With $19 million on the line, how will RVA remember its brutal slave legacy

by | Dec 11, 2015 | POLITICS

$19 million dollars.

$19 million dollars. With this amount of funding available to the Richmond Slave Trail Commission by state and local governments, Richmond might finally see a large scale project devoted to some of its darkest days.

What proves to be a big question for the funding pool is what project will the money will be precisely spent on and designated to. With Richmond’s Mayor hoping to break some ground in 2016 in the historic Shockoe Bottom area, the only job for the Richmond Slave Trail commission right now is to finally decide on a project. A monument? A museum? A pavilion? A wayside park?

For over 30 years, until the end of the civil war, Shockoe Bottom held one of the nation’s worst slave prisons, called Lumpkin’s Jail, also known as “the devil’s half acre.” According to historians, hundreds of black slaves were tortured and held captive there as Richmond became the second largest slave trading post behind New Orleans.

“Dozens of dealers populated Shockoe Bottom, the epicenter of America’s domestic trade of African people for profit, of which Robert Lumpkin [owner of the jail site] was only one, and Virginia legislated the fluidity of this sordid, heartless enterprise.” Janine Bell, President of the Elegba Folklore Society here in Richmond said.

It’s hard to sum up the misery which came from Lumpkin’s operation, but the Smithsonian.com’s write up paints a clear picture with this line:

With a designated “whipping room,” where slaves were stretched out on the floor and flogged, [Lumpkin’s] jail functioned as a human clearinghouse and as a purgatory for the rebellious.

Lumpkin wielded much power during the primary slave trade before the Civil War up until his death. His wife Mary Lumpkin, widow and a former slave of Robert Lumpkin himself, took on his empire when he died. Short on funds, Mary leased buildings to a northern minister looking to start a school for freed Black people for about two years before it was moved to a nearby hotel; she then sold her holdings in Richmond and moved to New Orleans.

Now, with the $19 million in fund pools and an undecided project, community groups are coming together to turn the former site of horrors into a place to honor those lost and the stories they had–but it’s not going to be smooth if a decision is not made before upcoming elections.

Richmond Speaks, a local project aiming to unite stake holders, activists, young students, and government officials around the future of the Lumpkin’s site, has been holding public conversations around the issue since September of this year.

“This process of Richmond Speaks is extremely important for our district because how we are able rebuild and reframe the story of how Lumpkin’s site is told, “ Mayor Dwight C. Jones said at the podium of the Richmond Speaks conversation held at Huguenot High School on September 15th. “This is an opportunity to turn the page of history in our glorious city as we before had no resources dedicated to allow our goals to be accomplished.”

But the big concern is how exactly are these Richmond Speaks conversations contributing to the progress and early phases of this project for the excavated ground? With little contribution to expand on social media outreach–an integral component that gathers support and more voices–how many people know exactly what is going on?

“While the slave trail commission has done some very good work, and in fact BECAUSE it has, it is more than appalling and embarrassing that this Black-led, publicly sanctioned agency will not clean up its organizational act. The way that the STC does business, and the apparent complicity of city council and the mayor’s administration is the principal reason we remain skeptical of their stewardship of Richmond’s African and African American historic resources,” said Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

Edwards hopes to launch a plan that will not only honor the excavated acre that is Lumpkins’ old jail site, but to procure nearly nine more acres in the Shockoe Bottom area.

“Our proposal is less expensive, can involve more people, and includes enough area to represent the scale of the 19th century trafficking in enslaved Africans in Richmond while allowing all visitors to engage the histories of working people’s aspirations and their resistance to enslavement and oppression, essential struggles for liberation in our national narrative.”

With more than a few groups hoping to highlight the historical sanctity of Shockoe Bottom, heads definitely butt when it comes to progress and actual establishment plans for the excavated site of Lumpkin’s Jail.

Another meeting was held last night at the University of Richmond, and it started off with a very short but tension filled spat between the Richmond Speaks facilitator and a participant. When the participant snapped about the event being publicized on such short notice (two days), the aura of the room changed quickly towards the notion that nearly everyone wanted–clarity.

Richmond Speaks Draft Plan things are clearly laid out to which branch gave what, and what part of the funds are allocated to where, but people keep coming to these conversations two, three, four, or more times (me included) and we’re wondering why these conversations are all the same — almost.

“I want to know if you have a goal and if that goal is even publicized. How come only 1800 people have become involved and most are students when church groups and foundations have reached out? We have a very large community,” A participant asked during the Richmond Speaks Q&A held at the University of Richmond last night. That’s a good point too, as our city district and the areas surrounding has a total of about 300,000 people.

Later on, when asked about the progress being made the participant who asked not to be named stated: “If there was a precise and specific goal set for these conversations, or a call for support on social media, progress could be made in these community conversations.”

Following this story since September, more clarity was gained through the most recent conversation, but the presentations seem a bit skewed.

“[It] seems to be about the feeling the suffering that people had in servitude, and yet the impact of Slavery in Richmond was so much greater, and I have yet to see anything about the economic impact of the south with Slavery and tobacco […] on the slave trail and through the city you can stop and see a sign of the suffering and thumbprints of slavery,” said another participant. “What i’m saying is that it seems improper to talk only about the suffering, which was true, and not about the overall benefit that our city has had from our history, and still benefits us today.”

This opportunity to turn a page of history however seems to show that there isn’t two sides to this conversation, but many sides that have no clue what is going on and will not until 2016.

At the conversation, many participants were eager to support the idea of something happening NOW. But patience, we guess, will have to be endured a bit longer for the RTC, while some activists have been waiting dozens of years to get this chance.

“The emancipation of slaves brought an end to the story of Lumpkin’s Jail and its enslaved Africans. The Lumpkin’s Jail story is a story of tragedy to triumph as the establishment of Virginia Union University was able to take place.” Delegate Delores McQuinn said. “We now have the opportunity to create a legacy for present and future generations.”

Just like the past, we now as citizens, concerned for future generations, need a bit more clarity on how to preserve and utilize historical land and more importantly, how to spend the money to do so.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com

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