RVA Mayor holds ceremony, announces architecture firm to memorialize slave jail
With construction plans uncertain, activist group continues push for memorial park.
By: Charlotte Rene Woods
RICHMOND, Va. — On the sunny morning of October 10, there was an early-autumn chill to the air as about 100 people gathered near Lumpkin’s Jail in the City’s Shockoe Bottom district, once the second largest slave trade market in America. In a two-hour ceremony, Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced the architecture firm, SmithGroupJJR, which will memorialize the historic space. Whether the space will be bricks and mortar or a landscape has yet to be determined.
The architecture firm is fresh off its work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., whose tickets are currently sold out through the end of 2016.
According to Hal Davis of SmithGroupJJR, the firm will engage the community of Richmond to “try and determine what it should be, how the story should be told and how this particular area should manifest itself.”
Meanwhile a local activist group, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, have a suggestion — one they drafted in an August 2015 community proposal — which calls for a nine-acre memorial park in Shockoe Bottom. That includes existing landmarks like the African burial ground which was once under a VCU parking lot, and the spot where a slave was executed in 1800 for leading a rebellion. The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project was born of the Defenders in 2004 and its Chair, Ana Edwards, has spearheaded the fight for their cause.
With Richmond’s Mayoral election approaching, some top candidates have supported Sacred Ground’s proposal, including Levar Stoney, Joe Morrissey, Jack Berry and Jon Baliles. On the national level, Vice Presidential candidate for the Green Party, Ajamu Baraka has announced his support of the park.
“Considering the sort of battle we’ve been involved in over this issue with them [Mayor Jones administration] that they would pick October 10 to be the day that they would hold their press conference is interesting,” Edwards said.
As discussed in part of the Mayor’s ceremony, October 10 marked the 216th anniversary of Gabriel’s death. He was the slave who lead a rebellion in 1800 under the moto “death or liberty.” It is also the date that Sacred Grounds has always held an annual Gabriel Forum to celebrate the history. This year, the group held their event on October 9. Mayoral candidate Jon Baliles and City Council candidate Kim Gray were present.
Edwards and other members of Sacred Ground attended the Mayor’s ceremony the following day. “Our position is that what he plans to do with the Lumpkin’s Jail site is obviously within the footprint of what we’re calling for,” Edwards said.
The Mayor was once in favor of erecting a sports stadium in Shockoe Bottom. The idea was controversial. Once his plans shifted more towards historic memorialization he managed to secure some funding.
“The state has put in about $11 million and the city has put in $8 million, but the cost of this project is going to be upward of $35 million, so in order for us to finish this, we’re going to have to involve the community in getting resources to get this done,” the Mayor said.
In 2006, Matt Laird of the James River Institute of Archaeology lead an excavation on Lumpkin’s Jail. The site had to be reburied after the project concluded in order to preserve it. Laird, who was hired by the City to participate in the “Richmond Speaks,” public outreach program that is sponsored by Jones, was also present at the ceremony.
“I think the thought has always been that if you could build some sort of structure or facility that would allow you to have that site opened up for people to see it, then it would be a really compelling attraction that would bring people from all over the place to see this thing,” Laird said.
Mayoral candidate and President of the City Council, Michelle Mosby addressed the crowd at the ceremony as she discussed a color line in America. “We see it in some of the struggles that our urban areas face with pockets of poverty, or in the young people who feel like they have to remind us that Black Lives Matter,” Mosby said. “It is the racial reconciliation of our history that is also the doorway to a renewed future. It is this project that I firmly believe will anchor our understanding in a place that we can heal from, grow from and reunite from.”
Mayoral candidate Levar Stoney, who hung out in the crowd, is pleased to see initial action being taken at Lumpkin’s Jail, but like Edwards of Sacred Ground, he doesn’t think it should stop there.
“What I would love for us is to take a larger look at is how we recognize the folks who actually built this city down in Shockoe Bottom,” Stoney said. “Not just that one plot of land right there that the Mayor is focused on, but how can we actually further enhance that area of Shockoe so it recognizes the people who built this city, who came through, and came from Africa in bondage.”
In his speech at the ceremony, the Mayor called the location an iconic symbol for African Americans and a reminder that history should not be buried. “This project today will allow us have the opportunity to have tangible evidence of what happened in this place. Our history is not always beautiful. As a matter of fact, our history in many instances is very painful. No matter how painful it is, we have got to embrace the fact that it is our history,” Mayor Jones said.
Mayor Jones’ term in office is nearing an end. With the approaching 2016 Mayoral and City Council election, whomsoever fills office next, could have significant sway in the fate of Shockoe Bottom.
Edwards said that she understands the next batch of officials on City Council and the Mayor may have different understandings and ideas of the potential at Shockoe Bottom. Richmond has already memorialized its history with the Confederacy, such as the statues on Monument Avenue.
“We’ve got to counter the Confederate landscape,” Edwards said. “If some awful event wiped all people off the face of this city and new people came to visit years later, the physical remnants would convey the reality that white supremacy had won the war of the public story of Richmond. Now, is that what we want?”