In the Long Shadow of Slavery

The feedback period for providing comments on the draft Statement of Purpose has closed. We are now reviewing all feedback received on this draft and will be publishing a final Statement of Purpose for the project soon.
For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Richmond, Virginia was the epicenter of the domestic slave trade during the first half of the nineteenth century. In those first 60 years of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans were bought and sold in Richmond with most being sent “down river” to the cotton plantations in the deep South. Other than New Orleans, Richmond was the largest and most lucrative slave trading city in the nation. One complexity for this project is that the history of the slave trade in Richmond was systematically and literally buried. This bitter story of human bondage, enslavement, suffering, and sale was left deliberately untold. The City of Richmond, the VA State Department of Historic Resources, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), and others recognized this gap in the City’s History and dedicated themselves to telling this story in authentic and meaningful ways.

In 2006, the James River Institute, an archaeological team, was engaged2 and uncovered, under 15 feet of fill dirt, the actual foundations, cobblestone and brick walkways touched by the thousands of slaves held in this inhumane holding pen; the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail. The archaeological uncovering of this tangible, authentic material evidence of the site reminded, moved, and further motivated the City and the Commonwealth to act to continue to preserve and interpret this history. The City and the Virginia General Assembly then funded multiple line items and related projects along the Richmond Slave Trail, 1) the current project for further interpretive development at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site; 2) the purchase of the African Burial Ground from VCU (including removal of the asphalt parking lots and providing accessibility improvements to the grounds; 3) funding for physical enhancements to the Richmond Slave Trail; and 4) seed funding for a future “Slavery Museum”.

The intention and goals of these projects and funding initiatives is not to interpret enslavement as a distant, painful memory, but to demonstrate the unbroken chain of systematic prejudice and oppression that stemmed from enslavement and continues to impact African American communities to this day.

While the funding assigned to the development of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail/Devil’s Half Acre site is specific to a physical location, it is understood that the interpretive scope can be wider than this one site among the many in Richmond. New learning and communications technologies will allow the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail/Devil’s Half Acre site to be a part of an extended learning network that can reach out to sites across Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, and indeed, the entire Country. The City of Richmond intends the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail/Devil’s Half Acre site to be a project that will stimulate the further investigation, interpretation, and preservation of the history of the slave trade in Shockoe Bottom and beyond; to begin the healing process through remembrance and learning.

This interpretive and preservation project to propose a meaningful, community supported use for this site was awarded to SmithGroupJJR, a Washington, DC-based architectural and engineering firm with deep experience in community-based cultural educational projects. SmithGroupJJR is a recognized designer of museums and cultural facilities around the world, often for emerging cultural entities. The firm is known for their ability to develop designs that are technically superior on sites that are highly complex. Their designs create lasting impressions on visitors and are known worldwide, like their work for the Smithsonian Institution on both the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian.

As part of the community collaborative process designed by SmithGroupJJR and its partners, a Statement of Purpose Workshop3 was convened to inform the creation of this document. In addition, a series of interviews with key stake holders also shaped the content of the document. This preliminary draft Statement of Purpose was vetted through a Community Meeting held on July 12, 2017. Further fedback is now being solicited through the project website. These community responses will then be integrated into this document to produce a final draft.

The Statement of Purpose will guide the next phase of project development; the Visitor Experience Workshop and Community Meetings, culminating in the development of a concept for this important site.

1 Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.
2 The partners who came together to engage the James River Institute included the City of Richmond, State of Virginia, ACORN, Slave Trail Commission, and the Virginia Department of Historical Resources.
3 For a summary of the results of this workshop, see the Statement of Purpose Workshop Report