabilize the site, cover what's been found with a special kind of tarp and then rebury it.

The hope is that burial will keep it as safe from the ravages of time as it remained for all these years. And the plan, say people familiar with the project, is to leave it buried until a decision is made on how best to reopen the site, preserve it from the threat of water damage (this is Shockoe, after all) and present it to the public as some sort of permanent exhibit.

As Flynn sees it, telling Richmond's slavery history is potentially vital to the economic development of the city. In fact, the city parking lot where Lumpkin's is buried might also include another intact historical site — and both are linked by an old railroad tunnel to the Negro Burial Ground just across Broad Street.

“You can't move these historical sites. They are where they are, and context is important,” she says. “There's a story to be told.” S

News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.

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