Race


Some of Richmond’s troubling and painful history are being uncovered in Shockoe Bottom.  The Times-Dispatch led off its article about the Lumpkin’s Jail excavation with one of the most disturbing discoveries:

With young black men used as bait, dogs were trained to track and pursue runaway slaves in the cobblestone courtyard of a Richmond slave jail….The cobblestone courtyard was referenced in the writings of 19th-century author and abolitionist Richard Henry Dana, said Philip J. Schwarz, a member of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission.

“The dogs would accompany the coffle [a group chained together] taking people south. If somebody tried to run away, they let the dogs loose,” Schwarz said. “It was part of the brutality.”

Of course, the excavation sheds light on a contested section of our city: Shockoe Bottom.  Debates have been ongoing for years now about what to do with this land.  McQuinn, the current chair of the city’s Slave Trail Commission, proclaims that these findings will factor in whatever development happens in the area:

[McQuinn] said it was too early to discuss a developer’s plans for a baseball stadium and condominiums in the area, but that they would continue to pursue their goals “not be deterred by a developer’s plans.”

“Richmond will speak loud and clear what they want for this particular area,” McQuinn said.

As always, I hope that meaningful public participation will be part of any development plan for the area.

And I hope that in this city so filled with history, some kind of public memorial will be built for this history we’ve buried for too long.

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I attended a breakfast meeting this morning sponsored by the non-profit group, Hope in the Cities. The keynote speaker was former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a champion of public education who succeeded in passing major education reform legislation for Mississippi while in office.

Considering the massive political upheaval surrounding everything related to the Richmond Public Schools, Gov. Winter’s visit was timely.

Attendees were very diverse in terms of age, race, and the organizations they represented. City and suburban school districts sent representatives, as did major corporations (e.g. Capital One, Bon Secours), non-profits (e.g. YMCA, Red Cross), and faith-based organizations.

Sadly, out of hundreds of people there, only 1 was an elected official, Sheriff Woody. Considering the theme of the breakfast, Innovating for the 21st Century: Healthy Integrated Public Schools,’ it was disappointing that NONE of our school board officials came, and NONE of the members of city council or county boards of supervisors came.

Considering the distinguished reputation of Hope in the Cities (who’ve been around for almost 30 years and recently helped bring about the reconciliation statue in Shockoe)- and the who’s who of non-elected officials who were there, I was a bit surprised that no elected officials who deal with education were there. Former Richmond Mayor Walter Kinney and former City Manager (and current DC City Manager) Robert Bobb both attended.

Griping about politicians aside, Winter’s address was inspiring.

The main point he made was that until we address the racial divides in our community, we’ll never be able to solve the education problem.

As long as black and white folks live separate lives without coming together for honest conversation about our similarities and our differences, then we will continue living out segregated and isolated lives- in education and in other areas.

People from every walk of life share a common goal: quality education for their children.

Gov. Winter suggested finding ways to come together, across the divides of race, class, and jurisdiction, to achieve that goal.

But as long as we still have racism, racial prejudice, and massive disparities in educational attainment and income which we don’t talk about or address as a community, then we won’t be able to achieve healthy public schools in the Richmond region.

The city has compiled a page of information on the draft Downtown Master Plan, including wonderfully detailed maps that can keep you entertained for days- that is if you’re anything like me and often find yourself dreaming about what Richmond could become.

While scanning these fascinating maps, I discovered a whole slew of new parking lots and garages planned. Fortunately, the master plan calls for them to be “lined with habitable spaces to create a pedestrian-friendly street frontage.”

The suggested locations of these new parking lots are scattered throughout the downtown area. Unfortunately, one of them appears to be on the “Burial Ground for Negroes,” located north of Broad St., squeezed between I-95 and the train tracks. The map of the Shockoe area has the clearest view of this planned lot.

The story of the burial ground is told partially by the historical marker located on the nearby stretch of Broad St.:

EXECUTION OF GABRIEL

Near here is the early site of the Richmond gallows and “Burial Ground for Negroes.” On 10 Oct. 1800, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith from Brookfield plantation in Henrico County, was executed there for attempting to lead a mass uprising against slavery on 30 Aug. 1800. A fierce rainstorm delayed the insurrection, which then was betrayed by two slaves. Gabriel escaped and eluded capture until 23 Sept., when he was arrested in Norfolk. He was returned to Richmond on 27 Sept. and incarcerated in the Virginia State Penitentiary. On 6 Oct. he stood trial and was condemned. At least 25 of his supporters were also put to death there or in other jurisdictions.

The burial ground is currently located under a privately owned parking lot. Nevertheless, it has become an officially recognized “stop” on the city’s slave trail walk.

VCU is also interested in developing the site, and lists it as an “area of future consideration” on their master plan (scroll to page 20).

It’s unclear to me how large the burial ground is. Currently the draft master plan has unlabeled green space for a block between Broad and Marshall, then parking north of Marshall. It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that the burial ground is only one city block.

Researching and memorializing this burial ground is an important task for our city. We need to preserve this site, not let VCU develop it, and certainly not let it remain a parking lot.

If I’m able to make it to the next round of public meetings, I would like to raise this issue if there’s appropriate space to do so. If any of you know whether this site was discussed during the charrette process, kindly comment about it below.

The next meeting to discuss the draft master plan is Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 6:30pm at The Renaissance Conference Center (located at 107 W. Broad Street at the corner of W. Broad and Adams Streets).

According to the city, “Free parking for the event will be available to the rear of the conference center.”

The 1-way vs. 2-way streets debate is not the only controversy stirred up by the recent downtown design charrette. Perhaps the bigger controversy, the “elephant” in the discussion, if you will, is the divisive topic of race.

In a city that was home to the second largest slave-trading port in America 150 years ago, it is disheartening, but not terribly surprising, that many of our disagreements and debates in this city still center on race. Have we made progress? Absolutely. Do we still have problems? Without question.

One current problem is evidenced by the current debate regarding the legitimacy of any claims of racial exclusion or under-representation in the charrette process. A brief rundown of the significant players so far:

  • The Free Press ran the headline “Sea of Whiteness” to accompany its article on the charrette.
  • Mike Sarahan, a controversial city fixture, complained to city council & others about a lack of inclusion.
  • Victor Dover, principal designer of the firm running the charrette process, apologized for the lack of inclusivity.
  • Mayor Wilder defended the process: “Somebody’s done a lot of work,” he said, “and gotten a lot of people involved.”
  • The president of the Jackson Ward Association felt the process was fair for Jackson Ward.
  • Several bloggers have chimed in:

The question that occurs to me as a Richmond culture watcher is, why are there such diverse and passionate feelings about this subject?

Were folks right to point out that the group who’s historically been marginalized was missing?

Were other folks right to say the process was/is open to all and therefore immune to a critique about who was missing at the table (racial group or otherwise)?

In my view, the fact that, by and large, African-Americans didn’t show up at the charrette tells us something about the state of our city.

It tells me that we still have miles to go in order to build a just and inclusive community.

It tells me that there are broken bonds of trust that take a lot of hard, intentional work to heal.

We spent roughly the first 300 years of our history trying in various ways to exclude the voice of Black folks. And yes, slavery is long gone, but its legacy lives on. It was only 30 years ago that Richmond’s city council was convicted by the Supreme Court for trying to annex as many white voters as they could to maintain a white majority.

Folks who’ve lived through that, and raised children in that atmosphere, in my mind have every right to be mistrustful of any political process. The book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: a psychologist explains the development of racial identity suggests that one reaction to encounters with racism and prejudice is to seek a group of folks who share and understand your experience of marginalization.

Perhaps in a city that’s experienced so much racism and prejudice folks can’t be blamed for lacking interest in public forums run by unknown leaders (Dover & Kohl), without folks they know and trust buying into the process and urging them to get involved.

That doesn’t mean that Dover Kohl or Venture Richmond are racists.

That doesn’t mean that the results of the charrette are worthless.

But it means to me that we have work to do to heal the many wounds inflicted by years of racism. We need to build multi-racial coalitions for the improvement of our common future as a community.

And I think it’s time we recognize the concerns of an historically oppressed group when they claim that their absence is significant and unfortunate. Recognizing the legitimacy of that claim does not automatically impute racist intentions to the organizers or promoters of the event, but rather is a sign that we still have work to do to heal the wounds of history.

Perhaps those of us who are engaged should ask for meetings with Black leaders and inquire as to why they weren’t present – without laying blame- and what could be done in the future to ensure greater participation from the African-American community.

Perhaps we should ask our Black friends why they didn’t participate, if they did not.

Perhaps we should ask all our friends who didn’t participate why they did not. Most of my White friends had absolutely no interest; it was a minority of any of my friends, regardless of their race, who a) knew about it and b) cared. I guess I say that to warn against “tokenizing” our Black friends and excoriating them for not representing their race.

Let’s use this controversy as a point of learning about the health of our community. Let it make us stronger, not continue to divide us.

One of the positive realities I noticed is that, without exception, everyone who’s publicly commented on this controversy has expressed the desire for racial inclusion.   That’s certainly progress.  Now let’s talk about how to make it happen.

I’d like to see more dialogue about the legacy of racism in our community, how it affects us and how to overcome it. Race and racism are very much live issues- as seen not only from this issue, but elsewhere in our city, as recently in the comments section of one of our local ‘hoodblogs.

And for the record, I too am annoyed with the Free Press for criticizing without having promoted the event. That’s inexcusable- as long as they’d received a press release, which I hope they did.

I expect my opinion might be controversial – it’s with a certain fear and trembling that I click on the “publish” button, but I nevertheless welcome comments and discussion. I’d simply ask that it you choose to comment, please keep things as civil as possible while discussing this divisive and difficult topic.

The design for the civil rights memorial, which is to be placed on the grounds of the State Capitol, was unveiled yesterday. Here’s a link to some pictures – I wasn’t sure about posting them here without prior permission. The statue will be placed outside the gates of the executive mansion.

The statue commission has created a very informative webpage with information about the statue design, the artist, the commission members, and some civil rights history.

The statue depicts scenes related to the 1951 Morton High School student protest in Farmville, which led to the lawsuit Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. The case was argued by Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson, III, and eventually joined four other cases to become Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

They’ve also posted links to first-person accounts of the Farmville protest, audio clips of interviews with students who participated, and an audio interview with Oliver Hill.

I think this is a great moment in Virginia history; our state government has finally started acknowledging our painful past and lifting up heroes who fought the injustice perpetrated, in part, by our state government. Doubtless there will be those who say that a statue is not enough to right past wrongs, and I agree with them, but I still want to celebrate milestones when they happen. And changing the history told through public memorials is a necessary step towards forming a more just and inclusive community here in Virginia.

People often use the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty to reflect on the change in our immigration policies from encouraging desperate working (white) folks to immigrate to privileging skilled workers who already have financial stability. Of course, we all know our immigration policies have little bearing on who actually ends up in this country, but that’s another post for some other political blogger. I’m interested in how the poor, the tired, and the homeless fare in Richmond’s hot housing market. But first, the famous excerpt from the Statue of Liberty poem:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Style has an excellent, nuanced, in-depth article about the problems urban redevelopment creates for poor folks, There Goes the ‘Hood. I can’t recommend this article strongly enough: seriously, folks, if you’re excited about new lofts, historic renovations, new high-end shops, you need to read this article, it may open your eyes to the downsides of all of this investment in the city. Similarly, if you’re concerned about gentrification, affordable housing, and racism, you need to read this (same) article, it exposes how government policies exacerbate these problems and tells the story of those affected.

I’ve been pondering for some time how to write about the issues of poverty, racism, and affordable housing on my new blog here. Since I spend so much time celebrating our city’s progress towards greater urbanization, I’ve been feeling the need to expose its downside and, hopefully, help further our communal conversation on how to mitigate its negative consequences.

For those of you naughty people who read this post and don’t click through to read the article, shame on you (Although I suppose you could have already read the article elsewhere, I guess I’ll give you, my loyal readers, the benefit of the doubt.) Well, whatever, here’s a few quotes anyway:

On tearing down the projects for mixed-income communities:

Consider Richmond’s former Blackwell community: The Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority tore down the 440-unit Blackwell in 1999. The plan is to replace it with 583 units, but only 153 of those housing units would be made available for public-housing residents. To date, only 161 apartments and town houses have been erected in its place; the first apartments opened more than two years after the old Blackwell was torn down.

On why our neighborhoods are segregated by income and race:

“A lot of people think the kind of racism we experienced here in Richmond was caused by Jim Crow laws,” [UofR urban studies professor John] Moeser says. “The federal government itself fostered racism. What we have today [i.e. racially and economically segregated housing] in large measure harkens back to what happened in the 1930s and after the Second World War. And even though today the laws have been … taken off the books, we’re still living with the consequences.”

On our governments’ handouts to the rich:

“I think we roll out the red carpet in the city of Richmond — millions of dollars we subsidize for businesses,” [ACORN program director David] Herring says. “You’ve got subsidies for everybody and his brother who is a developer, but what do you have for the people who make this town work? I don’t know.”

Thank you Scott Bass and Chris Dovi for writing such a great article that both celebrates the good while acknowledging the bad. That’s a hard balance to strike and I think they’ve done admirably. Now, let’s get to work solving these problems.

A number of people are ending up at my blog by searching for info about the Reconciliation Statue- and all I have posted is the press release from before the event. So I’ve rounded up all the info I can find about it on the web and I’m putting it all together.

First, my brief relections:

The unveiling ceremony last Friday was a great event. A plethora of politicians showed up, as well as an estimated 5,000 “regular” folks like me. Tim Kaine, Bobby Scott, Bill Pantele, & Delores McQuinn all spoke, as did many other city leaders. A representative from Liverpool spoke as did the ambassador of Benin. Oddly overlooked was the sculptor, who was present, but not acknowledged at all. I won’t speculate on the reasons (although I have my theories…) Also notably absent was Mayor Wilder, who apparently was fundraising for his own project, the National Slavery Museum being built in Fredericksburg.

The statue is 2 people embracing, with panels designed by school children along the bottom. (A link to some photos is below.) The plaza where the statue is sited is triangle shaped, representing the slave-trading triangle of Europe, Africa, and the New World. There’s also a very nice stone slab with water cascading over it (symbolizing the middle passage and the river?) with these words carved into it:

THE TRIANGLE

Liverpool, England
The Benin Region of West Africa
Richmond, Virginia

During the 18th Century, these three places reflected on of the well-known triangles in the trade of enslaved Africans.

Men, women and children were captured in West and Central Africa and transported from Benin and other countries. They were chained, herded, loaded on ships built in England and transported through the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage.

They were imported and exported in Richmond, Virginia and sold in other American cities. Their forced labor laid the economic foundation of this nation.

I think it’s a great moment for Richmond that we can finally start to both be honest about our past and make symbolic public expresions of hope for a better future. But as several speakers said, it’s just a statue- the hard work to make the statue’s symbolism become a reality belongs to us. And, as a bonus, I think the statue looks nice too.

Here’s info from elsewhere on the web:

Photos: TD photos of the statue and the unveiling ceremony.
I may get around to posting my own photos some day.

Official Webpage: This seems to be a semi-official page about the project. The site’s still under construction, though it has some good background info on the project already up.
http://www.reconciliationtriangle.org/

Artist’s Webpage: The artist who designed the statue, Stephen Broadbent, has done a tremendous amount of public art in his native England. His webpage details many of his projects, including some background on the statue now in Richmond.

Sponsoring Groups: The groups which made the statue possible include the Richmond Slave Trail Commission (with no web page I could find), Hope in the Cities (which is part of a larger, global non-profit called Initiatives of Change), and Richmond Hill (an ecumenical, inter-racial Christian community that runs a retreat center and prays for the city 3 times daily).
Here’s a reflection from a Liverpool member of Hope in the Cities.

International Coverage: If you want to see how the story’s playing out in the national and international news, here’s a few sources:

WTOP radio, D.C.
The International Herald Tribune
Canoe- Canadian News
At the unveiling I met a photographer from Ebony, a reporter from Jet, and a photographer from Liverpool. None have posted stories yet that I could find, I’ll update in the comments section if/when they do.

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