African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Stadium Developers Threaten Historic Slave-Trade Site

Richmond, VA, Aug 12 - Nearly 160 years ago, enslaved tobacco worker Henry "Box" Brown watched as white captors sold his family off the slave auction blocks in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom section to a plantation owner from North Carolina. Holding the hand of his shackled wife Nancy, Brown walked with her and their three children for several miles out of the city until they had to say goodbye. Distraught and determined, Brown met a sympathetic white shoemaker named Samuel Smith who, for the price of shipping, nailed Brown into a three by two foot wooden crate labeled "dry goods" and placed him on a northbound train to Philadelphia, and freedom. The site of one of the largest slave markets during the early 19th Century, Shockoe Bottom was the scene of many such stories. But today, community groups that have been working for years to uncover more information about this past are at odds with well-connected developers who want to build a $330 million, state-of-the-art baseball stadium and "market village" in this historically vivid area. "Almost any African American in the US who can trace their heritage to [Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, or Alabama] can trace their heritage back to an auction block in Richmond," said architectural historian Kim Chen of Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (CORD). Slave traffickers sold an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 enslaved Virginians between 1790 and 1859. Groups like CORD want to bring this history to public light. Instead of a sports arena, they envision an Ellis Island for African Americans in Shockoe Bottom: a place for reconciliation where African Americans can trace the lineage of their ancestors and where tribute can be paid to the countless people who helped build this country, but who have never been properly recognized. Past racial injustice is not the only stage upon which the stadium debate is set. The involvement of Lehman Brothers, a 155-year-old investment company that recently pledged tens of millions of dollars to fund the stadium proposal, is bringing present-day inequality into play. The company is already a defendant in a class-action reparations lawsuit filed by descendents of slaves against businesses that profited from slavery. Lehman Brothers has also made millions of dollars from two industries that currently disproportionately harm people of color: private prisons and predatory lending. The "Bottom" Today All streets leading to Shockoe Bottom slope down. Just a few blocks from the famous capital building designed by Thomas Jefferson, the district is in the lowest lying region of the city. Last summer, massive floods destroyed historic buildings, swept away cars, and even led to a few deaths. Some Shockoe businesses have failed to rebuild, and numerous empty storefronts indicate that others may be reluctant to move into the neighborhood until the city finds a solution to the area’s severe drainage problems. But Shockoe Bottom is far from looking abandoned, or even "blighted" as some stadium supporters describe it. The majestic, early-20th-Century Main Street train station is one of the most prominent fixtures in the area, standing just a few dozen feet from the former site of Lumpkin’s jail, called "Devil’s Half-Acre" by the slaves once kept there. Adjacent to that is the 17th Street Farmers Market, where produce, flower and craft vendors display their wares in stalls not far from the old slave auction blocks. Civil War-era buildings and homes, some with slave quarters still attached, now house restaurants, apartments and a recording studio. And along the river are a number of rehabilitated tobacco warehouses and factories where many slaves once worked to buy their way to freedom, buildings now converted into condos and lofts. Global Development’s Plan It is in this history-rich area that Global Development Partners wants to build a multi-million dollar sunken stadium for the minor league Richmond Braves surrounded by a mixed-use development of shops, apartments and office space. The city owns about two acres in the four-block development footprint near 18th and Broad streets. Privately owned businesses, like Loving’s Produce and Weiman’s Bakery – neighborhood fixtures for many decades – own the rest. According to Global Development’s figures, the 1.25 million square feet of mixed-used development would create 6,500 jobs in a "flood-damaged and crime-ridden area." An additional 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use space is part of an ancillary development plan to be completed within five to ten years after the three-year-long stadium project is finished. Global Development principals Timothy Kissler and William Lauterbach have also been pursuing stadium deals in Washington, DC, not far from where their Vienna, Virginia offices are located, bidding on pricey stadium plans for both the Washington Nationals and DC United. The developers have pledged to fund the Richmond project without imposing new taxes on city residents or increasing current tax rates or even diverting existing public funds to pay for construction costs. However, their proposal calls for the city to help finance infrastructure improvements – including what could prove to be a costly overhaul of the drainage system – and to create a tax increment finance district, which would use money from increased property taxes that the new development creates to pay back the developers. The NewStandard requested numerous interviews with Kissler and Lauterbach and was finally directed to pose all inquiries to the Richmond Mayor’s office. In an online summary of the project, Global Development states that another benefit of the $330 million plan is ensuring the Richmond Braves stay in the city. The Braves, owned by Time Warner, have subtly threatened to leave unless a new ballpark is built. Combining History and Development One of the final components of Global Development’s proposal is a scholarship fund for low-income youth living in the surrounding community. But some stadium opponents say this falls far short of compensating the history that would be covered up if Global Development sees its plans to fruition. Richmond's cityscape displays a lop-sided version of its past. Many streets bear visual reminders of defeated Civil War leaders. On the West Side’s Monument Avenue, a statue of former president of the separatist Confederacy Jefferson Davis stands before a towering 67-foot obelisk, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are positioned on broad stone pedestals, perched dozens of feet in the air on their cavalry horses. Along the James River, Civil War widows constructed a 90-foot pyramid out of river granite, at the base of which are buried some 18,000 Confederate soldiers. Leading up to the Civil War, free blacks and slaves in Richmond accounted for nearly 40 percent of the population, contributing in large part to the development of the city as a major industrial and trading center. But it is difficult to find sites that commemorate the area’s black history during this time. After the importation of Africans for slavery was banned in 1808, the system was replaced with the breeding of slaves already on American soil. One of the largest slave export centers in the United States, Richmond created such a profitable enterprise that it generated approximately $4 million dollars per year in slave sales during the 1850s, the equivalent of about $90 million today. "We haven’t even begun to consider the impact of that on growth and development in Richmond," said historical preservationist Jennie Dotts. Dotts is the executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), one of several organizations that have been quietly conducting research for the last five years, trying to uncover the missing pieces of the city’s African-American past. "It’s something we owe them and their descendents, and ourselves, to learn about the city and where it came from." Click on the title for the complete story


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