Memorial Park: A Monument for the Ages
by Charles McGuigan
Ana Edwards and her husband, Phil Wilayto, sit on the couch in their living room surrounded by stacks of books everywhere. They are making final preparations for a conference to be held in mid-June and under the deadline gun. Next to Phil stands a statue, about half-life-size, of a man with a manacle around his wrist. It is carved of dark, rich, tropical wood—mahogany or rosewood. Ana is the first to speak, and she tells me about her childhood, growing up in the east end of downtown Los Angeles. Her mother, white, was a painter; her father, black, was a sculptor.
“When I was five years old I was with my dad at the Watts Riots where he was taking photographs,” she says. “And there is an existing photograph of a little girl in a white dress running around a corner as the tanks are rolling down the street. Turns out that’s me.”
Her mother’s parents were both descended from Norwegian immigrants. Her father’s family came from East Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, on about the time of the Civil War. But her father’s people had called this country home well before the Civil War. “Before that time they came from North Carolina and ultimately Virginia,” says Ana. “It appears that one of the women on my grandmother’s side may have been born in Virginia before 1820.”
That ancestor had been made pregnant by either an overseer or an owner, and, to avoid embarrassment, was sold to a family in North Carolina. That’s the anecdotal story. “It will be wilder when we have the confirmation,” Ana says. “And that kind of thing was not uncommon.”
Many contemporary blacks who can trace their roots back at least a hundred and fifty years, will probably discover they have ties to Virginia. “They almost inevitably find one of their ancestors traces back to Virginia,” she says. “Richmond was the second largest domestic slave market in the country.” The largest was in Louisiana.
“Richmond was the fountainhead for the trade,” Phil says. “Richmond was wholesale, New Orleans was retail. So Richmond really was the epicenter.”
And the reason for this was the enactment by British Parliament of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, also called the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which outlawed transatlantic slave trade.
“It went into effect in January of 1808 and it took a few years to get going, but for the thirty years leading up to the Civil War the slave market in Richmond grew exponentially,” says Phil.
A perfect storm was brewing which would lead to Richmond’s dubious claim as one of the world’s largest slave markets. “The world price of cotton was skyrocketing,” Phil says. “Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin, and so there was this tremendous need for enslaved labor because that was where the super profits were. In the Deep South, on those cotton plantations, you couldn’t get anybody but enslaved people to do that work.”
On about the same time, Virginia’s once rich soil had been depleted by over-farming cotton, and there was a glut of slave labor. “So Virginia found it more profitable to sell people than to grow cotton,” says Phil. “Enslaved people were one of the largest exports from Virginia at that time, and a tremendous part of the state’s economy. They actually began to grow people for sale. They started what they called ‘breeder plantations’, and people were treated exactly like a cash crop.”
Turns out Richmond was perfectly situated as a shipping center for this human cargo. “Richmond had the James River, that’s where the expression sold down the river came from,” Phil tells me. “It had railroads. As a matter of fact, some of the railroads that later became the CSX used to advertise, ‘If you send your adult slaves on our train, we’ll carry their children for free.’”
If a town or a village was landlocked or had not rail service, the slave brokers in Richmond had a third option, a hideous thing called the overland trail, that must have been a perpetual “trail of tears” for the blacks forced to walk it.
“It ran from Fredericksburg through Richmond, and then through major cities and towns all the way down to Mobile, Alabama,” says Ana.
In a coffle, they were herded like cattle—these women, men, boys and girls.
”There are descriptions of coffles with anywhere from one hundred to two hundred people,” Ana says, her eyes wide. “They were chained together either by ankle, or neck-to-neck, and they would make that trek from market to market. Richmond has that very specific benefit of being a port city in terms of the James River, but also being centrally located in terms of the major walking or riding routes. It was an ideal place for businessmen and traders from the South to come to acquire slaves. Or they could simply place an order, and the enslaved people would be shipped down and delivered. They did have to be given just enough water and food because you do have to keep people alive, and they have to be useful when they get to market.“
Richmond’s economy became increasingly dependent on this despicable business. Folks were making money hand over fist, and infrastructure was needed.
“There were forty to fifty auction houses along Fifteenth Street, which was called Wall Street at the time,” says Phil. “You had dozens of trader offices clustered around Seventeenth and Eighteenth at Broad. These trader offices often had penned area in the back that would hold enslaved people. There were also six to eight jails like Lumpkin’s Jail.”
Lumpkin’s Jail, which was called the Devil’s half-acre, was just three blocks away from the Virginia state capitol. From the descriptions I’ve read of Shockoe Bottom in those days, it sounds like the stockyards of Chicago in the time of Upton Sinclair.
“It was a slave trading district,” Phil explains. “The only one that was larger than it was in New Orleans. In Richmond you had these traders and they would go around to the countryside and they would buy enslaved people and bring them back and put them up in the jails and then they would be sold and then they would be shipped out. There were contemporary accounts of this.”
One such account came from Eyre Crowe, an English painter and social realist, who accompanied William Makepeace Thackeray on his visit to America in the 1840s, acting as the novelist’s manunesis—a sort of glorified secretary. On the sly, Eyre Crowe would slip into auction houses and begin sketching. “He did them surreptitiously because the auction house owners weren’t interested in having it documented,” according to Ana.
At about the same time Thackeray visited Richmond, so too did Britain’s other noted novelist—Charles Dickens. In his book, “American Notes” Dickens wrote, “I left with a grateful heart that I was not doomed to live where slavery was, and I have never had my senses blunted to its wrongs and horrors in a slave-rocked cradle.”
When I ask Ana how it was possible for plantation owners and their wives to view the daily horrors of this institution and simply accept it, she shakes her head. “Richmond was a slave society, this country was a slave society,” she says. ”There’s a long history of acculturation to having servants, and before that serfs. So it’s an inherited idea that you’re entitled to your servants. It’s also the fact that a farm takes so many people to run it. You’re accustomed to having all of these people around to make things work for your plantation, for your way of life. The beginnings of people thinking of slavery as wrong is a jumbled, roiling debate that is both internal and external at the very time the country is getting started. By the time we get to 1800, to the point that they really are deciding what kind of economy is going to sustain and keep secure the United States, they have decided that they cannot exist without slavery. And therefore you get the beginning of a very sophisticated determination to justify it, and people are raised from infancy with that idea.”
I still can’t wrap my mind around this, and Phil invites me to consider our own times. “People live in Richmond, knowing that people die in the city jail at a rate far greater than other jails, but they live with it,” he says. ”They don’t think about it. They don’t have to see the jail, and see those segregation cells, and see the people with mental challenges who are living in their own feces and being beaten by guards, all of which happen in this city today. And a hundred years from now people might say, ‘How could a city that thought of itself as genteel and enjoyed the craft beer industry and restaurants live a couple miles from a place of torture?’ But we do it. And most people, even if they saw slavery, didn’t see the auction, they didn’t see the whipping, they didn’t see the rape, they just saw that’s how black people live. Ten thousand people live in substandard housing with terrible conditions in this city today, and other people just go along their way and go to the Byrd and Kuba Kuba.”
“With slavery,” says Ana. “Lots of money was being made. I used to draw the analogy with car dealerships. It’s a big ticket item. If you sell a few, you can make some money, and with that money you can buy some more and make even more money. So it was one of the reasons kidnapping free people was an experience that became commonplace by the time you get into the 1840 and 1850s. You could make money, and lots of it.”
Ana notes that some of those involved in the Revolutionary War became opposed to slavery after having spent a lot of time with enslaved people. She mentions the Polish military engineer Tadeusz Kosciuszko, along with Lafayette, and even George Washington. “There was this interesting relationship between Washington and his manservant during the war, a man named William Lee,” she says. “And Kosciuszko, he also got an enslaved man as his servant. Lafayette had a man named James Armistead. In each of those cases, they were deeply affected by the relationship that they had with those men through that war such that they altered their approach toward slavery. They either went whole hog toward abolition and manumission of their enslaved people, or convinced others to do that. Washington, for example, did make provisions for his enslaved people to be freed upon his death. It’s important to look for those stories.”
The story Ana and Phil want told to all posterity is the one about Richmond’s slave district. The seeds of that story were unearthed in archives some twenty-five years ago by Northside’s own historian Elizabeth Kambourian. At the time, as she was researching a book on Gabriel’s Rebellion at the Library of Virginia, Elizabeth came across an old map of the city’s oldest quarters—Shockoe Bottom. On that map, like an X marking the spot of buried treasure, was a simple legend which read: Burial Ground for Negroes, according to Phil.
“Elizabeth researched this, and found that there was a cemetery there, the only municipal cemetery where blacks could be buried and most of them were enslaved,” Phil says. For almost ten years Elizabeth tried to publicize her findings, but no one seemed interested. That is, until Janine Bell of the Elegba Folklore Society invited Elizabeth to make a presentation to the Slave Trail Commission.
“So Janine began to incorporate the burial ground in the annual night walk of enslaved Africans,” says Phil. “The week after the burial ground was incorporated in the walk for the first time, the story I wrote came out in the Free Press about the burial ground and Gabriel.”
That Gabriel, of course, was the freedom fighter who, in the late summer of 1800, led a carefully planned, but aborted, slave rebellion that would see Gabriel and twenty-five of his followers hanged to death.
The burial ground itself is located between I-95 and the railroad tracks, and between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets. A large chunk of it is under the interstate. Its history is utterly unique, and, had it not been for the investigative work of Elizabeth Kambourian, it might well have been forgotten forever.
“It was a cemetery that probably got started informally as being on the other side of the (Shockoe) creek from the village of Richmond around the 1750s and was in operation until 1816,” Ana says. “It was also the site of the city gallows which was where Gabriel was executed.”
For many, many years this remarkable rebellion led by a literate blacksmith and owned by the Prossers in Henrico County had been conveniently brushed under the carpet. For one thing, it caused two of Virginia’s leading politicians to open serious dialogue about the institution of slavery. “Jefferson and Monroe met for a couple of years after it, debating whether or not to end slavery in the United States,” says Ana.
The final outcome of the rebellion was bad news for enslaved people throughout Virginia. The powers that be came down with an iron fist, smashing any small freedoms enslaved blacks might have enjoyed in an earlier time.
“They passed codes that made it illegal for more than three black people to stand together at any point in time,” Ana says. “They couldn’t travel as freely between city and plantation as they used to. The hiring out practice got clamped down on a little more.”
And the plantation owners and the political hacks who represented them did all they could to revise the history of this noble rebellion of enslaved people, pretty much what the British would have done with the Boston Massacre had they won the Revolutionary War.
“In that moment it was politically dangerous for them,” Ana say. “They had quelled it and they were going to put a lid on the potential of people understanding just how important that rebellion was.”
On October 10, 2004, an historic highway marker recognizing Gabriel’s execution and the slave cemetery was placed along the sidewalk of East Broad Street between Fifteenth and Sixteenth. Two months later, Ana and Phil helped form the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, whose mission is to reclaim Richmond’s black history in Shockoe Bottom.
“So much focus in celebrating black history is on the twentieth century and the Civil Rights era,” says Ana. “But there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and lack of clarity of what that was born out of. Slavery was bad, it ended, and we’ve been fighting for our civil rights ever since.” Key milestones in black history have been all but ignored. Which is one of the primary reasons Phil and Ana hope to one day have a Memorial Park that honors and acknowledges the important part that Shockoe Bottom played in this history.
Currently, the nine acres Ana and Phil have identified for this memorial park is something of an urban desert of asphalt and concrete, railroad tracks and an elevated interstate highway.
“We would like to see that it be treated in equal parts like a museum site, but more along the lines of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton,” Ana says. “The value of that site is in the footprint because it ties in the original footprint of the city of Richmond from 1737 and takes you through the journey of African people of Richmond, through enslavement, through the Civil War, and out again.”
Eventually they hope it is developed as large memorial park which would encompass Lumpkin’s Jail, the Burial Ground, the site of auction houses and other aspects of Richmond’s slave district and industrial center. ”The burial ground will finally get to be articulated as a cemetery or as a site of contemplation and memory,” says Ana. “If you start with the cemetery you can grow that history because of all the other sites in the park. And we literally have the archaeological resources just under the surface to mine that will produce the evidence to carry those stories forward.”
And the stories that are unearthed may come as a surprise to many. Shockoe Bottom, in its heyday, was the center of much of the city’s trade and industry. It fairly bustled and was a melting pot of sorts. Folks lived in close quarters.
“This was the place where all kinds of people came together, and I mean that in terms of class and occupation, but also racially,” Ana says. “This is where the mixing of the people of Richmond was far more active than any other place. This is where you will begin to find the stories of people who can trace their ancestry to both black and white ancestors.”
Everyone knows about the abolitionists—the Quakers and Methodists—who denounced slavery. But there were other individuals who actually made the intimate leap for integration. “Those relationships also contributed to that dynamic,” says Ana. “So you’re going to find the worst of the behaviors and some of the best of the behaviors in a place like Shockoe Bottom because that place at that time was really the cauldron for this history.”
Then Ana Edwards tells me something I had never thought of before. It was something she learned from an archivist at the Museum of the Confederacy. “He had mapped out the population of Richmond before the Civil War, in terms of where people live,” she says. “And do you know what? It was more mixed than we are now. The period of segregation that came with Jim Crow after the Civil War is what completely segregated us into neighborhoods. Before the war, Richmond was much more integrated. Servants lived near where they worked. The tradespeople lived near each other because, you know, everybody’s on foot or horse or cart or whatever. Life was hard enough without things being far away, so everybody lived near each other. And that day to day proximity made for the opportunity for all kinds of relationships. Because people are what people are.”