The Underground Legacy of Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia

Posted on: July 14th, 2014 by Meghan Drueding 9 Comments

Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district in 2013. Credit: Ron Cogswell
Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district in 2013

Just east of downtown Richmond, Va., on the banks of the James River, you’ll find a historic neighborhood of national importance: Shockoe Bottom. From the 1830s through the Civil War, the area was the site of one of the largest slave trades in the United States, second only to New Orleans.

The infamous Goodwin’s Jail, a holding place for the real-life Solomon Northup (whose experiences were chronicled in the Oscar-winning movie "12 Years a Slave") was in Shockoe Bottom, and so was another major holding center for enslaved people, Lumpkin’s Jail. Factories, law offices, auction houses, and more jails, all centered on the slave trade, also filled the district.

In 2008, an excavation of Lumpkin’s Jail revealed an unexpectedly rich trove of artifacts -- preserved buildings, clothing, ceramics, and more -- that archaeologists believe is only the beginning. The moist soil in Shockoe Bottom had stopped the growth of harmful bacteria, resulting in remarkably intact items.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the area and find out things we don’t know,” says Kim Allen, a cultural anthropologist and co-founder of RVArchaeology, a nonprofit advocate for Shockoe Bottom.

Located on the banks of the James River, the neighborhood was once the site of the nation’s second-largest slave trade. Credit: TV News Badge
Located on the banks of the James River, the neighborhood was once the site of the nation’s second-largest slave trade.

Now, though, Mayor Dwight Jones and a public-private group called Revitalize RVA have introduced a plan to redevelop eight blocks of Shockoe Bottom, with a minor league baseball stadium as the linchpin, as well as a Hyatt hotel and a Kroger grocery store. The mixed-use project would destroy the area’s significant archaeological resources, many of which currently lie under asphalt-paved parking lots. It also would eliminate the above-ground street grid that’s remained the same since the days of slavery.

While Revitalize RVA promises to create a slavery heritage site nearby, advocates for preservation argue that it won’t make up for the loss of these eight blocks of history. The proposal represents “the abject destruction of these resources before we get to them,” says Ana Edwards, a local artist and chair of the nonprofit Defenders' Sacred Ground Project.

Adds Elizabeth Kostelny of Preservation Virginia: “The way the mayor’s plan is sketched out would destroy the streetscape, the context of the slave trade. There is value in being able to maintain that context.”

Opponents of the stadium plan also question the appropriateness of building a sports facility on the site of such a serious part of the nation’s past.

“Is a baseball stadium the right contrast to this place?” asks Kostelny. Shockoe Bottom preservationists aren’t against development in general there, but they want it to be more considered than the current plan, and to undergo a more public discussion.

Much of Shockoe Bottom has been paved over, which archaeologists believe has helped keep its underground artifacts intact. Credit: Andrew Bain
Much of Shockoe Bottom has been paved over, which archaeologists believe has helped keep its underground artifacts intact.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees. On June 24, the National Trust named Shockoe Bottom to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2014, as well as designated it as part of the National Treasures program.

“Shockoe Bottom is where we see the convergence of history, archaeology, and the immensely important stories of endurance and resistance against injustice,” said Germonique Ulmer, vice president of public affairs, in her on-site remarks, calling the stadium redevelopment plan “incompatible.”

Today, many of Shockoe Bottom’s warehouses have been converted for residential or commercial use. Members of Richmond’s African-American, Quaker, and Jewish communities have all lived there at one time or another. This complex legacy makes its preservation and appropriate redevelopment even more crucial, especially when layered over the area’s slave-trading history.

“To a degree, it’s a history that people wanted to forget,” Kostelny says. “By being paved over, this place has become a time capsule waiting to be discovered.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for mid-century modern, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.

National Treasures

9 Responses

  1. Dave Crockett

    July 15, 2014

    Virginia is inextricably linked in history, both past, present and future to the negative side of the black experience in America. It seems to be her inhabitants inate capabiltiy to dehumnanize that has served her well after all the years since Jamestown.

    While it has been Virginias will to devolve into a spurious state, the greater question is whether she will ever “take the medicine” to recover and heal. Seems like the money has always been in the disease, subjugation, and not the cure, humanity for this state.

  2. July 14th Fizzler At City Hall | Citizens Referendum Group

    July 15, 2014

    […] the objections to Mayor Dwight Jones’ so-called “revitalization” plan from preservationists continue to pile […]

  3. Caffeine Clicks

    July 15, 2014

    Considering the back history of Shockoe Bottom you would think this would be a no brainer. The image of a stadium and mixed use properties paving over a cultural site is pretty nauseating.

  4. Marva Harris-Watson

    July 15, 2014

    I find it interesting that there is no other place to build. Why would the builders not include a Historical site and stadium adjacent to each other in order to generate interest and revenue for the area. God knows Richmond could use the revenue and increased tourism. I know there is a way to respect the cultural history of the area AND meet the need for a new sports facility. Work it out people. Try an amenable compromise. If this were a burial ground, which in fact, it is, there would not be any hesitation to preserve it. How valuable is our history if it is not inclusive to all races of people. This place may correct some of the blatant lies printed in the local history books…More will be revealed.

  5. Scott Burger

    July 15, 2014

    Sadly, City leaders are already destroying the historic and likely structural integrity of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal.

    http://www.oregonhill.net/2014/07/01/venture-richmond-destroys-george-washingtons-historic-james-river-and-kanawha-canal/

    http://www.oregonhill.net/2014/01/21/ohhic-historical-documentation-of-the-site-of-richmonds-proposed-amphitheater/

  6. Diane Ballman

    July 16, 2014

    We have found references to slave history at the Shockoe Bottom in the Caroline County Court Records that are being archived at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

  7. Bruce Anderson

    July 16, 2014

    I’m all for historical preservation. But in a 150 years, no one’s gotten around to doing anything about this area. The Mayor’s plan calls for a stadium AND a heritage site. Everybody wins. What’s the resistance about? No stadium, no heritage site. Doing nothing isn’t a strategy, it’s just doing nothing.

  8. The Descendants Corner: The Savage Family, Mt. Calvary Cemetery | Sacred Ground, Sacred History

    July 18, 2014

    […] or commercial development. Many cemeteries have been desecrated, or paved over, like the African Burial Ground in Richmond, Virginia, a site whose sanctity is still not secure, and is of strategic importance to […]

  9. carolyn hsu

    July 29, 2014

    i am very intersted in preservatin in richmond, va — . i have submitted payment for membership online but not sure if it went through. please check and advise.

    carolyn hsu
    917 8472 634