Richmond split over Confederate history
In the capital of the Confederacy, calls are rising to properly memorialize the slave trade
RICHMOND — Ana Edwards stood on Monument Avenue, one of America’s most elegant boulevards, and stared with disbelief at the inscription on the 67-foot-tall memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate government that was based here during the Civil War.
“Exponent of Constitutional Principles,” the inscription said about Davis. “Defender of the Rights of States.” There were no words explaining Davis’s role in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, no hint that much of the nation’s slave trade was conducted here in Richmond, at a time when black lives plainly didn’t matter to many, except as human chattel to be exploited or sold.
Instead, emblazoned in stone, was Davis’s assertion that he acted “not in hostility to others.”
For years, Edwards, an African-American and longtime community activist, had driven by the Romanesque colonnade that surrounds the Davis memorial and wondered why it hadn’t been moved to some museum. But she hadn’t stopped to read the inscription until this day, shortly after a white man who viewed himself as a descendant of the Confederacy allegedly killed nine black members of a Charleston, S.C., church.
“Right now, truly, these monuments are just literally the grandest things the city shows off, and therefore it represents us,” Edwards said. “This is hard. It makes you feel like you live in two different places.”
The city’s tribute to the Confederacy will be highlighted anew in September, when hundreds of millions of people around the world are expected to watch broadcasts of a world cycling championship race that is slated to take 16 laps around the Davis statue — a route that hardly seemed unusual when it was planned months ago but now has drawn the protest of Edwards and others, further exacerbating the debate about what Richmond is and what it wants to be.
Edwards knows that Monument Avenue’s Confederate statuary is unlikely to be taken down anytime soon. What angers Edwards is not just the city’s history of inequality but its continuing unequal treatment of history, which still highlights the Confederacy more than slavery.
Efforts to build a National Museum of Slavery in Virginia have failed for years because of lack of funding. A Richmond slave trail, which includes a statue called “Reconciliation” and was unveiled in 2009, is a modest effort far from the prestige of Monument Avenue. There were even fights about adding a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, to Monument Avenue in 1996 and to erecting an Abraham Lincoln statue alongside the former Confederate ironworks in 2003.
Yet just blocks from the majesty of Monument Avenue, evidence has gradually emerged of another side of the Richmond story that was little-chronicled until recently. A local historian studying an 1810 map of an area called Shockoe Bottom found a revealing notation. Next to a gallows, the marking said “Burial Ground for Negroes.”
Separate research showed that this part of Richmond was home to a far greater domestic slave market than had been realized. Leading historians estimate that 350,000 slaves were sent downriver from Richmond over a 35-year period before the end of the Civil War. Some suggest that perhaps half of all African-Americans can trace some ancestry to the Richmond slave trade, making Shockoe Bottom one of the nation’s most important places for those seeking a grasp on black history.
But the burial ground had been covered by a parking lot, and developers eyed adjacent parcels, envisioning hotels, shops, and a baseball stadium. Thus began a new battle of Richmond, for the other side of history, one that has taken on even greater meaning as controversy escalates about Confederate flags and statues all over the South.
Walk past the Club Rouge Ladies and Gentlemen Club, which advertises itself as conveniently located “in historic Shockoe Bottom,” traverse beneath a roaring ribbon of Interstate 95 interchanges, stride alongside a towering office building, past the Reconciliation statue, through a construction site, and there they are: two patches of lawn.
Until several years ago, they were covered by asphalt. It took a decadelong fight by Edwards and others, as well as support from the city, to preserve what she calls “sacred ground” for African-Americans.
Buried 14 feet underneath one patch of lawn is the foundation of what was once called “Devil’s half-acre.” This was the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, one of the numerous lockups where countless slaves were kept in horrific conditions before they were sold or, in many cases, died.
There is no soaring statuary here, just a few historic markers. Most of the names of those who suffered are unknown. But a window into its history is provided by the story of a 19-year-old Virginia slave named Anthony Burns, who escaped in 1853 to Boston, where he believed he would find liberty. Months after his arrival in Massachusetts, he was walking on Court Street when he was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act and put on trial.
Officials contended they had no choice but to send him back to Virginia. A dozen men, black and white, obtained a battering ram and unsuccessfully tried to free Burns from imprisonment. Abolitionists protested outside the courthouse, and a marshal was killed in a melee, but the judge ruled Burns must be returned.
The case became a national sensation. Thousands lined the streets of Boston to protest as Burns was escorted under guard out of the city. Protesters hung US flags upside down and suspended a coffin labeled “Liberty” across State Street, according to an account by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Many historians believe it was a turning point in the nation’s history, deepening the North-South divide.
With federal troops at his side, Burns was sent to Richmond, where he landed in Lumpkin’s Jail. Slaves were packed into a small room, manacled to one another, nearly starved, and often whipped. Burns described the horrific scene to a Boston supporter, writing, “I am yet Bound in Jail and am wearing my chains Night and Day. . . . I am for sale.”
At the time, between 40,000 to 80,000 slaves were sold each year in the Richmond area, according to the city’s Slave Trail Commission. Traders stayed at hotels adjacent to the jail as they waited for auctions. Many slaves were sold a few blocks from the jail at the local Odd Fellows Hall, where plays were performed upstairs as humans were traded in the basement. A red flag was placed at the hall when slaves were available.
Burns spent four months in Lumpkin’s Jail until his time came and he was sold to a North Carolina man; his freedom was later bought by Boston abolitionists.
Today, the Lumpkin’s Jail site is a green square in a parking lot. Discussions are underway about building a pavilion about the jail and a slavery museum, but nothing has been decided.
Many such jails filled the fetid grounds of Shockoe Bottom; it was at a nearby pen that Solomon Northup, whose story would later be told in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” was held before being sent south.
Beyond the site of Lumpkin’s Jail is a vast stretch of green, bordered by the Interstate and railroad yards. This is the land on the old map marked as “Burial Ground for Negroes.” In the center of the burial ground once stood the gallows on which many blacks were hanged. Most prominent among them was a slave named Gabriel Prosser, who in 1800 led a failed rebellion. Prosser and three dozen others were hanged, and some of them are probably buried on the grounds.
With so much slave history in this area of Shockoe Bottom, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared last year that it is one of the nation’s 11 most endangered sites. The trust said an eight-block area should be preserved as a “site of conscience,” where visitors can learn from “this dark chapter of American history.”
The proposal to build a minor league ballpark adjacent to the site has subsequently been abandoned, but a proposal to build a commercial development is still under consideration. A group cofounded by Edwards — the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality — has proposed a Sacred Ground Memorial District as a place for reflection.
All of this has led to a period of reflection for Richmond itself. Community leaders are discussing what they call “the future of Richmond’s past,” with ruminations about everything from the role of the Confederate statues to proposals for turning Shockoe Bottom into a world-class historic site, a major attraction to compete with Jefferson Davis and the many Confederate memorials that now define this city’s bond with its history.
A few miles from the burial ground, Cary Street represents the young, hip Richmond, the part that local officials fairly gush about as they compare their city’s renaissance to that of other Southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah.
On a recent day, throngs of visitors shopped at chic boutiques, ate at fine restaurants, or picked up dessert at a cupcake store. Nearby, the historic homes of the Fan District and the attractions of the Museum District rival any Southern city for their architectural and cultural majesty.
It was with this compelling story of Richmond’s rebirth that local officials attracted an event that they hope will draw world attention to the city.
This September, the Road World Championship, which attracts 1,000 of the world’s best cyclists, will be held here. While relatively little known by most Americans, it is one of the world’s most-watched sporting events. It is expected to attract 1,000 journalists, draw nearly 500,000 spectators to the streets of Richmond, and be watched by 300 million people on television.
Only in recent days has the fact that one of the main races takes 16 laps around the Jefferson Davis statue drawn controversy. Just as Richmond is trying to find a way to balance its history, the city’s focus on the Confederacy will be viewed anew by what could be the largest audience in its history.
The Davis statue that will be circled by the cyclists was erected in 1907 at a ceremony that is still considered one of Richmond’s watershed events. More than 125,000 people lined Monument Avenue, many of them old-timers dressed in the Confederate uniforms that they wore to battle decades earlier.
Davis’s daughter, an honored guest, lifted a canvas veil to reveal the 8-foot-high version of her father. Confederate flags fluttered on either side, and the Richmond Howitzers fired a gun salute that sent 21 more Confederate flags flying into the crowd.
Spectators at the Davis ceremony clutched their copies of a souvenir program, which noted that Davis gestures toward the words on the surrounding colonnade, words he delivered before becoming president of the Confederacy:
“Not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit; but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.”
Edwards said she could only imagine the effect of Davis’s words on blacks at the time, “to know that the rights they are talking about didn’t apply to them.” She said the cumulative effect of such symbols, all over the region, appeared to have influenced the alleged Charleston shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, who took pictures of himself holding a Confederate flag and visiting slave plantations.
“When they talk about what they gave ‘unshorn to their children’ — that terrible young man in Charleston was clearly raised in a context that, when his mind finally broke, if it broke, that is where it landed, that his very survival depended on wiping out black people,” Edwards said. “So it is critically important that Richmond, of all cities, change the context it creates for people to grow up here.”
Several days later, Edwards and her husband, Phil Wilayto, wrote an open letter to the organizers of the World Cycling Championship, urging they find a route that doesn’t take cyclists along Monument Avenue and around the Davis statue. Keeping the route in place would put Richmond “in the worst possible light.”
Race organizers said it is too late to make the change but stressed that the course will also go near the burial ground and other sites of black history, which will be discussed during the event.
All of this is hardly what was expected by Lee Kallman, a Richmond native who is the race’s vice president of marketing. To Kallman, the race is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to promote the city to the world. Indeed, Kallman said the race should be viewed as bringing together all the people of Richmond, black and white, who are expected to be among those lining the streets on race day.
“It is not about honoring or dishonoring anything,” Kallman said, asked about the Davis statue as a turnaround point. “We want to represent the region, the past, present, and future of it, and hopefully this event will be a positive catalyst for the community.”
The past, of course, is always present here, and it is particularly impossible to escape the Davis legacy. Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi plantation and slave owner, lived in Richmond for four years during the Civil War in an elegant mansion that became known as the White House of the Confederacy. Today, the home is restored to look as though Davis just stepped away for a moment. His spectacles sit on a desk; his maps are ready for study; his bed is turned down for the night.
It was here that Davis oversaw the war against the North and President Lincoln, here that he finally fled in 1865 when federal troops approached the city, here that Lincoln himself made a dramatic visit the day after the city fell, lowering his long frame in quiet triumph into one of Davis’s easy chairs.
Today, visitors stream through the house on guided tours and then enter an adjacent building that until last year was called the Museum of the Confederacy. It has been renamed, after consolidation with another organization, the American Civil War Museum, but its artifacts are still dedicated mostly to the Lost Cause.
On Tuesday, a salesclerk walked into the gift shop, both arms clutching piles of Confederate flags for restocking. Since the Charleston shooting and efforts to take down the flag at public facilities, sales of the “stars and bars” here have soared.
Waite Rawls, the cochief executive of the American Civil War Museum, said his organization is taking a broader approach to Richmond’s history after many years of focusing exclusively on the Confederacy. He noted that earlier this year, at a community event marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, organizers incorporated the story of slavery.
“For the 100 years leading into the centennial, nobody much talked about African-American involvement, participation in, or anything else about the Civil War, even though they were central to the issue,” Rawls said. “In the last 25 years, there has been a broad awakening about the African-American contribution to history.”
Still, he disdains efforts to compare slavery to historic inhumanities such as the Holocaust. While the Nazis killed millions of people because of their religion, he said, “That is not what happened here. Was it wrong? Certainly by today’s viewpoint it was very wrong. It wasn’t so clear it was wrong 200 years ago.”
And Rawls bristles at the idea of taking down the Confederate statues. “History is additive,” he said. “You are not supposed to take down the past, you are supposed to add to it.”
The question, he said, is what should be added. He is all for having Shockoe Bottom commemorated in some way and believes it will be one of the more important actions in recent city history.
The museum, meanwhile, has a ways to go before providing the kind of balance that blacks say is needed. A plaque that introduces visitors to the exhibit is titled, “Why did they fight?” The answer, according to the museum, is that while slavery “caused the breakup of the Union,” Confederate soldiers were “fighting a ‘Second American Revolution’ for the rights and liberties that their forefathers had won in the first American Revolution. Among these rights was the right to own slaves.”
John Coski, the museum’s historian and author of a book about the Confederate flag, is the first to say that more must be done to balance the story. “Our history has tended to be segregated,” he said. “We are still in the infancy of this discussion.”
A few months ago, Mayor Dwight Jones arrived at one of Richmond’s public housing projects as part of an effort to deliver food to the needy. Jones, an African-American who had been to the projects many times, was particularly appalled on this visit. An elderly woman, living in conditions that Jones said were “no better than a hut in a third-world country,” thanked the mayor effusively for bringing her sustenance.
The visit, as Jones recalled it in an interview in his office last week, crystallized his dismay about conditions faced by many of the city’s black residents. It is clear as he talks that he feels the weight of the city’s tortured history.
This is still, in many ways, a divided place, the elegance of Monument Avenue and the Fan District contrasted with the poverty of the inner city. His anger growing, Jones reeled off statistics that underscored the city’s challenges: Richmond has one of the country’s greatest per-capita concentrations of public housing; it has a poverty rate of 26 percent, compared with the national average of 14.5 percent; and, at least one of its high schools is 97 percent African-American. Much of the white student population attends school in surrounding counties.
In other words, Jones said, the city deeply bears the scars of segregation and is, in a number of ways, still segregated.
“It was a result of intentional zoning, redlining, highways being built throughout our communities,” Jones said. “It is no mistake that all of the public housing units are basically in one or two areas. It was certainly intentional to put all of the poor people in one place.”
Jones wants to eliminate public housing, which he called concentrated poverty, and replace it with subsidies that enable people of all incomes to live side by side, truly integrated economically and racially. He wants to provide better job and education opportunities. His policy since taking office in 2009 has been to build the tax base from development and use the revenue to fight poverty.
But that has long created a dilemma, bringing the story of Richmond full circle. One of the most attractive parcels of land to developers sits in Shockoe Valley, surrounding the Burial Ground for Negroes and Lumpkin’s Jail.
It was Jones’s administration that made the deal to remove the asphalt and acquire the land, and he wants to put a pavilion at Lumpkin’s Jail and build a slavery museum. But, while the ballpark proposal is dormant, Jones suggested that some kind of development in the area could be compatible as long as it doesn’t disturb the burial ground and jail site.
“Having explained to you the poverty situation, the only way out of that is to expand our tax base,” he said. “Two of the most valuable pieces of property in the city of Richmond are on the Boulevard and also in Shockoe Bottom. Those are two opportunities for development.”
Jones doesn’t see the point of focusing on whether to tear down a statue. The statues represent hatred, to be sure, he said, but he pays them little attention.
“I’ve never read the inscription at the Jefferson Davis memorial,” Jones said, when asked what he thought of the words on the statue. “Like any African-American, when we think of Confederate symbols and Confederate heroes, it causes consternation because we know what that war was about. But that being said, we also know who won the war. . . . Slavery was a terrible situation. But the resilience of our people was such that we endured it, overcame it, and now I’m the mayor of the city of Richmond.”
Returning to the story of his food delivery to the elderly woman at the housing project, he said, “I have time to fight for that old lady because whatever the statue says, and whether the [Confederate] flag flies or not, that woman is hungry. . . . That is where our energy needs to be.”
A week after the Charleston shooting, someone walked down Monument Avenue, headed to the Jefferson Davis statue, and took out a spray paint canister. Approaching the backside of the colonnade, the person sprayed words that have become a mantra this year: “Black Lives Matter.”
Within hours, a crew of city workers, paid with public funds to maintain the statue, arrived with high-pressure hoses and erased evidence of this act of vandalism. By the time most Richmond residents passed along Monument Avenue that day, Jefferson Davis once again stood in a colonnade that looked just as it did when unveiled in 1907, his right arm stretched outward, his words etched in stone.