Shockoe Bottom

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Shockoe Basin; Shockoe Creek
1800–1865; 2000–present, memorial park. Bounded by Ambler, 18th, Broad, and Franklin sts.

A memorial, interpretative center, and park are in the planning stages for this site, which has been used for trade and commerce since the 1730s and became the center of the slave trade in Richmond and the upper South from circa 1800 until 1865. The larger area, known variously as Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Basin, or Shockoe Creek, is located east of downtown, on the James River and stretches inland along the creek at the base of Shockoe and Church hills. As the slave trade grew exponentially between the 1830s and the Civil War, Shockoe Bottom became the largest American slave-trading hub outside of New Orleans.

In the nineteenth century, Richmond’s slave trade encompassed a district much larger than this approximately 9-acre site and included 69 slave traders and auction houses, at least three jails (to house enslaved persons), and related support structures like hotels, residences, warehouses for tobacco, and a cemetery for enslaved people. While some of the buildings were destroyed by fire, including one deliberately set by Confederate troops in April 1865, at the end of the Civil War, disinvestment and collective white disinterest in the history of slavery (common throughout the South) had a far greater impact, leading to the deterioration and demolition of many more of the buildings. Nonetheless, commercial activity (both retail and wholesale) continued in Shockoe Bottom well into the twentieth century before experiencing gradual dereliction, especially in the decades after World War II. The site designated for the eventual memorial and interpretive center for a time contained a jail and a dog pound, but it was largely cleared of buildings—and Black residents—in the name of urban renewal, and, in particular, for the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (today I-95) in the late 1950s. The area immediately east of the elevated highway continued to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, though by the end of the twentieth century, gentrification was underway with remaining industrial and commercial buildings being converted to apartments and restaurants.

Beginning in the late 1990s, citizens, historians, and preservation groups fought to recognize the legacy of slavery at this historic site, particularly after a proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium and commercial center threatened what remained of it. It was around that time that archaeological investigations uncovered physical remains of the slave trade, including the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, a notorious brick walled structure located between tobacco warehouses on a stretch of swampy land known as “the devil’s half acre.” Robert Lumpkin ran one of the largest slave-trading complexes in Shockoe Bottom. Consisting of four brick buildings, it included Lumpkin’s residence and office; the jail, which included a “whipping room”; a boarding house for those buying and selling enslaved persons; and a kitchen. After the Civil War, Lumpkin’s Jail was leased for several years to Nathaniel Colver, a Baptist minister, by Lumpkin’s wife, Mary, to serve as a school for freed people. This school ultimately relocated to the other side of Richmond to become Virginia Union University.

In 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Shockoe Bottom one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and the following year the stadium development scheme was abandoned. Since then, efforts have continued to establish a memorial park on this site of endurance and resistance. The National Trust, in partnership with Preservation Virginia, Shockoe Bottom Partners (SBP), the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, and the Center for Design Engagement (UMASS Amherst), have been working to commemorate the site while also allowing for responsible development. A post–Civil War structure and the house of freed individuals have been relocated to the site to form part of the memorial park, which remains, for now, a grassy area with interpretive signs sitting between I-95 and the railroad tracks but accessible from the adjacent parking lot.  

References

Chen, Kimberly Merkel, and Hannah W. Collins, “The Slave Trade as a Commercial Enterprise in Richmond, Virginia,” Richmond, Virginia. Multiple Property Documentation Form, 2007. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Richardson, Selden. Built by Blacks: African American Architecture & Neighborhoods in Richmond, VA. Richmond, VA: Dietz Press.  2007.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 

Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, VA, 1782–1865. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.  

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson

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