In his first year in office, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was widely chastised for making no mention of slavery when he proclaimed “Confederate History Month.” He quickly apologized.
Richmond is an epicenter for similar controversies. In the 1990s, the city agonized over adding a statue of its native tennis star Arthur Ashe, an African American, to its parade of Confederate military heroes on its showpiece Monument Avenue. It also drew wrath a few years later for glorifying Robert E. Lee in mural on a flood wall holding back the James River.
Now race is at the plate again in the former Confederate capital’s quest for a new baseball stadium to replace its crumbling Diamond ballpark. The city’s business elite and the management of the Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball team are refocusing their efforts on placing a new stadium in the historic Shockoe Bottom district famous for its cobblestone streets, quaint bars and 111-year-old, Beaux Arts-style train station.
Shockoe Bottom also happens to be the locus of one of the darkest chapters in Virginia’s history. Up to 350,000 Africans were sold in slave auctions there for three decades before the Civil War. A large percentage of the four million or so slaves in the United State 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. Slaves up for sale were kept in chains in and around the Bottom and at Lumpkin’s Jail. When some died, they were buried at the African Burial Ground in the neighborhood. This history was recently noted in an Aug. 19 Richmond Times-Dispatch article 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.
What has angered the four critics is that the city’s business elite, led by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and Venture Richmond, a booster group, is once again pushing the Bottom in an effort that they suspect was hatched in a closed-door setting with no public involvement or consideration of Shockoe Bottom’s sorrowful history.
Oddly, the Bottom had been earlier considered and rejected as a replacement site for the 27-year-old Diamond. In 2005, the Atlanta Braves, which then had its Triple A farm team in Richmond, proposed a $330 million multi-use development including new baseball digs in the Bottom. Local opposition helped kill the idea. Miffed, the Braves moved their farm club to an Atlanta suburb in 2009.
The next year, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a Double A club associated with the San Francisco Giants, began playing at the Diamond, conveniently located near the intersections of Interstate 95 and 64. The new team proved popular. Managers invested $250,000 in Diamond improvements with the idea that a new stadium would be built eventually. The plan didn’t make headway after suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties balked on funding.
So, planning has shifted back to the Bottom. It is a bad idea, according to according to Edwards, Khalfani, Utley and Wilayto. They wrote: “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.”
For Richmond and Virginia, history is always a blessing and curse.