By Alice Kemp
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Several hundred people gathered Sunday at the site of what was once a slave jail for the unveiling of 17 historical markers documenting Richmond’s harsh past as a center for the slave trade.
Led by state Delegate Delores McQuinn, who chairs the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, the crowd witnessed a historic moment: the unveiling of 17 markers that line the path of the slave trade, from south of the James River to north of Broad Street.
The ceremony took place at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Archeological Site, 1500 E. Franklin St., and involved several public figures, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, Mayor Dwight C. Jones and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott.
Each speaker struck a common theme: America must not forget the past for fear of repeating the same mistakes. The speakers applauded of the Slave Trail Commission and paid homage to those who suffered from the cruel institution of slavery.
“We tell this story so that we and our children can be who we are meant to be,” said Benjamin Campbell, a commission member. “So that this city can in fact be a city of hope for the world.”
Some speakers also said that society had tried to cover up aspects of the slave trade — sometimes literally. Some criticized Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, for paving over a slave burial ground site to make room for a parking lot.
Several people at the ceremony carried signs with such slogans as “VCU: each day you wait, you desecrate! Close the parking lot.”
The crowd applauded McDonnell for including in his budget $3.3 million to purchase the land from VCU. The land will be handed over to the city of Richmond and the Slave Trail Commission for beautification and preservation.
“This was a major accomplishment,” McQuinn said. “I applaud the governor for coming to make this historic property part of our vision for our heritage history.”
The ceremony’s keynote speaker, Mayor Jones, hailed the trail as a beacon for overcoming conflicts and issues. He said people must acknowledge and talk about their differences to move forward.
“We must also accept that we must be comfortable making each other uncomfortable,” Jones said. “It’s OK to talk about where we come from; it’s all right to be able to speak of the differences that we have.”
After the speeches, the procession moved to a small field where the leaders of the unveiled three podiums about marker No. 15: the Lumpkin’s Jail site.
The jail, also known as “the Devil’s Half Acre,” was the largest slave trade site outside of New Orleans; more than 300,000 slaves were held at the Richmond facility.
When the owner, Robert Lumpkin, died, his widow, Mary Lumpkin, a former slave, inherited the estate. In 1867, she leased it to the Rev. Nathaniel Colver, who used the property as a school to educate freed slaves. Virginia Union University evolved from the use of this institute.
The trail is now open to residents and visitors who wish to discover a crucial part of Richmond’s history.