The muddy south bank of the James River in Richmond is rife with memories that were kept secret for years. Here, centuries ago, captive Africans in chains would be unloaded from ships and marched along a narrow path beside the river at night, so that white residents wouldn’t be offended by their sight and smell, to holding places in town. Then, at docks and auction houses, they’d be sold to white owners to clear land and plant tobacco.
Between 1690 and 1770, according to James River Park system literature, white Virginians bought 100,000 imported Africans. By the 1850s, Virginia had exported more than half a million slaves to Deep South states. Yet Richmond didn’t begin exploring its role as one of the largest U.S. slave markets until 1998, when the city council created a Slave Trail Commission and obtained historic designation for the infamous path.
I downloaded a commisson map and drove to Ancarrow’s Landing, where the 11 / 2-mile trail begins its winding way, to walk the trail myself.
The first sign I came upon noted that in the late 1700s, slaves were marched from the docks to jails near 15th and Franklin streets. By 1820, “surplus” slaves walked in the other direction, to be shipped to New Orleans, the largest slave market. “The purposeful breeding and sale of humans became an important part of plantation economies in Virginia,” I read.
Past a grove of ivy-covered trees, the “Manchester and the Slave Trade” sign told me that slaves and Irish immigrants built the now silted-up canal to provide power to flour and cotton mills. I imagined the trail on a summer day as I read that “black men were prized for their work in these mosquito-infested conditions.”
Beneath a highway overpass, the forest came to an end, and it wasn’t clear where I should go next. Through those towering gates in the cement wall? That’s where a sign pointed, up a steep hill that led to the Mayo Bridge. Scenic this section was not; I passed trucks unloading at a recycling station.
My map said that Winfree Cottage, a slave dwelling that had been rescued from demolition, would be moved to Dock and Canal streets. But for now, the only thing there was a parking lot. A red-brick building at 15th and Cary streets that once housed the Davenport Trading Co., however, still stands. This is the last building in town known to have been used in the slave trade. It’s being converted into upscale apartments.
At 15th and Main I was in “the geographical heart of the slave district,” where auction houses sold corn, coffee and humans. Today a statue memorializes the British, African and American trade route with an engraved message: “Acknowledge and forgive the past, embrace the present, shape a future.”
Across from the main train station is the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, which the slaves called “the Devil’s Half Acre.” A short black fence surrounds a planted area, but there’s no evidence of the jail or the artifacts found during archaeological excavations here in 2008.
The trail ended in a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot near busy Broad Street, where a historical marker tells of the hanging of a slave named Gabriel.
My tour over, I drove to the Virginia Historical Society, where “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia” explores the role of slaves and former slaves during the conflict. The next day I visited the society library, which is building a database of enslaved Virginians using deeds, wills, freedom papers and letters. I became absorbed in Kingston Parish’s church register, which recorded births and deaths from 1755 to 1775. Slaves were separated from “free” persons, and their full names were unimportant. I saw family connections but realized how difficult tracing roots must be.
But at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia a few miles away, I learned how a 14-year-old girl did manage to trace her roots to her enslaved ancestor, one Elvira Sophia Abernathy. The museum’s permanent collection includes photos of black churches and entertainers, plus a civil-rights era Woolworth’s luncheonette counter from Richmond’s historically black Jackson Ward neighborhood.
After that, I wanted another look at the slave trail. At Manchester Docks, James River Park System manager Ralph White gave an interpretive tour of the natural environment, describing how the slave trade changed the land: Trees were felled to build roads, and ship traffic eroded the riverbanks and permanently browned the water.
White’s tour filled in background missing from my self-guided one, such as the religious underpinnings and mind-set that helped some people rationalize slavery. He conducted a “sensitization,” ordering us to line up, hold hands and walk in silence, then march gripping the shoulders of the person in front of us. The 40-person line lurched.
“Now imagine that with chains on,” he said.
Then we convoyed to Lumpkin’s Jail, where White detailed the tortures that took place there. Many flinched when he described salt being rubbed into open wounds.
Not far away, beneath Broad Street, we found an African American burial ground, denoted by a small marker. As White pointed out gallows stones incorporated into the overpass, I could hear the traffic hurrying by above us, unaware that in this spot, the past is ever present.
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Shuman is a former editor at The Washington Post.