By Peter Galuszka
In Virginia, it never ceases to amaze how the white elite finds it so easy to extract the painful history of slavery from whatever it is they are trying to do.
In his first year in office, for instance, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell went astonishingly brain-dead when he completely forgot to mention African-Americans and slavery when he proclaimed “Confederate History Month.” He quickly apologized.
Now, Richmond’s business elite is pushing for a new baseball Stadium in the Shockoe Bottom area near downtown. The Bottom is famous for its 1901 Italian Renaissance style Main Street train station, a farmer’s market, a bunch of funky restaurants and bars (not immune to occasional Saturday Night gunplay) and the new offices of Richmond’s aspiring “Creative Class” that some bloggers like to laud on a regular basis.
The Bottom is also historic for other, sinister reasons. Up to 350,000 Africans were forced in chains to go to slave auctions in and around Shockoe Bottom for three decades before the Civil War. By some estimates, many of the four million or so slaves in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War had some ancestral tie to the Bottom, which rivaled New Orleans as the No. 1 marketplace for human slave trade.
Ships tied up at Manchester Docks near the fall line of the James River. They were kept in chains in and around the Bottom and at Lumpkin’s Jail. When some died, many of beatings or disease, they were buried at the African Burial Ground. This history was recently in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article on Aug. 19 by Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, King Salim Khalfani, the head of the state NAACP, Shawn Utley, chair of the African Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender.
The quartet absolutely nailed how badly things are done in Richmond when they noted how two mouthpieces for the business community suddenly announced a couple of weeks ago that the Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball team, part of the San Francisco Giants franchise, liked the idea of a new stadium in the Bottom and what a great idea it was.
A little history: Richmond’s present stadium is the Diamond, a 1980s monstrosity that was the major reason why the Atlanta Braves Organization pulled their Triple A farm team from Richmond to Gwinnett County, Ga., a few years back.
The Braves operate like a cold, bloodless insurance company with both eyes steadily on the bottom line. They had endured several years of discussion over other, possible sites discussed including one in Manchester south of the James River in the city, the fast-growing Short Pump area in far western Henrico County and a spot on the James that went instead to relocate the headquarters of MeadWestvaco, a Fortune 500 firm, from Connecticut. After much gnashing of teeth, the spotlight was back on replacing the Diamond, conveniently located near the intersection of Interstates 95 and 64.
The Braves bolted. The Squirrels flew in. Fans thronged the crumbling Diamond, which the Squirrels hinted they’d only tolerate for a few years…
Now, zowie! We’re back at the Bottom with sugarplum fantasies of new restaurants, bars and high-end shops all anchored by a new baseball diamond. The two corporate mouthpieces pushing the idea are Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of the Great Richmond Chamber of Commerce, and Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond.
Their re-launch of the Bottom idea was trumpeted, of course, on the front page of the Times-Dispatch, followed up by another front-page story they authored in the Sunday “Commentary” section a few weeks ago.
No surprise, there. TD Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri used to head the Chamber a little while ago and spends far more time as the city’s booster-in-chief than he does promoting good journalism. Straight stories that portray the city accurately are often spiked for puffery. A side note: when the critics of the Bottom stadium idea had their say, it was placed on page five of the Commentary section. In some ways, it is amazing that the TD allowed their comments at all.
Refloating the Bottom idea is a stunner on two levels. First, as the critical quartet notes, it was all done in a manner of (forgive me) inside baseball. In the Richmond elite’s mentality, the great unwashed commoners such as me and the other 1.25 million souls in the area are too childish and simple-minded to be asked what we might think of a proposal. Instead, the city’s nomenklatura makes the decision and then announces it in the local Pravda , reminding us that it is a great idea and we should be glad to have such intelligent and public-spirited leaders.
The far more important argument from Edwards, Khalfani, Utley and Wilyato is just how immoral and inappropriate debasing the memory of hundreds of thousands of slaves would be. As they write:
‘We would like the officials of the Greater Richmond Chamber, Venture Richmond and the Richmond Flying Squirrels to understand that there will be no baseball stadium or any other sports venue constructed on the land where hundreds of thousands of African women men, children and even babies were sold like chattel animals in order that the wealthy white businessmen of that era could profit from their unpaid labor and suffering.
“It is simply not going to happen. Period.”
Amen. Virginia has much harrowed ground. Various interest groups have managed to preserve George Washington and Robert E. Lee’s birthplaces, umpteen Jamestown and Williamsburg sites and Civil War battlefields too many to repeat. The Piedmont Environmental Council was instrumental in keeping Disney from trashing up battlefields west of Fredericksburg.
But when it comes to disregarding what African-Americans went through in the most shameful periods of American history, Virginia, and especially Richmond, are what you could call “shovel ready.”