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Richmond Mayor Seeks to Gentrify Along Slave Burial Ground

Aaron Patrick Flanagan • Nov 21, 2013

Mayor Dwight Jones (Photo accessed via Creative Commons)

During the opening couple lines of his song “Prosser’s Gabriel,” Tim Barry sings, “Does anyone know the name Gabriel Prosser? My conscience says he’s the one that history missed.” As something of memorializing, Barry’s song seeks to mark absences and voids that cannot ever be fully rectified: chronicling the slave revolt Gabriel led in Richmond in 1800, introducing his name and legacy to listeners, and mentioning that, along with perhaps hundreds of others, Gabriel was buried beneath a parking lot owned by Virginia Commonwealth University.

Since his writing of the song, VCU capitulated, and starting in 2011, the asphalt parking lot was torn up, more than three years after the site’s discovery. This gesture was not the result of sheer bureaucratic goodwill, though, as a long campaign by coalitions and organizations like the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, a social justice group that has “worked to maintain Richmond’s black history,” was persistently undertaken.

In May 2011, groups like the Defenders began declaring victory in the broader struggle to preserve the sacred nature of the site, part of which I-95 is already built over. Recently, though, these groups have started sounding the alarm: this slave burial ground, which lies in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, is now being targeted for gentrification.

Reports are now surfacing beyond the city of Mayor Dwight Jones, “a black minister” as some reporters have pained to underscore, and his plan to build a minor league baseball stadium alongside the cemetery, which will be accompanied by a proposed $30 million memorial to those buried there. Many reporters have underscored the economic plight of residents in the area, where about 25% are unemployed, and how the jobs that will be created justifies the stadium’s construction, all of which are vital considerations. That said, a recent survey of the city’s residents reflects that nearly 70% would rather the stadium be built nearer the existing stadium.

Mayor Jones, however, seems determined to ignore the people’s will.

His determination gives way to hypocrisy when one examines his comments, as reported on May 24, 2011. That day, Jones took part in a photo-opportunity, and was captured alongside other city officials digging up the first chunks of VCU’s former parking lot. On the day, he said, “From this point on the asphalt will be removed […] We’re going to sod it. We’re going to seed it. It’s going to become a very beautiful memorial place, a garden, a place of reflection.”

Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, head of a group that also pressured for the removal of the lot, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, shared such hopes two weeks prior to that photo-op when she noted the importance of commemorating the burial site, “It symbolizes perseverance and fortitude of people who were determined, even though they were considered less than or almost nonexistent other than for labor and economic purposes.” McQuinn sadly also shares in Jones’ hypocrisy, when at a recent public meeting to announce the gentrification of the site she stepped forward and offered the plan her blessing.

Hundreds of years later, it seems the bodies of these slaves are yet again being regarded as “almost nonexistent other than” for catalysts stemming from “labor and economic purposes.”

This ball park’s development, despite the economic argument, should be discussed for what it is: gentrification. And gentrification always levels racial, class, and/or socio-historic dismissals against the communities its proponents willfully erase. Worse even, couching the gentrification of this site in an economic argument only further exploits the racial history of our country, and Richmond as a major hub of the slave trade, in a manner that could divide and pit working-class people against one another. This is especially needless when the monument and the stadium can be built separately.

Furthermore, the potential building of this park, even alongside a monument that it will certainly distract from, will only impede the healing process that the descendants of those buried have so long been denied. It’s disgraceful that the building of such a monument should be offered up as some sort of unspoken compromise. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Jones was speaking of preserving the site as a place for “reflection,” an act from which real healing can seed and spring forth.

In a city littered with imposingly looming monuments to heroes of the Confederacy, the back-handed nature of such a compromise should be obvious. Jones, McQuinn, and others should heed Barry’s admission and reflect upon their own consciences, digging deeper into themselves rather than earth down in Shockoe Bottom; what’s more, they should listen to the people of Richmond who desire the park be built elsewhere.

For more information on the Defenders campaign to halt the stadium’s development, please visit its site and lend your support.

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