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Experiencing History in Richmond, Virginia

Posted April 27th, 2009 by

Reconciliation Triangle StatueThere is something about being in the physical space of where historical events took place that is far more impacting than reading about that history. Standing at the Door of No Return at Elmina dungeon in Ghana, being mere feet from where Dr. King died at the Lorraine Motel 41 years ago, walking the battlefields at Gettysburg, and attending the inauguration of Barack Obama have brought history–and its impact on the present–alive for me.

I returned home one week ago from a four day retreat in Richmond, Virginia with 20 members of my Coming to the Table (CTTT) family. My anticipation of spending a long weekend with people I love working with resulted in not thinking about the fact that I was flying to the former capitol of the Confederacy. It wasn’t until I was in Richmond that I considered the significance of this place and the fact that a group of folks committed to undoing racism was gathering here.

On Friday afternoon we were given a tour of the Manchester Slave Trail along the James River (view my Facebook photos here). The people leading our tour are two CTTT members from Richmond: Tee Turner, an African American man, and Cricket White, a European American woman. They’re both connected with Hope in the Cities, which has as one of its key programs “Healing History.” Significant efforts have been made to establish physical memorials to raise awareness of Richmond’s past; specifically its long involvement in slavery and the slave trade.

The first stop on our tour was at the tallest monument in Richmond, standing atop one of the city’s highest hills: the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument. There are many Confederate statues in Richmond. Tee explains that he never liked this statue because it represents a Confederate soldier looking over and down on the city-keeping black folks in bondage. 75% of Richmond males between the age of 17 and 50 fought in the Civil War. 37% of them died or were maimed in the war. Their wives and children and parents suffered. Their pain and grief is real just as the pain of black people and American Indians is real. We too often refuse to listen to the story of “the other.” Listening only to my story is short sighted. He explains that whether he likes the statue or not it is part of his story as well as the story of everyone else. Until we hear all the stories and see through the eyes of “the other” we remain in bondage and removed from the possibility of reconciliation.

Reflecting upon the grief of all my brothers and sisters is a step toward understanding. I still don’t like the monument but I’m not in bondage to it anymore. When I can own all the grief I can move forward.

We drove to a parking area near the James River. Tee explained that New Orleans was the #1 importer of enslaved African people in the United States. Richmond was #2. At one point 50% of all income in Richmond was derived through the slave trade. After 1780 Richmond became the #1 exporter of enslaved Africans to other American states. The commerce in human flesh shifted from importing (kidnapping) people from West Africa to breeding and selling them here.

I look out at the James River and feel the actual connection by water between the spot where we stand and the rocky shore below the Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

People were kidnapped, chained, and herded from the land, culture, smells, people, and all the things they’d always known. They were taken to a land where they had no connection between their soul and the land. They heard different sounds than they’d ever heard before; saw different birds, land, and buildings. This was the end of one journey (The Middle Passage) and the beginning of another-one that would last the rest of his or her life.

Enslaved Africans would be moved up the trail from the ships to the slave jails at night so they wouldn’t offend Southern belles by their sight and smell. They were disconnected from everything spiritually and physically that they had ever been connected to in order to be engaged in a process not of their choosing.

We began to walk in silence along the slave trail next to the James River. We were asked to hold hands and to walk in a long line; to also hold all these thoughts in silence as we walked. The walk away from the dock represents the transatlantic slave trade; people arriving here from Africa. We walked a quarter of a mile or more past dozens of people fishing on the shore. Most are people of color. There are several motorboats in the river. It appears that all the people in the boats are white. What symbolism. Some people glance at us and look away. Others watch us or say hello. A small boy no more than 2 years old attempts to throw a rock in our direction. His mother scolds him and pulls him away. One white man was speaking in a normal tone of voice to his friend who said, “Shhh,” and pointed at us. They both fell silent out of respect.

For the walk back we placed our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us and again walked slowly down the trail. This direction represents the distribution of enslaved people among the colonies and states. This opposite direction is perhaps more troubling-when people were bred and raised as commodities. What horror these trees have witnessed. This ground absorbed tears, blood and fear. A heron flies overhead. Flowers grow.

Once back where we began we shared what we were feeling. African people were totally transformed into nothing. They were stripped of their culture, religion, language, clothing, and shoes. They were raped and beaten; their families ripped apart. They were shattered witnesses to horror and death. They became shattered people. Anything they wanted to do would be whipped out of them so they would only do what they are told to do.

This gives new meaning to being “sold down the river.” It means “betrayal.” Imagine watching your child, sibling, or spouse get back on a ship and sail down the James River never to be seen by you again.

Tee says, “Allow this experience [like other similar experiences] to shape us a little; whether you need to let something in or let something go.”

We drove to the site of the former Lumpkins Jail, the most notorious of at least 34 holding pens in Richmond where enslaved people were held until being auctioned off or reduced to a “slave mentality.” Some resistant Africans needed to be “broken.” This area is known as “the Devil’s half acre.”

Mary Lumpkins was an African woman Mr. Lumpkins owned, and had children with. He willed his assets to “the mother of my children” because he could not legally will his assets to a slave. After the Civil War the former jail site became a school for freed black children.

The site was located fairly recently. Changes in topography resulted in the foundation of the site now being 14 feet below present grade. This ground is now quite valuable development property. It was discovered during excavation. They uncovered the entire site to verify, through the many artifacts that were found, that this is indeed Lumpkins Jail. The site was filled back in until funds can be raised to restore it properly.

Our last stop was at the Reconciliation Triangle Statue. Stephen Broadbent, a sculptor from Liverpool, England, designed a statue to represent a process of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. There are now three such statues–one at each corner of the Triangle Slave Trade: Liverpool, Benin, and Richmond. The top of the statue depicts two people hugging, reconciling; the base tells the story of the transatlantic slave trade is bas-relief. The base was designed by children from Liverpool, Benin, and Richmond (see photos here).

My hope is that once my grandchildren are old enough to understand we’ll go to such places together so they can learn how what happened in the past shaped who we are today and the choices we make today will shape tomorrow.

One response to “Experiencing History in Richmond, Virginia”

  1. […] to the Table. At our last retreat, in Richmond, Virginia, we spent important time considering the history of the place. We did the same in […]

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Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry