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Before You Dig

A local historian decries the city’s use of her 'inaccurate' map of Shockoe Bottom slave sites.



Since Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration began pitching a ballpark for Shockoe Bottom last year, it has pointed to historical research to show that construction would leave the significant slave sites dotting the area undisturbed.

The mayor’s staff and supporters of the plan have relied on one map in particular. Known as the Kambourian map, it was researched more than a decade ago by amateur historian Elizabeth Kambourian. It’s been cited for years by the city’s Slave Trail Commission and, more recently, in the mayor’s presentations on the proposed stadium and on, a marketing effort to boost the plan.

But Kambourian, it turns out, is angry about her research being used this way. First, she thinks the stadium is a terrible idea. More important, she says, her map is neither complete nor accurate.

“I created it as just an idea of what might be down there and also made it crystal clear to them that it was inaccurate and a first draft,” Kambourian says. “They’ve been told it’s erroneous and they haven’t corrected it. … It’s just appalling to me the crap that gets published and commemorated, especially around here.”

Kambourian, 63, says she’s asked the Slave Trail Commission for years to stop citing her work. She says the Slave Trail Commission started using the map without her permission in 2000, and since then she’s added and removed sites as she has come across new records. That includes the addition of sites within the proposed ballpark’s footprint, where she says she’s found four previously unmarked slave sites along with another seven along the perimeter of the development.

Delegate Delores McQuinn, the commission’s chair, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Activists against the ballpark plan, who’ve also cited Kambourian’s map, confronted city leaders this month about their use of the map without her permission.

The mayor’s chief policy adviser, David Hicks, says the city stopped using her work as soon as it found out she objected. “We got the map from the Slave Trail Commission and we were not aware of any controversy,” he says.

But Hicks says that doesn’t change the city’s position. He and Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond -- which is sponsoring the LovingRVA campaign -- say that other, independently researched maps show roughly the same sites as the Kambourian map they were using.

Berry provides a copy of one of them that was researched by Nate Ayers, the son of the University of Richmond’s president, Ed Ayers, and published in 2011.

The content of the various maps will be irrelevant if the project goes forward, Berry says, because the city has committed to performing a comprehensive historical assessment before work begins, and it will have a team of archeologists on hand during any excavation to “handle any significant items that might be found.”

Phil Schwarz, a retired history professor and expert on the U.S. slave trade, says that the most important indicators of what happened in Shockoe Bottom will be found only when researchers start digging. Maps, however well researched, he says, only provide ideas about what might be where.

So if no one’s really sure what lies beneath the ground in Shockoe Bottom, what happens if workers make a major discovery after construction begins?

Berry refers the question to Tammy Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary. “I can’t speculate on what will happen if something is found,” Hawley writes in an email. “The specialist will be there to guide that process if necessary.”