Discover / Shockoe Bottom
Save a National Treasure
REGION: South
LOCATION:
Richmond, VA
TYPE:
Photo by Ron Cogswell
Photo by Ron Cogswell
Opportunity
Protect the archaeological resources, and commemorate the unvarnished heritage, of historic Shockoe Bottom, once a national center of the 19th-century slave trade.

Overview

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.

National Significance

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.

Campaign Goals

  • 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.

Send a letter to Richmond Mayor Jones to Save Shockoe Bottom.

Posted on October 22, 2014

Lupita's hand-written impassioned letter to Richmond mayor

Our effort to protect the former slave trading site at Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom just got a big boost from Hollywood!

Actress Lupita Nyong’o has now joined our fight to #Save Shockoe, urging Richmond Mayor Jones in a hand-written letter to reconsider building a baseball stadium, Hyatt hotel and other commercial buildings at the site. Ms. Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for her role as Patsey in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” made a passionate plea for saving the site’s slave history:

“Evidence of America's slave history simply must be preserved, as the legacy of slavery affects all American people… I urge you to set aside the baseball stadium plans and, instead, fully involve the public in determining how best to commemorate the past of slavery at Shockoe Bottom.” [Scroll down for the full text of the letter.]

We couldn’t have said it better.

Now add your voice to the cause. Together we can send a strong message to Mayor Jones and city officials to stop this insensitive development and protect Shockoe Bottom. Our letter to Mayor Jones can be found here. Feel free to customize it with your own words.

Here is Ms. Nyong'o's letter in full:

Dear Mayor Dwight Jones,

My name is Lupita Nyong'o. I am an actress, best known for my portrayal of Patsey in Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years A Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup.

I learned recently that the "Revitalize RVA" program intends to construct a minor league baseball stadium, among other commercial structures in Shockoe Bottom, over the archaeological remains of America's second-largest slave trading center. I write to ask you to withdraw your support of such a venture.

Evidence of America's slave history simply must be preserved, as the legacy of slavery affects all American people. The tactic of the enslaver was to systematically erase all memory of the African's past; let us not repeat this ill by contributing to the erasure of his past in America too. Though this history is ugly and unjust, Shockoe Bottom is a site of conscience, a place where we can bear witness to the human rights abuses of slavery, learn from the lessons of history, and spark a conscience in people so that they can choose the actions that promote justice and lasting peace today.

And yet you are no stranger to the cause for education and the advancement of society through knowledge. On top of being an accomplished scholar yourself, during your term as mayor, you have seen to the construction of four schools in Richmond. I am confident that these schools are intended to engage students in understanding and interpreting our shared history, stimulating their minds about social issues that concern them, and promoting humanitarian values. A preserved Shockoe Bottom can be an integral part of these students' unique educational experience.

Historical sites like these are valuable not only to Americans, but to the entire world that engages with America. I, for one, originate from Kenya, and had it not been for the preservation of slave history on the plantations in Louisiana and within the walls of museums that I visited, my immersion into Patsey's life and lifestyle would not have been as deep nor as empathetic as it was. I may not have been as equipped to portray her and thus contribute to the cinematic heritage that we now have in the movie, 12 Years A Slave.

We would be appalled if a casino was built over Gisozi in Rwanda, a mega mall was constructed over Robin Island in South Africa, or new condos were erected through the gates of Buchenwald in Germany. Let us therefore not have a baseball stadium sit atop the legacies of slavery at Shockoe Bottom.

I urge you to set aside the baseball stadium plans and, instead, fully involve the public in determining how best to commemorate the past of slavery at Shockoe Bottom.

Respectfully,

Lupita Nyong'o

Posted on October 02, 2014

Our concern for the future of Shockoe Bottom and our efforts to save it drew the attention of two major media outlets recently. A piece by WAMU, an National Public Radio affiliate in Washington, DC, entitled "Opponents Balk at Mayor's Stadium Proposal in Shockoe Bottom," conveyed why the Richmond mayor's baseball stadium plan is of such a grave concern to the Trust and local activists. National Trust Field Director & Attorney Rob Nieweg is quoted in the segment: “A 7,000-seat baseball stadium is not something that one can sensitively set in an archeological site. So first, the large footprint is problematic. And especially if one sees this through the lens of the descendant community, of the people who feel a strong direct familial connection to those who suffered there, it’s very hard to find the connection between baseball, and commemoration of slavery.” 

Voice of America aired a piece, "Richmond, Virginia Torn Between Modernization, Historic Preservation," that also explained why thoughtful preservation at Shockoe Bottom is so important. Rob describes it this way in the segment: "Shockoe Bottom is a place of conscience. There are sites of conscience across the world and they function to both remind us what happened historically but also give us an opportunity today to deal with the repercussions of that kind of history, make connections in our hearts and our minds to things that are happening today." 

We are gratified to see our message to save Shockoe Bottom disseminated to such a wide audience (VoA broadcasts in more than 40 languages, for example) and we will continue to seek opportunities to carry this message far and wide.

Posted on July 22, 2014

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.

Please check back often for additional updates on Shockoe Bottom. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on July 22, 2014

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.

Please check back often for additional updates on Shockoe Bottom. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

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LaVita Stovall Spentz on October 21, 2014
I just read some of the comments and I totally agree, when my daughter and I received a map from the Library of Virginia we found the slave trail. It was difficult at times to locate places, I stood on the field of the slave cemetery and I felt the cries of my ancestors, no Richmond do not build there, rather build the city of Richmond as a national treasure, a place where people can come and visit history and feel the pride of our ancestors alike. yes the surrounding areas need a face lift, but if you put all the funds into building a baseball field, who would want to visit an area that is so run down that i would go in the oppoisite direction....
LaVita Stovall Spentz on October 21, 2014
having recently visited Richmond and did the Slave Trail, I feel that the historical places of Richmond should be untouched, I found the city to be rich in every aspect of our history. Please place the ball park somewhere else.
Pierce Powell on September 29, 2014
I am a long-standing member of the National Trust and admire the work that the Trust is doing to recognize and protect the history of Shockoe Bottom. The huge slave trade that took place in Shockoe Bottom was horrific. This history is important to the families of survivors and important to the story of the development of our nation and our national conscience. The area was designated a National Register Historic District in the 1980's and a lot of investment has gone to restore historic buildings, such as old tobacco warehouses that are now apartments. Isn't the history of the nation's second largest slave market worth protecting also? The developers' plans to drop a stadium down into the middle of Shockoe Bottom are completely unstudied, unexamined, unreasonable and callous. The City should work with critics of the plan so that a better stadium can be developed in a better place and achieve better economic benefits.
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.

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Call on Mayor Dwight Jones and Richmond’s City Council to reject the stadium scheme and look for preservation-friendly alternatives.

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