Four mayoral candidates endorse Shockoe Bottom slavery memorial park

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/2/2020, 6 p.m.
For more than five years, Ana Edwards, her husband, Phil Wilayto, and other supporters have vigorously lobbied City Hall to …

For more than five years, Ana Edwards, her husband, Phil Wilayto, and other supporters have vigorously lobbied City Hall to transform parking lots in Shockoe Bottom into a memorial park to remember and honor the enslaved who were once bought and sold like cattle in the area.

Their efforts, led through Ms. Edwards and Mr. Wilayto’s advocacy group, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, appear to have gained significant traction among at least half of the contenders for mayor.

The two considered front runners, Mayor Levar M. Stoney and 2nd District City Councilwoman Kim B. Gray, have publicly endorsed the proposal, according to an announcement from Ms. Edwards and Mr. Wilayto.

So have two others in the race, attorney M. Justin Griffin and entertainment promoter and actress Tracey McLean, whose public support is included in the announcement.

Alexsis E. Rodgers, former president of the Virginia Young Democrats and an advocate for domestic workers, is expected to back the proposal, though she has not done so publicly.

She is supporting racial justice initiatives in her campaign. While she has not responded to Free Press requests for comment, the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park fits with ideas she is promoting.

Three newcomers, who just filed have yet to comment on the proposal. They are George E. Banks, a Richmond Police officer and founder of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club; Michael Gilbert, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and founder of the RideRichmond cycling slavery memorial park promotion group; and E. Pauron Wheeler, who has provided no details about himself.

Mayor Stoney, even before he began his current push to remove Confederate statues from city property, issued a lengthy statement backing the development of the memorial park on the mostly city-owned land that sits underneath and beside the elevated railroad tracks that run on both sides of Main Street Station.

“I am committed to doing what we can to turn this unique, collective vision into reality ... to ensure that the rich historical narratives and powerful legacies of our fearless ancestors are never forgotten and that the spaces and places on which they lived, struggled, endured and triumphed are respected, honored and used to propel us into a better, more just tomorrow,” Mayor Stoney wrote.

As described in the Virginia Defenders newspaper Ms. Edwards and Mr. Wilayto publish, the memorial park would include about 5.9 acres bounded by Broad, 17th and Grace streets and Interstate 95.

That land south of Broad Street would incorporate the undeveloped site of Lumpkin’s Jail, which the city has long promised to transform into an innovative museum on slavery.

The jail, which was demolished and buried long ago, once was a notorious holding place and auction site for enslaved people dubbed “the Devil’s Half-Acre” before the Civil War.

Ironically, after the Civil War, the African-American widow of the jail’s white owner leased the building as the initial site of a school for freed people that eventually evolved into Virginia Union University.

The remaining 3.1 acres of the park would include land now believed to encompass Richmond’s first public burial ground for enslaved and free Black people located north of Broad Street between 15th and 16th streets, according to Mr. Wilayto.

He and Ms. Edwards also were leaders in the 10-year campaign that finally gained state and city government support to remove a parking lot and reclaim the land as a historical burial ground, although it’s now mostly a grassy area.

Mayor Stoney previously offered encouraging words, but was the last to offer a complete endorsement for the concept of the park, according a statement from the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project that Ms. Edwards leads.

Ms. Gray, the mayor’s chief rival in the November election contest, had been a longtime supporter, according to the Defenders’ statement.

“A memorial park at the site of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom that was central to the American slave trade would provide a gath- ering place for all to remember, reflect, heal and honor the lives of the men, women and children who were sold into bondage,” Ms. Gray stated.

Mr. Griffin and Ms. McLean also expressed enthusiasm for what Ms. Edwards calls “the community proposal to properly memorialize the Downtown district that once was an epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.”

Before the Civil War, dozens of slave traders operated slave auction blocks, pens and other businesses connected with the slave trade in the Shockoe Bottom area. Richmond was once the second busiest slave trade location outside of New Orleans, historical records indicate.

In his endorsement, Mayor Stoney called for the park concept to be included in a small-area plan being developed by the Shockoe Alliance, an advisory group he established.

The mayor also called for city funds to be used for developing the park, which would require removing the pavement, relocat- ing a city Public Works storage area and installing grass and other plantings, though when that would happen is uncertain. The mayor noted in his statement that the city is facing limitations and revenue challenges as a result of the coronavirus and made no promises that funding would be available.

Ms. Gray, who has been a staunch supporter almost since the Virginia Defenders began advocating for it, de- scribed park plan as “one of the greatest opportunities we have to tell the full history of African-Americans, begin the healing process for descendants of enslaved people and enslav- ers and provide a resource for future generations to remember and learn from the past.”

Ms. Edwards described the backing of mayoral candidates as a “significant step forward in the community struggle ... to make the vision of the memorial park a reality.”

Ms. Edwards pledged that her committee would remain committed to ensuring that the descendants of the enslaved have a major voice in the development plans and that they “reap the primary financial benefits from, the development of this sacred ground. That will help ensure that Richmond honestly confronts its shameful past, while moving toward a more justice-oriented future.”