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GUEST COMMENTARY: Richmond’s Monument Valley

Shockoe is the missing chapter in America’s racial history.

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The American Revolution of 1776 to 1781 did not result in a nation that practiced the principle that all men were created equal. In hypocritical Virginia in 1782, only 52% of the people were created equal. Forty-eight percent were property. That was the reality, regardless of the rhetoric. The dividing line in the Virginia code was the race of the person.

The great division between resident and slave was strangely unacknowledged, a kind of dim footnote in the texts of American history.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century tackled racial segregation and discrimination and has won great victories. But the depth and persistence of the racial divide, the enormous economic and social cliff between the races, continues to emerge and to stun the nation.

In many ways, the secret lies in Shockoe Bottom. The secret lay buried until the beginning of the 21st century. No one in Virginia’s schools or universities, Black or white, acknowledged what had happened there. Generations had heard of the African slave trade. Its truth – known in the bodies of the black population – was beginning to be told more openly. That trade began in 1619 and was officially ended in Virginia 155 years later, in 1774.

Then – and only then – the second full volume of the American tragedy was revealed. Slavery was not a simple matter of being an unpaid worker on a white man’s plantation. American slavery was a massive, continuous trade in the involuntary transportation of human beings, the sale of children and the breeding of captives. Once human property could no longer be procured from Africa – finally prohibited nationally in 1808 – the domestic slave trade grew. With the forced expulsion of American Indians from Southern states and the invention of the cotton gin, the stage was set for the new work camps of the deep South. Virginia became the new Africa. The rivers and roads south became the new Middle Passage. By 1840, Virginia had become involved in a domestic slave trade three times as large as its African slave trade had been.

Black Virginians weren’t just discriminated against. They were separated and sold. The income of the entire white population – consciously or not – was the sum of their own income and the daily sale of African American human beings.

It took 140 years – from 1865 to 2005 – for the buried evidence of this massive deception to come to light. In that year, spurred on by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, the James River Institute of Archeology dug 10 feet through the rubble in Shockoe Valley and uncovered the pristine courtyard of an enormous and historic slave jail – one of five major jails that had been in there. The jail had belonged to a man named Robert Lumpkin. Black folks called it the Devil’s Half Acre.

The untold story is just beginning to be told. Africans were no longer needed to farm the depleted lands of Virginia. They were sold for cash: One person might bring a year’s income to a person of the other race. The downriver slave trade in Virginia involved from 300,000 to 500,000 people – three to five times as many as had originally come from Africa – and lasted for half a century.

That’s the Shockoe story. It’s a story that plumbs the depth of the American betrayal. But it also shows the power of the resurrection from it. Lumpkin’s Jail, as many Richmonders now know, became the location for the first classes of Virginia Union University. A recovering Richmond will tell the story in the 21st century, renouncing four centuries of lies, retiring the deceptions of Monument Avenue.

On July 28, Mayor Levar Stoney proposed a city investment of from $25 to $50 million, added to $11 million already promised by the state, to seed the National Slavery Museum and Memorial Park project in Shockoe. Monument Valley, not Monument Avenue, will be the cradle of the new Richmond.

The National Slavery Museum project has been studied for two years by the Smith Group, the planners who designed the Museum of African American History on the Mall in Washington. [lumpkinsjail.org] It would be built atop the excavated Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, what has been called one of the most significant unexcavated archeological sites in the country. The museum study is complemented by a study from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis that outlines a memorial park in Shockoe, including both the African Burial Ground and other space east of Main Street Station. The park will honor the hundreds of thousands of ancestors who were buried or sold in that valley, whose spirit is the foundation of our recovery. The museum and park will be a center for tours of the entire historic valley and draw visitors from all over the nation.

It is not just the hidden story of African American bondage that is revealed in Shockoe. It is the story of hiddenness itself. The slave market accounted for half the economy of the city of Richmond – perhaps as much as $200 million a year in current value – for the 20 years leading up to the Civil War. Yet it is hardly mentioned in Virginia or Richmond history even today. To protect the market, the city erected a structured indifference to cruelty and violence. White Richmond hid from its reality and pretended that the system was benevolent. Although the market is gone, somehow the hiddenness of the dual history remains.

Richmond, the queen of the hidden market, can in Shockoe become a proclaimer of honest history to the nation and the world. The National Slavery Museum and Memorial Park, located within a day’s trip of half the nation’s population, can become a place of pilgrimage. Visitors will have the opportunity to sense the challenge of America, expressed in the ideals shown in Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol and Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and their interaction with the original sin of race-based bondage. They will encounter, and hopefully join, the continuing efforts to complete the American Revolution.

Shockoe transforms Richmond from center of deception to proclaimer of truth. It is that important to the city, the state and the nation.

Lumpkin’s Jail and the Burial Ground lie in the floodplain. The Smith Group and the city are working now to outline how they can excavate the site and build the kind of structures that will be flood-proof and permitted by the U. S. Corps of Engineers. The state and city have both promised seed money for the project. A nonprofit foundation is in the works to raise the additional private money necessary for this incredible memorial.

Monument Avenue has had its day. Monument Valley is Richmond’s future.

The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell is pastor emeritus of Richmond Hill, a pastoral associate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission.