Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

I grew up in a military family and joined the Air Force in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It was there that I became a peace activist.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Remembering Richmond's Slave Trade

At the end of the UNAC national peace conference in Richmond, Virginia this past weekend we marched one mile to Shockoe Bottom which was once the epicenter of the US domestic slave trade.

This action was part of events all over the country to remember Juneteenth.  Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the US.  It marks June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Texas first learned of the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, issued two-and-a-half years earlier by President Lincoln.

General Gabriel (as fellow slaves called him), the leader of a slave rebellion in 1800, was hung at the burial ground at Shockoe Bottom along with at least 25 others that supported the insurrection. 

Between 1830-1860 Shockoe Bottom was the leading center for domestic slave trading and several hundred thousand slaves that were 'bred in the US' (plantations forced enslaved women and men to produce children for sale) were sold to plantations throughout the deep south. Gabriel's son - who was born in Alabama or Kentucky (when Gabriel's pregnant widow was sold out of state) - was raised like a horse to be a 'stud' and may have been forced to father as many as 30 children most of whom were sold away.

The legal transatlantic importation of slaves ended in 1808 and very quickly the profits and volume of the domestic trade grew and continued to grow to its height in the 1850s, almost unabated even through the Civil War, only ending (in Richmond) on April 2, 1865, when Federal troops arrived.

In recent years Richmond activists have been campaigning to turn Shockoe Bottom into a memorial.  The city has had other plans for the area which have included a baseball field, hotel, shops, and condos.

Ana Edwards local leader of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project says, "We need to deal with this history. Not only do we then get to honor the people who came before us, but we also get to understand them and ourselves. If we don't bring this history back, Richmond will always struggle through this identity crisis that it has."

Ana Edwards (right) leads the march to Shockoe Bottom carrying a banner with the 1800 slave rebellion cry.  She was joined by Lynetta Thompson (left) past President of the Richmond NAACP.

In 2009, archaeologists found a jail, The Robert Lumpkin Slave Jail in Shockoe Bottom district. It was nicknamed “The Devil’s Half Acre.” It was known as one of the cruelest, most inhumane jails in the country. Lumpkin, a “bully trader” fathered five children with a former slave named Mary who he married and thus left her his property when he died. Mary leased some of the buildings on the site to a northern minister to start a school that later moved and eventually became Virginia Union University.

Our visit to Shockoe Bottom was a great ending to the conference and reminds us all that the legacy of slavery still leaves harsh marks on America's consciousness.  Racism is still alive and flourishing across the land and campaigns like the one to memorialize Shockoe Bottom should be supported now more than ever.


PS Thanks to Ana Edwards for correcting some of my mistakes in the first edition of this post and offering a much broader picture of the history of Shockoe Bottom.


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