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OPINION: Between the Lines 

Is the $3.5 million for the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park real money or a political ploy?

click to enlarge The site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in the Devil’s Half-Acre in Shockoe Bottom.

Scott Elmquist/File

The site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in the Devil’s Half-Acre in Shockoe Bottom.

At a news conference held July 28 at the Devil’s Half-Acre in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced he was dedicating $3.5 million in city money for the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, a community-generated proposal that has won endorsement from all the major mayoral candidates.

Stoney said the money was already available from surplus funds and was separate from a request he plans to submit to City Council for $25 to $50 million to be spent over five years for general memorialization in Shockoe Bottom.

The announcement was big news in Richmond and an Associated Press story was carried nationally, including in The New York Times.

The announcement was significant in several ways.

Stoney had already endorsed the memorial park proposal but hadn’t yet committed any money.

Also speaking at the news conference were Del. Delores McQuinn and City Council President Cynthia Newbille. For the first time, both publicly supported the park proposal. McQuinn chairs the city’s Slave Trail Commission, charged with preserving Richmond sites related to slavery. Newbille represents council on that body.

Also speaking was Ana Edwards, who chairs the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which led the community discussions that produced the proposal for the memorial park. Edwards called the mayor’s financial commitment a milestone in the ongoing effort to reclaim and properly memorialize what once was the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

Then the Richmond Free Press ran a story questioning whether the mayor actually has the authority to allocate money for a new project, or if he would still need council’s approval, which is far from certain.

I wrote Newbille for a clarification, and received this response, from Steve Skinner of the council’s chief of staff office: “Per your question - yes, such would need Richmond City Council approval.”

I also emailed the mayor. He did not respond. We did hear from a high-ranking official in his office that, yes, council would need to approve the expenditure.

Conclusion: The mayor announced he had $3.5 million already available for the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, knowing full well that he would need council’s authorization. And McQuinn and Newbille, Stoney allies who surely are familiar with the rules for appropriating city money, didn’t raise any objection.

So was the announcement just a political ploy to win support for Stoney’s re-election campaign at a time when he’s being severely criticized for his Police Department’s handling of the anti-racist protests?

Money wasn’t the only misrepresentation at the news conference.

Stoney said the memorial park proposal was developed by the Shockoe Alliance, a body of mostly city officials he set up to advise his administration about how to develop Shockoe Bottom. McQuinn, Newbille and Edwards are all members.

The Alliance was established in 2018. The park proposal was unveiled by the Defenders in 2015.

Another misrepresentation was the lack of any mention, by the mayor, McQuinn or Newbille, of the more-than-20-year community struggle to win recognition of the importance of Shockoe Bottom. This involved the 10-year campaign that forced Virginia Commonwealth University to remove its parking lot from what is now known as the African Burial Ground, the two-year battle that succeeded in blocking a baseball stadium in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, and the now-five-year effort to win the memorial park. Literally thousands of people and dozens of organizations have been involved in these struggles.

Why is all this so important?

In the 30 years before the Civil War, 300,000 to 350,000 Black people were sold from Virginia to plantations in the Deep South. Richmond increasingly became the epicenter of this trade. So many women, men and children were sold from the 40 to 50 auction houses of Shockoe Bottom that the majority of African Americans today likely could trace some ancestry to this small area of downtown Richmond.

In this time of racial reckoning, the very act of creating a memorial park dedicated to honestly facing the true role that slavery played in developing this city, this state and this country will be a contribution of historic proportions. If it’s right to take down the symbols of white supremacy in the form of Confederate statues, surely it is right to memorialize this sacred ground.

And it’s important to note that the community proposal calls for the financial benefits from developing the memorial park to go first to the descendant community. Black companies and Black workers must be at the head of the line for contracts and jobs. Unfortunately, up until now, most city contracts for memorial work in Shockoe Bottom have gone to white-owned firms.

It’s a shame that politicians are misrepresenting their roles in this important endeavor. Hopefully, they will change their approach in time to end up on the right side of history.

For details on the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, see sacredgroundproject.net.

Phil Wilayto is editor of the Virginia Defender newspaper and has been involved in the struggle to reclaim Shockoe Bottom since 2001. He can be reached at DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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