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Va. ballpark proposal stirs slave-trade memories

Published April 5, 2014 8:02 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Richmond, Va. • A proposal to build a ballpark in the slave-trading center of the former capital of the Confederacy has stirred opposition from African-Americans and others who contend it is "sacred ground" and no place to play baseball.

Opponents heckled Mayor Dwight C. Jones in November when he outlined plans for the $200 million, stadium-centered economic development project in Shockoe Bottom, the city's oldest neighborhood and home to its lucrative slave trade in the decades leading to the Civil War.

By some estimates, more 300,000 men, women and children were jailed, bought and sold in the Bottom and shipped throughout the Southern states in the decades leading to the Civil War.

The stadium proposal has unleashed pent-up frustration among those who believe the city has literally buried that shameful chapter of its history.

Opponents have even recruited for their cause descendants of Solomon Northrop, whose tale of being kidnapped and sold into slavery was the basis of the celebrated movie "12 Years a Slave." He was held in a Richmond slave jail before being taken to New Orleans.

If nothing else, the debate has created the prospect of a long-overdue conversation about Richmond's shameful role in the slave trade. Richmond was second only to New Orleans in the slave commerce.

Maurie D. McInnis, a scholar who has studied the slave trade in Richmond, said the city should embrace the moment.

"There is an energy and attention to a history that has been bulldozed away and that needs to be acknowledged and made accessible to a public audience that clearly has a real appetite for this history," she said.

Shockoe Bottom lies east of the city's financial district and a few blocks from the Capitol. It is home to nightclubs, shops and restaurants and lofts carved out of former tobacco warehouses.

While some have questioned the stadium development proposal for other reasons, the fiercest opposition has come from those who fear the construction will hamper future efforts to uncover remnants of the slave trade beneath generations of development.

"We are just now beginning to be able study what's here," said Ana Edwards, among the leading opponents of the stadium. "What they are proposing to do is essentially going to make it impossible to go any further."

Supporters of the stadium have countered that brick-and-mortar remnants of the slave trade have long ago disappeared. They also have proposed a slave memorial and a $30 million museum as part of the project.

Jones, who was greeted with chants of "Shame" when he publicly outlined the development, has also has proposed archaeological work that would recover slave-trade artifacts for future public display.

Jones, who is African American, said in an interview the issue is "very personal" to him and the overall development will create jobs and economic growth for the city of 200,000.

A series of slave trail markers tell the Bottom's history, from the James River where slaves were transported on steamboats for sale, to an archaeological dig at Lumpkin's Slave Jail, one of the largest slave-holding businesses and one of the more notorious. It was called "The Devil's Half-Acre" for the cruelty of its owner. A memorial now marks the site.

Nearby, a parking lot that once entombed a burial ground for thousands of slaves and freed blacks has been peeled away. It now is a vast grassy expense beneath a tangle of interstate highways.

During the neighborhood's heyday as a slave-trading center it was home to hotels, financial institutions and shops, including those that provided clothing to dress up slaves who were destined to be servants.

The business of slavery was conducted openly, with slaves marching to the rail station or the port. Auction houses generated millions in pre-Civil War dollars in revenue. Some traders served in city government.

The stadium development has the support of many business owners in the Bottom. They believe it will make a destination of the area, which has scared away some city dwellers because of highly publicized incidents of violence. Business owners say the rowdiness is overstated.

Paul Goldman, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, is seeking to take the decision about the development out of the hands of city officials through a petition drive to blunt or at least slow the project. He believes the existing stadium is just fine.

"How can you decide anything unless you know where the history is?" he asked. "They'll just bulldoze the history."

For Edwards, the Bottom has a personal connection. She has traced some of her ancestors to the slave trade there. She can see some development, but not a ballpark.

"A lot of people want their stories told, a lot of people want to be acknowledged," Edwards said as she stood in the city's Old Negro Burial Ground, which was once covered by a parking lot. "We want that story to reflect the contributions, the sacrifice, the achievements — the grit that makes us who we are."

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.