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Opponents fear Main Street Station plans will run over slave memorial

Jeremy Lazarus | 12/1/2017, 6:49 p.m.
Hopes of creating a memorial park in Shockoe Bottom recalling Richmond’s role as a center of the slave trade appear ...

She is upset that anyone — particularly an African-American mayor, she said — would want to “desecrate sacred ground. This is wrong, just wrong.”

In her view, station growth would attract hotels and other infrastructure that are likely to eliminate, isolate or restrict efforts to ensure more attention is paid to the history of slavery and the horrible conditions the enslaved endured.

The mayor noted the draft report shows the proposed station changes would not impact two key historic sites that have been the focus of city efforts to memorialize slavery.

One is Lumpkin’s Jail, or the Devil’s Half-Acre, a notorious holding cell for slaves awaiting auction before the Civil War and an early site after the war for a school for newly emancipated slaves that ultimately became Virginia Union University.

The other site is the separate African Burial Ground. Lumpkin’s Jail sits west of the station near Interstate 95 and the burial ground sits north of Broad Street. Both are outside areas planned for station growth.

City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, whose 6th District includes the train station and the slavery sites, has been a station advocate and backs the mayor’s position, given that both Lumpkin’s Jail and the burial ground would be protected.

That’s also the position of Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, chair of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission, which has developed a trail through the city to mark where slaves once walked and is deeply involved in the city’s efforts to create a museum-style development to highlight Lumpkin’s Jail.

However, Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards agree with Ms. Gray. The couple have led the charge for the memorial park as founders and leaders of the advocacy group Defenders of Freedom, Justice and Equality and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

“The mayor has shown a remarkable lack of interest in this history,” said Mr. Wilayto, who is convinced that history will be sacrificed in the name of progress.

He also is highly critical of the draft environmental report, noting that in it slavery gets short shrift. He noted that the report’s archaeological survey, as well as its list of historical resources, does not mention the Richmond Slave Trail, Richmond’s role as the nation’s second largest center for the slave trade after New Orleans or the fact that Richmond’s development was built on slavery.

“It’s appalling,” he said.

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which supports the memorial park, also is critical of the environmental report, saying it has failed to take into account the impacts an expanded station and increased train traffic would have on the important historical area.

The trust recently set aside $25 million to invest in preserving neglected African-American sites across the nation and named Shockoe Bottom and the history of slavery as the No. 1 priority.

Mayor Stoney believes that Richmond can have both better train service and a memorial park. His press secretary, James Nolan, in an email to the Free Press, stated, “It will be our responsibility as a city to ensure that the train project does not conflict with the future memorial park.”