Shockoe Bottom was the center of Richmond’s slave trade, which played a pivotal role during the peak years of the nation’s interstate slave trade. In fact, Solomon Northup, author of 12 Years a Slave, was held here in 1841 at the notorious Goodwin’s slave jail before he was transported in chains to New Orleans.
Much of Shockoe Bottom has since been razed and paved over, nearly forgotten by mainstream historians. Nevertheless, for many descendants of the enslaved, Shockoe Bottom remains sacred ground associated with suffering, injustice, and resistance to slavery.
Today, Shockoe Bottom is an urban archaeological site imminently threatened by “Revitalize RVA,” the controversial plan to construct a minor league baseball stadium, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, and residential and commercial office space at the site. The ill-considered stadium project, which is heavily promoted by the mayor of Richmond, members of the City Council, and influential real estate developers, threatens to destroy the remarkable archaeological remains which survive below the asphalt.
Richmond’s slave trade industry was second only in importance to New Orleans between 1830 and 1865. Slave-trade auction houses, offices, slave jails, and residences of the most prominent slave traders were scattered throughout Shockoe Bottom, a creek valley flowing into the James River.
The National Trust and its local allies believe Shockoe Bottom must be understood nationwide as a place of endurance and resistance, and should be treated as a Site of Conscience, where the public can remember past struggles for freedom and work together to address the contemporary legacies of injustice.
To that end, it is essential that the African-American and descendant communities have a primary voice in shaping the future of Shockoe Bottom. Any future re-development in Shockoe Bottom should be guided by the principles of historic preservation with this legacy in mind.
- Raise national awareness of Shockoe Bottom’s place in American history
- Protect Shockoe Bottom against the incompatible stadium scheme
- Press for full public engagement to plan for Shockoe Bottom’s future
Ways To Help
Donate to our campaign to save Shockoe Bottom.
By Julia Vermeulen, Intern, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Conscience, as defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, can be "1. internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong; or the faculty, power or principle within us…Conscience is first occupied in ascertaining our duty, before we proceed to action; then in judging of our actions when performed…3. Real sentiment; private thought; truth."
In the recent flurry of news around Shockoe Bottom, the term “site of conscience” nearly always makes an appearance. But what is a “site of conscience,” really? And what does it mean for Shockoe Bottom?
Sites of conscience represent past struggles, tragedies, and triumphs in human rights. They remind us that the power and resilience of the human spirit, and its potential for great good and great evil, existed then as it does today. In this connection of past and present, sites of conscience challenge us to think differently, to discuss, and most importantly, to act.
Buried under eight acres of cracking pavement in Richmond’s Shockoe Valley are the memories of the countless women, men, and children who passed through the site. A majority of the artifacts they left behind have yet to be uncovered, and can provide answers and spawn more questions for descendants and for all visitors. The future of Shockoe Bottom as a site of conscience can take many forms, but its development should honor and attempt to understand its powerful role in American history.
In the late 1980s, citizens near the former Kolyma Gulag prison in Russia began to unearth and collect the kettles, pickaxes, and other remnants left behind by miners forced to labor there in the 1930s and 40s. Though few returned to tell of their experience in the camps, these objects now help people grasp the suffering that occurred in Gulags throughout the former USSR. At Johannesburg’s Old Fort Prison Complex, or Number Four, once the site of nearly a century of inhuman abuse that ended with the fall of Apartheid, people now throng to debate current issues, celebrate local heritage, and explore the diverse layers of history at the place. Though similar in some ways, Shockoe Bottom presents its own set of opportunities and challenges as a place of community engagement. Let us not miss this chance to act.
By Rob Nieweg, Field Director & Attorney, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Months before the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Shockoe Bottom as one of the nation’s most endangered historic places, we reached out to the City of Richmond to offer advice on ways the City could avoid harm to historic and archaeological resources from the “Revitalize RVA” proposal to build a stadium in Shockoe Bottom.
In March 2014, at the request of local preservationists, we wrote Richmond’s Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall, copying the City Council, to urge the City to initiate a public consultation process designed to balance revitalization with preservation in Shockoe Bottom. This “Section 106” review is a federal process intended to avoid or reduce harm to historic and archaeological resources. The Richmond Times Dispatch subsequently reported that the National Trust had contacted the City and that the City had concluded that Section 106 does not apply to Revitalize RVA. (The Times Dispatch also released our letter on the newspaper’s website.)
On April 7 the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended in writing that the City consider conducting a Section 106 review before proceeding to approve Revitalize RVA. Two days later, Mr. Marshall responded to the Trust’s letter to indicate that the City would comply with Section 106, if required to do so.
In mid-May Richmond’s Style Weekly reported that the City had shifted the footprint of the proposed Shockoe Bottom ballpark development “to avoid triggering a federally mandated historic review … because the city didn’t want to go through the process. … ‘If you can build something that doesn’t require you to spend a year or two in planning, you do that,’ [Chief Administrative Officer Byron] Marshall said. ‘Costs would go up, interest rates would go up, the cost of construction would go up. Remember, we set out to get this done by 2016.’”
Since then, the National Trust has twice written to the City, but we have received no response to our requests for a meeting to discuss Revitalize RVA, Shockoe Bottom’s history and archaeology, and the public benefits of avoiding harm to historic Shockoe Bottom.
By Rob Nieweg, Field Director & Attorney, National Trust for Historic Preservation
On June 24, 2014, Preservation Virginia and the National Trust held a press event in Richmond to announce that Shockoe Bottom is featured on the National Trust’s 2014 list of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in America. Also participating at the June 24th event were representatives of the Solomon Northup Foundation, RVArchaeology, and Elegba Folklore Society. A few weeks earlier, on April 29, Preservation Virginia had announced that Shockoe Bottom is considered one of the most endangered historic places in Virginia.
These two most-endangered designations are not welcomed by proponents of the controversial Shockoe stadium or, apparently, by The Richmond Times Dispatch, which responded to the National Trust’s announcement with a June 26th editorial entitled “Yawn.” The Times Dispatch editorial opined that Shockoe Bottom’s preservation "has been talked nearly to death … And, anybody who thinks there hasn’t been meaningful public involvement is either ignorant or delusional. … If the National Trust has any new information or insights, we’d be eager to hear them. So far it hasn’t said anything others haven’t said a hundred times already."
Local readers of the Times Dispatch commented on the editorial:
"Of course there has been no meaningful public involvement in this plan. It was created 100% behind closed doors and the boosters have worked tirelessly to prevent public input at every turn."
"As a Richmond property owner and taxpayer, I find this ‘opinion’ piece rude, arrogant, and incredibly insulting. … I am neither ignorant nor delusional in fearing that the Mayor's stadium scheme will cripple the City's finances for years to come, and will probably send it into bankruptcy."
"This editorial misses the point that Shockoe Bottom’s history matters to the nation; it isn’t just something for us in Richmond to settle without considering the larger picture. That’s exactly why the National Trust weighed in. It looked at a situation and felt a brighter spotlight needed to be pointed at it."
On July 12, the Partnership for Smarter Growth published a letter to the editor in The Richmond Times Dispatch which pressed for responsible city planning:
"Richmond will not realize its full potential as a city unless it engages the creativity and input of all of its residents. Consequently, we couldn’t be more disappointed by your disparaging editorial, ‘Yawn.’ … In November 2013, the Partnership for Smarter Growth recommended that the city conduct a full public comparative analysis of stadium locations and of alternative development approaches for both the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. … Shockoe Bottom’s role in the slave trade, the tragic extent of which has been only recently revealed, makes careful analysis even more important. We have an obligation to proceed with great caution and respect, finding the best means to preserve and commemorate this chapter of our history, while revitalizing our city’s neighborhoods. With this in mind, national recognition of the potential threat to our history by the highly respected National Trust for Historic Preservation should be reason for pause and careful consideration, not dismissal. Similarly, public involvement and alternatives analysis should be championed, not marginalized and discouraged.
Is there room for understanding? Can this Site of Conscience also accommodate preservation-friendly re-development? We believe so, as do our local allies.
Stewart Schwartz on June 25, 2014
Re Chris and "barren wasteland": The very parking lots that cover the many blocks of Shockoe Bottom have very likely helped to preserve amazing archaeological resources, as was the case when the foundations of Lumpkins slave jail were discovered below the old lot west of the railroad trestle. Groups are not opposing redevelopment, but want to make sure of the extent of the historic and archaeological resources and how they are best commemorated. Some form of development is possible but the best approach can't be determined without more study and certainly without analysis of development alternatives. The Partnership for Smarter Growth, www.psgrichmond.org, made recommendations in November last year for just such an approach. No good business would jump to a conclusion without evaluating all information and considering alternative approaches. It's worth noting too, that the city's own Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy recommended strategies incorporating both historic tourism and innovation/creative economic businesses, not a stadium. See: http://www.richmondgov.com/EconomicCommunityDevelopment/documents/ShockoeFinalDraftStrategy11_1.pdf Only recently has the tragic extent of Richmond's role in the slave trade begun to be realized, and it is of such profound significance in the history of the city, the State of Virginia and the Nation, that we have an obligation to proceed with great caution and respect. This is everyone's history and an important part of the American narrative. That's why I am very pleased to see the national recognition that comes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia. Let's work together to ensure we adopt the best long-term approach for preserving and honoring our history, while continuing the recent great progress of our dynamic, creative and much-loved City of Richmond.
Chris on June 24, 2014
I'm a member of the National Trust but couldn't disagree more with this campaign. Has the National Trust even visited this area? It's a desolate barren wasteland. There are no buildings on the site and in fact, there are several bars and a strip club all around this land. How are they more compatible than an American pastime like baseball? Do the archaeological digging, build the slave museum and get a prime piece of real estate in the middle of the capitol of Virginia put to use that looks forward towards the future and also brings positive activity, nightlife and residents to a blighted area. I don't understand the objections.
Take Action Today
Call on Mayor Dwight Jones and Richmond’s City Council to reject the stadium scheme and look for preservation-friendly alternatives.