The Next Memorial or the Next Boondoggle?

by Jon Baliles

The Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality organization is run by Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto and has been publishing quarterly in Richmond since 2005. This summer’s edition from last week is an eye-opener and sure to cause some needed and welcome discussion.

The Defenders published two articles about what is and is not happening in regard to the proposed Shockoe Bottom memorial that will honor and tell the story about the slave trade in Richmond, the Burial Ground, Lumpkin’s Jail, and a big part of the history of this city that has been buried and repressed for far too long.

Well, things are definitely happening, but the City, as well as the leaders of the uniquely opaque National Slavery Museum Foundation, are doing precious little to share their plans with the public.

They detail how Mayor Stoney supported the creation of a nine-acre memorial park and created and kicked off the Shockoe Alliance group that was ideally supposed to develop a plan and detail what the memorial park could become. The Smith Group, a national planning firm, was engaged to outline the possibilities and has a web site that is definitely worth a look.

A summary:

Known as “Devil’s Half Acre,” the site included several structures ranging from a large holding area and what was referred to as a “slave jail” on the lower portion of the site that was subject to periodic flooding, a hotel, tavern, and the residence of Robert Lumpkin, an especially cruel and violent slave trader. Despite its horrific impact on the lives of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans, the site was all but forgotten over time—an ugly truth buried by train tracks, a parking lot, an interstate, and other modern infrastructure. Community leaders and the City of Richmond desired to develop a memorial that would reveal its haunting history and interpret its cultural significance.

The Defenders article goes through the process by which the “plan” evolved into a Small Area Plan and then incorporated into the Richmond 300 Plan and received public input and was updated in October 2021. That plan, according to the Defenders, “is supposed to come back to the Alliance and then put up for a second round of public input. As of yet, there is no public timeline for that input.”

The project, when first announced by Mayor Jones, was in the neighborhood of $100 million. The most recent estimate comes in at $220 million. And yet, so far there are no plans we know of and no organization to even begin the planning process or raise the funds to complete the project. The Defenders have a list of excellent questions that any reasonable person would ask before embarking on spending $220 million:

  • Does the National Slavery Museum Foundation have a website or any other online presence?
  • Does the foundation have a board of directors? If so, who are the members?
  • Does the foundation have a director? If so, who is it?
  • What is the current estimate for the cost of designing and building the museum?
  • What is the current estimate for the annual cost of operating the museum?
  • How much money has the foundation raised to date?
  • What amount has been allocated by the City of Richmond?
  • By the state of Virginia?
  • How much has been raised from private sources?
  • What expenses has the foundation paid for to date?
  • How much, and to what entities or individuals?
  • What is the timeline for creating the museum?
  • Are any public meetings about the museum scheduled at this time?

Let’s hope we get some answers before our elected officials start writing checks.

This column has been republished with permission from RVA 5X5.