To be or not to be, that is the new Shockoe Bottom memorial’s question


Twining unseen within the loamy soil of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom are the stories of the enslaved who unwillingly traversed this low-lying land that once distinguished itself by the sheer volume of Black bodies it saw sold into slavery. Here, across 10 acres that rooted Richmond as the nation’s second-largest flesh market of the American slave trade, a new story seems about to begin, built on the old.

In a splashy ceremony inside the cavernous upper level of Main Street Station last week, Richmond leaders unveiled before an audience of hundreds the Shockoe Project, a sprawling memorial pavilion dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of African Americans bought, sold and held there in the 19th century and their experiences as currency in Richmond’s prosperous slave economy. To call it ambitious is an understatement: The $265 million project is slated to take nearly 15 years to complete and will feature seven components that reveal the history of the site, and give it new meaning fit for a 21st century Virginia defined as much by its future as it has always been by its past.

To be or not to be, that is the new Shockoe Bottom memorial’s question by Samantha Willis of the Virginia Mercury
A conceptual rendering depicting the National Slavery Museum, an element of the Shockoe Project. (Baskervill)

“We are choosing to move forward by telling Shockoe’s complete story and by honoring and memorializing the lives of enslaved Africans,” outgoing Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday evening, placards of each of the project’s sites curving in a half circle along the front of the airy, glassed-in space, trains leaving and arriving at the outdoor platform a stone’s throw away. The plan proposes a 62,000 square foot National Slavery Museum, the Shockoe Institute, billed as the park’s introductory gateway housed inside Main Street Station, communal and green spaces, and then a restaurant and retail pavilion. All this, combined with existing elements including the African Burial Ground, the Trail of the Enslaved, Lumpkin’s Jail and Winfree Cottage.

Stoney said the Shockoe Project already has about $38 million in funding: $25 million stemming from the Capital Improvement Plan ensconced in the city’s 2024 fiscal year budget; $13 million in state dollars from the Virginia General Assembly, and an $11 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. “We’re choosing to embrace its complete history and use its unique position to tell a national and even global story of how slavery was intricately connected to this nation’s history, economy, culture and complexity,” Stoney said.

That sounds like a very worthy endeavor; yet, much of this plan we’ve heard before, expressed through various, disjointed efforts by historians, politicians, racial justice advocates, preservation organizations and local and state entities. Stoney admitted that it has been at least a decade since the first plans to illuminate Shockoe’s dark history on a grander scale were proposed. People have been debating what to do with Shockoe Bottom for much longer.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder first pitched the National Slavery Museum idea in the 1990s, slated for completion in 2004, with Wilder elucidating his vision of historic grandeur over and over. Not only was it never built, but the organization filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and the former governor, the grandson of enslaved people and America’s first Black governor, then suggested moving the location of his elusive entity to Shockoe Bottom, where it was also never built. 

The Richmond Slave Trail Commission, founded in 1998, oversaw the installment of a walking path that winds up from Manchester Docks through the bowels of Richmond’s slave market, allowing modern Virginians and visitors to follow in the footsteps of the bound, passing such horrors as Lumpkin’s Jail – the human holding pen appropriately nicknamed “the Devil’s Half Acre” – and the African Burial Ground (which was until, very recently, coated over with asphalt, a 20th century developmental disrespect to the sacred space which also bore witness to the execution of enslaved blacksmith and literal freedom fighter Gabriel). The commission’s longtime chair, Del. Dolores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said at Tuesday’s unveiling that the group’s yearslong effort to more fully pay homage to Shockoe’s history – including plans to build a museum at the Lumpkin’s Jail site, excavated in 2008 –  has at times seemed “insurmountable.” 

In 2013, former Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones put forward a monstrous plan to build a hybrid ballpark-slavery memorial in Shockoe Bottom; thankfully, this very bad idea prompted public outcry and never made it off the bench. You should be sensing a theme by now.

The memorial park, a foundational aspect of the Shockoe Project, comes courtesy of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which proffered a community-led proposal for a nine-acre memorial park in 2015. Ana Edwards, a public historian, assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s African American studies department and Sacred Ground’s chair, is part of the Shockoe Project’s curatorial team. Among this esteemed group of historians whose job it is to “get the story right,” Edwards said she’s an accountability partner who has every reason to believe that this time, Shockoe’s story will be fully, finally told.

To be or not to be, that is the new Shockoe Bottom memorial’s question by Samantha Willis of the Virginia Mercury
Ana Edwards – a public historian, assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s African American studies department and Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project’s chair – is part of the Shockoe Project’s curatorial team. Here, she speaks about the project at a Feb. 27 unveiling at Main Street Station in Richmond. (Samantha Willis/Virginia Mercury)

“What’s different is, all of these elements have come together into a comprehensive plan,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “That’s never happened before. There’s never been so much collective cooperation on this effort before, and much of it comes directly from [the] community.” The intention that the space will emotionally, spiritually, economically and socially benefit Black people, who have so often endured social injustice in this state and country, is another key piece that is starkly different from past endeavors, said Edwards.  

“This Black cultural resource is for humanity, but it cannot come into being and generate revenue for the city without it benefitting the Black community. That is baked into this.” 

By incorporating the Trail of the Enslaved, McQuinn depicted the Shockoe Project as a new way to “leave … a legacy of truth, narrated by the living and by those who we cannot see, but who see us. Narrated from the grave.”

Many may doubt that the Shockoe Project can be manifested from renderings and grand pans into reality; given the history, it’s understandable if they do. But I want to believe that this project will come to fruition. I would love to take my family there, not to wallow in the suffering of our ancestors, but to show my sons part of our historic narrative as the descendants of free and enslaved Black Virginians. I want to reflect on our peoples’ strength in a space specifically designed to imbue those ancestors with the dignity they were denied in life.

In a state radically reshaped by the racial justice protests after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, by the monuments to enslavers finally coming down, by the peeling away of privilege, demands for equity and calls for accountability, maybe we’ve finally reached a moment when it’s possible to scale a $265 million mountain in a quest for long-delayed, lasting, public recognition of historic Black narratives and experiences that inform who we are today and who we can be tomorrow. The first phase of the project, the Shockoe Institute, is scheduled to open next summer; may the climb continue.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

by Samantha Willis, Virginia Mercury
March 4, 2024

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.

Reposted under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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