Virginia Del. Delores L. McQuinn, chairwoman of the Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission, stands beside Winfree Cottage in Richmond. The cottage is the only remaining slave home structure in the Richmond area. The two-room structure was occupied by two slave families. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The goal was modest at first: Illuminate a dark and hidden chapter of this Confederate capital’s history.

As the Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission explored the neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom, it uncovered stories and relics that exposed Richmond’s role as an epicenter of the U.S. slave trade. An auction house. A gallows. A jail. Gradually, the idea of marking a slave trail grew into the bigger vision of creating a historical site, with both the state and city likely to help fund the effort. There is even talk of building a slavery museum.

But an intriguing question hangs over the project: Could former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder — whose own ambitious proposal for a national slavery museum collapsed amid debt and controversy — join the commission’s effort, or compete with it?

Ex-governor L. Douglas Wilder speaks in 2006 about plans for a slavery museum in Fredericksburg. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Wilder recently signaled his interest by writing an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch under the headline “Locate the slavery museum in Shockoe.” His participation would bring national stature and political connections: As the nation’s first black elected governor and a charismatic, outspoken leader, Wilder has always drawn outsized attention to whatever he’s involved in. But he also is carrying the baggage of his organization’s past missteps.

Wilder said in an interview this winter that Shockoe would be a perfect location for the project he tried for more than two decades to bring to fruition. But asked more recently what role he was seeking, he demurred, saying his op-ed should speak for itself.

A spokeswoman for Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones (D), who is shepherding the effort to redevelop Shockoe, said when asked about Wilder, “It’s premature to say what role” any person would have. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also sidestepped the question, saying through his spokeswoman that Wilder “has been an outstanding leader” on the issue of remembering Virginia’s slave history. McAuliffe supports Wilder’s “efforts to preserve Richmond’s history and heritage as the city continues to grow and enters a new stage in economic development,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

Delores L. McQuinn, a state delegate who chairs the Slave Trail Commission, said she has not spoken with Wilder about taking a lead role, but she welcomes his participation.

“The more folks we have at the table to make this happen, the better,” she said.

Obstacles, opportunity

Jones wants to raise $30 million for a “slavery and freedom heritage site” as part of a $200 million public-private effort to redevelop Shockoe, a neighborhood along the James River just a few blocks from the state Capitol. There would be a ballpark, hotel, apartments, shops and infrastructure designed to help the flood-prone area.

So far, the Richmond City Council has committed $5 million, joining $11 million that is included in the state budget, pending General Assembly approval. Business leaders have pledged to raise an additional $15 million.

At the same time, a deal is in the works to sell land in Fredericksburg that was donated to Wilder’s project years ago, allowing that group to repay some of the millions it owes in debt and taxes and begin anew.

There are obstacles — the land sale in Fredericksburg is not scheduled to close until June, it is not clear whether all the money needed for a Richmond museum can be raised, and some aspects of the Shockoe project have drawn strident opposition. But there is also opportunity.

For McQuinn and Wilder — who both grew up in Richmond and are descended from slaves — the museum idea is both deeply personal, and of national import.

“Will there be some who say, ‘Is this best for Richmond? You should have left this alone.’ Yes,” said McQuinn, who served on the City Council for a decade, including four years when Wilder was mayor. “But more and more, the feeling from the folks I’ve talked to is, this is the right thing to do. And the right time.”

She recalled a story her father had told her about his own father, who sought records from a former slave owner in an effort to discern his family’s roots.

“If you want them, they are here,” the former slave owner told McQuinn’s grandfather, according to family lore. Then he lit a match, and set the papers afire.

“All my life I have been wanting to know the origins of my existence,” McQuinn said. “Not being able to trace back before my grandmother, my grandfather, there has been a yearning in me.

In Wilder’s family, the stories included how his grandmother was sold to a farmer in Hanover County, and his grandfather would walk 20 miles to see her whenever he could.

“If the residents of this state aren’t cognizant of the horrors that were inflicted on human beings on our own soil,” Wilder wrote in his op-ed, “how can Americans anywhere else be aware of that fact?”

Trail of tears

In the mid-1800s, more slaves were bought and sold in Richmond than in any U.S. city except New Orleans.

On a recent afternoon, McQuinn pointed to the spot in Shockoe Bottom where a slave named Gabriel was hanged in 1800 for planning an uprising — not far from where Patrick Henry, a quarter-century earlier, urged Virginia troops to join the American Revolution with the words “Give me liberty or give me death.”

“Until the Slave Trail Commission really began studying this stuff . . . I bet most Richmonders had no idea,” said Maurie McInnis, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Virginia.

The commission created the Richmond Slave Trail, which starts at the docks along the James River and follows the path along which slaves once stumbled, chained together in a coffle. It passes the sites of auction houses, slave quarters, and a church that was the heart of the black community in Richmond before the Civil War.

Mayo’s Bridge connects the Manchester area and Richmond. Slaves coming off ships were transported to Richmond for the slave market. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A marker is embedded in the asphalt along the Richmond Slave Trail in Richmond. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“Some things we researched. Some things we stumbled upon,” McQuinn said. “This is something that most people just did not want to talk about.”

The commission’s most ambitious vision for the trail has expanded to include a museum and a genealogy and slave heritage center, with a glass-enclosed archaeological site where the jail owned by slave trader Robert Lumpkin once stood.

Lumpkin’s cruelty was so well known that the jail compound — just three blocks from the Capitol building — was called “the Devil’s Half-Acre.” The site included housing for other slave traders, an auction house and the jail itself, where hundreds of slaves were chained and whipped.

After Lumpkin’s death, his wife Mary — a black woman who had been one of his slaves — let a minister use the property to educate freed black men.

People started calling it “God’s Half-Acre.”

The school eventually helped form Virginia Union University, where, about a century later, Wilder earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. Jones, the Richmond mayor, graduated from Virginia Union as well.

A dream deferred

Wilder went on to law school, politics and a lifetime of leadership. Since 1993, he has talked about building a slavery museum in Virginia.

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder speaks in Fredericksburg, Va., during a 2001 forum on a proposed slavery museum in the city. (Rhonda Vanover/The Free Lance Star via AP)

A sign is posted at the site of the Old Negro Burial Ground in Richmond. Many slaves were buried in unmarked graves alongside what is now Interstate 95. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

His high-powered board, including entertainer Bill Cosby, raised money and brought in internationally known architects to design a $100 million showpiece.

But the project stalled, and donations dried up. Frustrated by the lack of progress and answers, city officials in Fredericksburg did not grant Wilder’s organization tax-exempt status for all of the land it had received as a donation.

When those tax bills went unpaid, the city threatened to sell the 38 acres, and the slavery museum organization filed for bankruptcy. The organization owes about $6 million to the architecture firm, Pei Partnership Architects.

The Hagerstown Suns, a Minor League Baseball team, and Diamond Nation, a baseball training facility and baseball promotion organization, have signed a contract to purchase the Fredericksburg property.

The sale must be finalized by June 18, said Paul Prados, an attorney for Pei Partnership. He said the museum organization will then be able to pay its debt to the city, and Pei Partnership would be reimbursed enough to release a lien that has been placed on the land.

In Richmond, critics of the proposal to redevelop Shockoe have questioned whether the ballpark and other planned amenities would disrupt the solemn feel of a historic place focused on slavery. They also worry that the construction would encroach on key sites, possibly including the place where Solomon Northup, the main character in the Oscar-winning movie “12 Years a Slave,” may have been held before he was sent to New Orleans.

“Let’s be sure that we are not desecrating something that has a level of historical importance, that we may not ever be able to get back,” said Christy S. Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.

Virginia Del. Delores L. McQuinn walks to the Old Negro Burial Ground along the Richmond Slave Trail on Nov. 18. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Growing up, McQuinn said, she heard the rumors about Shockoe Bottom, that slaves had been led through there, late at night, on their way to be sold down south. But no one ever talked about it. She recently asked her 90-year-old mother-in-law whether she knew the history — and, if so, why she didn’t share it with younger generations.

“She turned her head,” McQuinn said. “Then she looked at me and said, ‘It’s just too painful.’ She folded her arms and said nothing else.”

Walking the heritage trail on a recent day, McQuinn lost her composure for a moment as she looked out over the river, where chained slaves for decades were unloaded in darkness from cramped ships.

“There is clearly something here. Spirits that exist,” she said, after wiping her eyes. “This is not about me. This is not about Governor Wilder. This is about the people that died and sacrificed, those that have passed and gone on. America was built on their backs, with their blood. How do we honor that past?”