Richmond, Virginia's Shockoe Bottom redevelopment plan is just the latest case study.
Shockoe Bottom, an eight-block area of downtown Richmond, Virginia, was once the second largest center of the U.S. slave trade. Between 1830 and 1865, an estimated 350,000 people were sold into slavery there, and the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup, whose memoir, 12 Years a Slave, became an Oscar-winning film in 2013, spent the night in one of its slave jails.
The site—and its centuries-submerged history—has lately been targeted for a major mixed-use development project that would include apartments, shopping, and a minor league baseball stadium. The “Revitalize RVA” plan, spearheaded by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, is by all accounts a well-meaning attempt to generate jobs and revenue for the city. Even opponents of the proposal agree that something must be done to transform this underused swath of downtown.
But for preservation and social justice activists, the mayor’s plan is out of touch with Shockoe’s history of human suffering—and emblematic of a broader, national failure to preserve the historic sites associated with slavery.
A Forgotten History
There are no former slave markets or jails left standing in Shockoe Bottom today. Structures associated with the slave trade were destroyed or repurposed after the Civil War, converted into factories and warehouses for Richmond’s burgeoning tobacco industry. Then the construction of railroads and highways dumped additional layers of fill dirt on the space, before the land was cleared for its current patchwork of parking lots. After decades of neglect, the history of Richmond’s slave trade is buried, both in memory and in fact.
The same is true in other slave trade hubs, such as Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans. In these cities, slave markets were located in central business districts, making them natural targets for postwar redevelopment. The “Forks of the Road” market in downtown Natchez is long gone, and only a handful of signs memorialize the tragedy that took place there. In New Orleans, the nation's largest slave marketplace, nearly every trace of the business has vanished. "A visitor to New Orleans arriving any time prior to the Civil War could not help but witness an entire cityscape of slave trading," Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella wrote in Preservation in Print. "Visitors today, however, would be hard-pressed to find any substantial, identified physical evidence remaining.”
But not all slave markets were demolished after the Civil War; many are still around today, hidden in plain sight. The slave market in St. Augustine, Florida, is still standing, identified by a marker reading, simply, “PUBLIC MARKET PLACE.” Louisville, Georgia, likewise downplays its historical role in the slave trade by calling a public pavilion once used to sell slaves a “MARKET HOUSE.” And in any given Southern city, the legacy of slavery lives on at the very seat of judicial power. According to Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, one million human beings were sold at state-ordered sales in the South between 1820 and 1860. “If you’re looking for an existing slave market, it’s your county courthouse,” Johnson says. “A lot of those are still standing.”
It’s easy enough to blame economic forces for the postwar destruction of slave markets, but not for the persistent concealment of their history. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the South has no shortage of memorials to the Lost Cause, while memorials to the slave trade remain few and far between. The most prominent ones, Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum and Alexandria’s Freedom House Museum (formerly the Franklin and Armfield Office), are relatively modest and local in their curatorial ambitions.
Of course, museum numbers are a crude measure of America’s contrition. But the obscurity of historic slave markets today does underscore the nation’s larger failure to reckon with its "peculiar institution." Slavery is unlike any other blot on American history in the extent to which it was codified in our laws, our economy, and our society—in the American idea itself. “The consensus, conventional history of the United States is one which runs linearly from slavery to freedom,” says Johnson. “Slavery exists in that story as the pre-history of freedom. But there’s not an effort to fully evoke its horrors.”
After the Civil War, Johnson says, “the price of moving forward for the white United States was the forgetting of slavery.”
Shockoe Bottom: A Case Study
Richmond has actually done a better job than most of commemorating the history of the slave trade. The city established a Slave Trail Commission in 1998, which created a public walking path retracing the steps of enslaved Africans. Richmond is also home to the Black History Museum, which officially endorsed Revitalize RVA in 2013. And Mayor Jones’ plan for Shockoe Bottom has, from its inception, included a slavery heritage museum at the site of a former slave jail. This memorial would be located more than 100 yards from the ballpark and west of a train trestle dividing the Shockoe Bottom footprint.
But critics argue that cherry-picking this sliver of land is the wrong way to go about preservation and could put the neighborhood’s archaeological resources at risk. The Richmond slave trade wasn’t confined to the slave jail and the auction block; it also encompassed services for slave traders, such as hotels and storefronts, in the surrounding area. Excavations around the proposed development have already uncovered building foundations and artifacts dating back to the nineteenth century. “This stuff was scattered all around there,” says Gregg Kimball, a public historian at the Library of Virginia. “Anyone who’s doing historical preservation in any serious way, that’s not the way you look at these things. You look at it as the total footprint of the larger area.”
So far the city has balked at conducting a full archaeological investigation in Shockoe Bottom. The Revitalize RVA plan does call for an archaeologist to be on site during excavation for the new development, but as City Councilmember Charles Samuels puts it, that amounts to “having somebody on hand when the bulldozers go in who will say, ‘Stop, let’s check this out and document it,’ while you’ve got a steamroller waiting behind you.”
For opponents, no amount of archaeological oversight would resolve the central problem of the project: that it is simply inappropriate to build an entertainment district on top of a place where human beings were once bought and sold.
A 2011 economic development study commissioned by the city of Richmond put forth a radically different vision for Shockoe Bottom. That plan would have designated the area a heritage district and stressed “sensitivity to historic and cultural resources” as part of any revitalization—and did not include a minor league baseball stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The stadium, along with a hotel and grocery store, entered the picture later as a draw for tourists. The mayor’s office argued, based on a report by the Southeastern Institute of Research, that an African-American heritage site was doomed to fail without a “critical mass of development” surrounding it.
Local residents came up with an alternative “vision plan” that replaced the stadium with a memorial park and expanded the protected district. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has endorsed* a “Sacred Ground Memorial Park,” which would host public art projects and provide green space for “contemplation, reflection, reconciliation, and healing.” Their approach treats Shockoe Bottom as a “site of conscience”—a place that preserves and interprets a history of human rights abuse to promote dialogue about modern-day issues. That would place Shockoe in the same category as places like the Tenement Museum, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Mayor Jones withdrew his Revitalize RVA proposal last May, facing a five-to-four split on the city council against redevelopment. But following a change in the makeup of the council that's expected to move the vote count in his favor, he’s expected to re-introduce the plan soon, to get it into this year’s budget. Stadium or no stadium, Revitalize RVA isn’t a concerted effort to expunge the history of the slave trade. But it will be a reflection of Richmond's priorities—and which stories the city thinks are worth preserving.
*CORRECTION: This post has been edited to note that the National Trust endorsed but did not propose the "Sacred Ground Memorial Park."