Restoring Richmond’s black American history
Ana Edwards is tackling one of Richmond’s ironies.
In the heart of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, under the clattering, elevated lanes of Interstate-95 and two railroad tracks, is a desolate, nine-acre parcel of parking lots and an empty field. Buried under layers of asphalt, road construction detritus and the miscellany of 200-plus years of history are the unmarked graves of enslaved African Americans long forgotten.
The area is just down the hill from St. John’s Church, where Revolutionary patriot and slave owner Patrick Henry delivered his famous 1775 “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech. Just up the opposite hill stands Virginia’s iconic state capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, also a slave holder.
No one knows how many people were buried here, once also the site of a dog pound and dump. “It’s blighted down there. It’s terrible,” Edwards laments.
Edwards envisions this bleak landscape as a memorial park honoring those who died in slavery or were killed for rebelling. It should be a place of reverence, she maintains.
Edwards, 57, has led opposition to a Flying Squirrels baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom as proposals have surfaced since the early 1990s and most recently in 2014.
Now developers are eyeing the area as a transit hub for a future high-speed rail station, a complex of parking decks, businesses and other commercial development.
But to Edwards and the organization she founded — Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality — it is hallowed ground that should bring sunlight to one of history’s most shameful chapters, and honor those too long ignored, many illiterate, without last names or written records.
“When you are aware of an area’s history, you can see it, you can see what’s hidden,” she explained. “I want to reweave black history into Richmond’s history.”
Citing Monument Avenue and its towering Confederate statues, Ana’s husband, Phil Wilayto, agrees: “It’s a city that is glorifying the Confederacy, but not the burial ground. The city buried its history and did little.”
In fact, in early March, Robert Lamb, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, proposed to the city’s Monument Avenue Commission that three statues be constructed in Shockoe Bottom honoring Confederate women, captured Confederate soldiers, and African Americans who “willing or not, loyally served” the South.
Slave trading center
Shockoe Bottom was a commercial slave trade center; in 1861, the largest slave-trading district north of New Orleans.
Enslaved Africans were shipped up the James River, unloaded at Manchester Docks, and forced to walk to jails and pens to await their sale. In the three decades before the Civil War’s 1865 end, traders sold between 300,000 and 350,000 people of African descent out of the area’s auction houses.
Shockoe Bottom had an elaborate slave trade infrastructure of at least five jails, the town gallows, auction houses, hotels, taverns, offices, and shipping and railroad lines. Gabriel Prosser was executed there in 1800 for leading an unsuccessful slave rebellion.
In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Shockoe Bottom as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country. During the 2014 baseball stadium battle, Stephanie Meeks, the Trust’s president, stressed the area’s national significance and told the Washington Post, “We see this as a site of conscience, and one that shouldn’t just be quickly covered up with a baseball stadium.”
Moved to act
In 2002, Edwards became troubled about substandard conditions in the city jail, including the lack of air conditioning in a building intended for 800 but housing 1,400.
She believed she saw people, disproportionately minorities, being wrongfully convicted, and with Wilayto, founded the Defenders organization. That same year, she organized a protest against a white supremacist group at the Chesterfield Library.
In 2003, the Defenders launched a campaign to put an historic marker at the site of the Burial Ground for Negroes, renamed the Richmond African Burial Ground, where slaves in Prosser’s rebellion were hanged. The Defenders unveiled the marker in 2004, when Dr. Haskell Bingham, a Prosser descendant, pulled the cord.
Two-hundred people attended a symposium, and then marched behind the banner “Death or Liberty.” This, their first public history project, led to championing the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.
In 2005, Edwards started a newspaper called The Virginia Defender to advance black history. It is now published by her husband. From 2005 to 2013, she had a weekly, social justice radio talk show on WRIR, 97.3, called “Defenders Lives.”
In 2015, the Defenders completed a concept plan for a memorial park. Edwards sees the Sacred Ground project as a logical evolution to addressing today’s challenges and to advocating for the right of the oppressed to self-determination.
“Today’s signs of oppression are manifested in the management of public housing, and barriers to getting out of poverty,” she said. “Some people have little hope.”
Edwards is dogged, according to her colleagues. “I appreciate her willingness to step out there and bring a perspective that needs to be heard,” said University of Richmond history professor Lauranett Lee. “She really has the tenacity to pursue a holistic appreciation of our cultural resources.”
A memorial park
The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project proposes a nine-acre memorial park with three elements. One site, once known as “Devil’s Half Acre,” would recognize the demolished Lumpkin’s Jail, which imprisoned men, women and children. Robert Lumpkin touted his “success” in breaking rebellious slaves. In 2006, archaeologists found the jail’s stone foundation.
In 2008, local historian Elizabeth Kambourian discovered an early 19th century map showing the Burial Ground for Negroes, and concluded that part of the burial ground was under the current Shockoe Bottom parking lot. The Defenders’ plan would make this area a central part of the park.
A third section would recognize the slave trade’s commercial infrastructure. “We do not want to recreate the Williamsburg of the slave trade,” explains Edwards, but to educate people about all facets of the buying and selling of enslaved people. Her purpose is to tell Shockoe Bottom’s entire story.
She cites as a model New York City’s African Burial Ground National Monument, a site rediscovered in 1991 when authorities were considering lower Manhattan for a federal office building.
When passersby saw bulldozers unearthing bones, officials dug into records and learned that 15,000 people were buried there, once the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent. City leaders, led by Mayor David Dinkins, called in experts and initiated a formal process to document and properly curate the site, “a kind of cultural reparations,” said Edwards.
So far, the city is pursuing national historic landmark designation for Lumpkin’s Jail, but not the entire site. In February, city officials started a process with the community to develop design specifics, guided by experts from the National League of Cities’ Rose Center.
Mayor Levar Stoney explained, “Our goal is to find ways to protect and honor the significant historical nature of this area while promoting its growth and opportunity given environmental challenges. By creating partnerships and working together, we are poised to find a solution that will create a compelling destination for our residents and our visitors.”
The city council has not passed any zoning or historic preservation measures.
Edwards has garnered support from numerous organizations, including the NAACP’s Richmond branch, the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the Sierra Club’s Fall of the James Chapter, the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, Preservation Virginia, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Edwards’ ancestry is one driver of her work. She has traced her father’s ancestors to today’s Cameroon, and confirmed that many of her forebears were sold out of Richmond from the 1830s to 1865.
She is also of European descent. Her mother’s great-grandparents came from Norway to the U.S. “for a better life,” they wrote.
Edwards grew up in Texas, then moved with her parents to New York, where they were artists. She received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and moved to Richmond in 1988, where she raised two sons.
She now lives in the Forest Hill area, and inspired by the Sacred Ground project, is working on a master’s in history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Two days a week, at the American Civil War Museum, she helps tell the Civil War story from multiple points of view — that of Union soldiers, Confederates and African Americans.
Edwards sees the Defenders’ work as part of a worldwide movement. She comments, “The impact of the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trades on all New World peoples and nations has been devastating on the one hand. On the other, we are here now, the result of it all, and have to figure out how to go forward.
“And Richmonders, no less than any others, want to see that history, the struggle and the planning for a better future reflected in the landscapes they live in.”
Noting that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to the Virginia colony, she scolds national officials.
“There is no clear messaging coming from our national leaders,” she said. “That is most telling and troubling for the country.”
What moves her to act?
“First, learning history empowers and energizes me and I’ve seen it empower others.
Second, this project will reveal the truth, acknowledge the truth, and we will learn from it. This is Richmond’s opportunity for a kind of truth and reconciliation process,” she explained.
“It’s all about what it means to be American and how we got here.”