Retracing Steps 

Opinion: Shockoe Bottom deserves a slavery museum. But it must be at the center of our considerations, and not as a side project.

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Scott Elmquist

Not long after I first moved to Richmond and began to immerse myself in its history, I was struck by the problem of how the city presents that history.

When some of my colleagues and I attempted to use the online map available at the time for the Slave Trail, we found ourselves climbing a steep embankment above an entrance ramp to Interstate 95. We still laugh about that moment, but the truth is, it's no joke how hard it is to track the history of the slave trade in this city.

I joined the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University in 2007, partly because I was working on a history of a freedmen's school, the Holley School, on Virginia's Northern Neck. I was in the process of transcribing a collection of letters from the school's founders, Sallie Holley and Caroline Putnam, to beloved author Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abba Alcott, who were supporters of the school.

Enclosed in the letters was an oral history of one of the school's neighbors, Winnie Beale, who was sold South from Virginia and, post-emancipation, worked her way back home by retracing her steps. They took her from the Montgomery, Alabama, plantation where she'd lived in bondage to a Union encampment in Savannah, Georgia, then by train back to Richmond and Fredericksburg, by ferry to Merry Point, and by wagon back to Lottsburg. She recalled the way from her journey southward years earlier, compelled by a succession of slave drivers.

While I explored Beale's story, it came to light that, as part of that southward journey, she had spent several months in the Richmond slave market, held at the establishment of slave trader George Jones, at Franklin Street and Locust Alley. A comparison of the Google Earth map of Richmond with the 1877 F.W. Beers map shows that this address would have fallen within the boundaries of Franklin and Main on the north and south edge, and 14th and what is now 15th on the east and west edge, in the heart of the old Richmond Wall Street slave market district.

Beale reported in her narrative that she had received the first whipping of her life there, and that her back still bore the stripes from it. Whatever marks that Beale's captivity may have left on Richmond's terrain, however, lies buried just a block west and south of the Lumpkin's Jail site, under a parking deck. The Broadbent Reconciliation statue, at the southeast corner of this plot, stands in silent tribute to the suffering of Beale and countless others like her.

This history begs to be told. And while it's important to emphasize that it is black history, and to honor that fact, it's also important to acknowledge that it is American history — indeed, world history. It's the story of how Richmond, how Virginia, how America was made. And it's the history of what it means to be a world citizen, a human being. Moreover, it isn't merely history. Tragically, the traffic in human souls is far from over. This is a history we ignore at our peril.

Mayor Dwight Jones has put forward an idea for getting a slavery museum built as part of his Shockoe Bottom ballpark initiative, and in a sense, I commend him for it. I'm sure he means well, seeking to bring economic development and jobs to the descendants of slaves and the larger population. Shockoe Bottom lies very near to communities that still experience the legacies of slavery; to be sure, we're in need of economic investment in the East End.

But that's why we need to do it right — to build a fitting memorial, and to put the production of that memorial at the center of our considerations, and not as a small-ball side project.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Shockoe Bottom to its list of the country's 11 most endangered historic places. Were Richmond able to gain the support of such an organization for its memorialization, it would mean crucial access to donors and other resources. If we build it right. Indeed, many have suggested that Shockoe Bottom bears the earmarks of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the level of ball we should be playing.

The Diamond was pleased to report an annual attendance of just upwards of 400,000 people. Richmond's Holocaust Museum has just more than half that number annually. But when we imagine the impact of a museum memorializing the slave trade in Richmond, we shouldn't think about it in terms of the Holocaust Museum, excellent as it is. Rather, it should be considered in light of the memorials at Dachau or Ground Zero, which attempt to document on site and at scale, for the world's review, the mark of an inhumane enterprise on the landscape of a city.

Such memorials require a particular kind of courage from populations who offer them, and from those who attend them. They require each of us to take stock of our own souls, learn the lessons of history and take responsibility for a better future. And this is why they succeed. Some 800,000 travel to Dachau each year to see the marks of devastation there. More than 15 million world visitors have attended the 9/11 memorial since its opening in 2011.

A truly respectful treatment of Richmond's slave history would create more jobs in the city than simply moving The Diamond and building a small-scale museum. And it would do justice to a people and a landscape. It would foster the possibility of true reconciliation and integration for the people of Richmond. It would help people the world over to witness the depths of despair a people may survive, and help us all to recover from that despair and awaken to a new humanity. This is the long ball we should be playing. This should be the scale of our vision.

We wouldn't build a circus arena in the middle of the Dachau memorial, or an amusement park at Ground Zero. While a significant portion of the landscape of the slave market is buried, much of it is still visible or close to the surface. We must have the courage of vision to put what remains at the center of our development planning. S

Mary Lamb Shelden is an associate professor in the focused inquiry program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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



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