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Richmond celebrates 150 years of emancipation

Joey Matthews | 4/9/2015, 12:23 p.m. | Updated on 4/10/2015, 6:27 p.m.
In the midst of the city that once served as a merciless marketplace for hundreds of thousands of enslaved black ...
Re-enactors representing the United States Colored Troops triumphantly march Saturday along Bank Street. Photo by Sandra Sellars

“Today is a reminder to all of us that we still have unfinished business in the goal of real equality for our nation,” Gov. McAuliffe told a cheering audience of about 2,000 people at the ceremony.

“Just remember, 150 years ago right here, the Richmonders who tasted freedom for the first time in 1865 understood the importance of the right to vote and the right to education.

“We need to rekindle that spirit,” Gov. McAuliffe added, calling on more Virginians to vote and support early childhood education.

The governor was joined on the Capitol steps by his wife, Dorothy; Mayor Dwight C. Jones; state Delegate Delores L. McQuinn of Richmond, who chairs the Richmond Slave Trail Commission; Christy Coleman, co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum; and Joe Funk of York, Pa., who led Union Troops re-enactors into the State Capitol, portraying one of his ancestors, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, who led the Union troops into Richmond in 1865.

To the right of those officials stood the Virginia Union University choir, which performed two soul-stirring songs — “I Can Only Imagine” and “Bound for Canaan’s Land” — under the direction of Dr. Willis Barnett, before the appreciative audience.

Mayor Jones told the audience, “Richmond has come a long way” since its liberation at the end of the Civil War.

He cited as examples two Richmond African-American trailblazers — Maggie L. Walker, the first female bank president in the United States, and L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor.

The mayor saluted Virginia Union — now celebrating its 150th anniversary — and its transcendent rise from the ruins of the former slave-holding pen known as Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom to its current home on Lombardy Street, where it has produced leaders in medicine, law, politics, social work and other fields.

“I stand before you today as a testament to Richmond’s journey, a product of my alma mater, Virginia Union University,” he proudly stated.

Delegate McQuinn said the sesquicentennial provided Richmond the opportunity to unearth its shameful history “and rewrite the history books.”

Ms. Coleman passionately urged the crowd to “reclaim this Emancipation Day as the day when we all free ourselves from past denials and anger and hurt to be able to move our nation forward.”

One attendee, City Council member Jonathan T. Baliles, 1st District, called the ceremony “a phenomenal event. The community organizers did a great job of creating a dialogue and opening a lot of people’s eyes to the stark realities of the Civil War’s end and the emancipation of enslaved people.”

Tyson Gilpin, a Winchester attorney, said it was high time recognition had come to African-American heroes, the brutalized enslaved people and others that history has long ignored. “I’m just bowled over by the speeches and significance of this,” he said.

The celebration of Richmond’s liberation as the epicenter of the slave trade kicked off last Thursday night when hundreds of people took illuminated walking tours. They viewed special effects lighting on Downtown buildings, restaurants and storefronts representing the burning of Richmond on April 2, 1865, by fleeing Confederates.