by Brandon Jarvis

Governor Northam announced on Friday that he intends to make a large investment towards historic justice initiatives in Richmond – however, the people who have been working on this issue for 15 years are not relieved. While they say they applaud the effort from the Governor to take these steps, they still have concerns about the plans he announced. 

The investment

“These investments will help Virginia tell the true story of our past and continue building an inclusive future,” said Governor Northam when announcing the new initiatives. “At a time when this Commonwealth and country are grappling with how to present a more complete and honest picture of our complex history, we must work to enhance public spaces that have long been neglected and shine light on previously untold stories.”

The investments include $11 million to transform Monument Avenue, the road that was once the home of eight statues honoring Confederate leaders. Only one of those statues remain standing – the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue, which Northam’s office expects to be removed in 2021. He ordered its removal earlier this year but a court case has placed the process on hold. 

The Governor’s announcement stated that this additional funding will enable the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to hire staff and launch a community-driven initiative to redesign Monument Avenue.

“For too long, Richmond’s Monument Avenue told an incomplete and inaccurate story of the city and Virginia’s past,” said Alex Nyerges, Director and CEO of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The funding to transform Monument Avenue will allow us to reenvision an inspirational, forward thinking, inclusive and healing place for everyone who lives in and visits our city and Commonwealth.”

Northam’s announcement also stated that this investment will include $9 million for the development of a Slavery Heritage Site and improvements to the Slave Trail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. This funding will support efforts to preserve the area known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, or Lumpkin’s Jail, as a historical site. There will be an additional $100,000 to support the Virginia Emancipation and Freedom Monument project on Brown’s Island.

The concern: “There’s something missing.”

A group that formed in 2004 with a stated purpose to “educate the public about the great historical significance to the Black community of Shockoe Bottom,” say they have concerns with the announcement from Governor Northam. 

“While we applaud the governor’s attempt to address the long-term inequities in the allocation of state resources for historical preservation, his statement raises some serious concerns,” wrote representatives from the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. 

They have been advocating to gain support for a community proposal that would form a Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park on 9 acres of land. The park would include the Devil’s Half-Acre, where the notorious Lumpkin slave jail once stood; the 3-acre African Burial Ground; and two more blocks located east of the railroad tracks.

The group Chair Ana Edwards and Virginia Defender’s editor Phil Wilayto wrote that the plan for the park was first endorsed by Mayor Dwight Jones’ Richmond Speaks project, as well as the SmithGroupJJR and the Rose Fellowship in 2015. The proposal is also included in the Shockoe Bottom Small Area Plan being developed by Mayor Levar Stoney’s Shockoe Alliance.

“And yet, while Gov. Northam’s announcement mentions a “Slavery Heritage Site” and improvements to the ‘Slave Trail,’ it states that ‘This funding will support efforts to preserve the area known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, or Lumpkin’s Jail, as a historical site.’ There is no mention of either the first municipal African Burial Ground or the two blocks east of the railroad tracks,” wrote Edwards and Wilayto. “In other words, there is no mention, no funding allocated, for the rest of the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.”

Mayor Levar Stoney applauded the Governor for the announcement. 

“This constitutes a massive investment in centering stories of trauma and resilience that have been sidelined by proponents of slavery, the Lost Cause, and segregation,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney in the announcement with Northam. “The Commonwealth’s support is the tool we need to commemorate and communicate Richmond’s real history and honor unjustly silenced voices.”

After acquiring the property from VCU in 2011, the city has let the land sit without any real action. 

Edwards and Wilayto note that the city has yet to place any type of protective zoning in the area. “We are well aware that ‘developers’ known for their financial generosity to local politicians strongly covet the as-yet-undeveloped land in Shockoe Bottom,” they said. “Powerful corporate figures are opposed to Richmond’s national image being expanded to include its central role in the domestic slave trade.”

The Shockoe Small Area Plan shows the parcels of land surrounding the historical grounds as having the highest possible potential for redevelopment. The grounds themselves are not classified under any type of redevelopment potential scales in the plan

Over the summer, Mayor Stoney’s administration began to take steps funding the process of providing historical context to the sacred grounds. This included an announcement with the Shockoe Alliance, a coalition of community leaders and elected officials with the stated goal of “ensuring that all Shockoe stakeholders are heard and play a part in being the ‘community voice’ that shapes the area’s future.”

At the press conference in July, Stoney said he planned to introduce a budget amendment that would invest between $25 to $50 million over five years into a project memorializing the story of slavery in Shockoe Bottom. Part of his proposal included an immediate $3.5 million of surplus funds for a memorial park on the site Lumpkins Jail site.

 Edwards spoke alongside Stoney at the announcement that day. “The work is still ahead of us, and we have lots to do,” she said. “It’s really critically important to recognize it was the result of community involvement and community voice, including the fact that the rebellions finally galvanized political will.” Edwards was referencing the social justice movement that swept the country this summer. Stoney took a lot of heat from the community at the time for not supporting protesters in the city that were demanding justice for police brutality. 

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney meets with protesters the day after police tear-gassed a peaceful crowd. June 3rd, 2020. Credit: Brandon Jarvis

The Shockoe Alliance is expected to present a plan in the future that will map out the implementation of the proposal. “There’s no true timeline to this,” Stoney said at the time, according to reporting from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I will say it cannot take as long as 30 to 40 years. It’s long overdue.”

As for the Governor, Edwards told Virginia Scope that they sent the letter to his office along with a request to meet with him and they have yet to hear back. 

Governor Northam’s office did not respond to requests from Virginia Scope for a comment on this story.

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