There might be no better place to experience the arc of American History.
The history of Richmond, Virginia — from the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the American Civil War and the toppling of the Confederate Statues on Monument Avenue — encapsulates the history of the nation itself — arguably, like no other city in the United States.
1619: America joins the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Virginia initiated the enslavement of Africans in England’s American Colonies. In August 1619, the first imprisoned Africans arrived at Virginia’s port on the Chesapeake Bay, purchased by Virginia’s governor. In the same year, 650 indentured servants, many of them kidnapped, arrived from England. Africans and English shared bondage in Virginia for the first thirty years.
1650: Servant or Slave?
By 1650, law and practice began to make clear distinctions between English “servants” and African “slaves.”
1676: Enslaved African Labor on the Rise
After a mixed army of white and black servants and slaves tried to overthrow the colonial government in 1676 in what is known as Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia’s plantation owners switched almost entirely to enslaved African labor and British ships established their own distinctive African slave trade.
1705: The Difference between Servants and Slaves
By 1705, the Virginia Slave Codes gave categorical privileges to “white” servants, and specifically denied them to “Negro slaves.” The most important distinction was that “Negroes” and their children were assumed to be enslaved for life, unless intentionally freed.
1700-1774: 114,000 Africans deported to Richmond Area
Between 1700 and 1774, as the plantations prospered on the James River east of Richmond, 114,000 African men, women, and children were forcibly emigrated to Virginia. In the last 30 years, most of those disembarked at docks near Richmond.
1770’s and 1780’s: Drafting the Declaration of Independence
In the 1770’s and 1780’s many of the leaders of America’s half-revolution came from Virginia and met to plan their steps in Richmond. James Madison, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, George Mason, George Wythe – these all met frequently in Richmond’s new Capitol building which Jefferson had designed after a Roman temple in France. They helped to write the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But their half-revolution stopped short of abolishing Virginia’s race-based slave system.
1800: Gabriel’s Rebellion
Two years after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, enslaved Africans rebelled in Haiti. Just nine years later, in 1800, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel organized an army that almost succeeded in taking over Richmond. His attempt to complete the American revolution was foiled by an all-night rainstorm that washed out bridges. He and his fellow conspirators were betrayed and hanged – Gabriel just down the hill from Jefferson’s Capitol.
1812: Second War of Independence
As the Constitution was being ratified and the English were invading Virginia in the War of 1812, Virginia’s plantation system was collapsing. Richmond and Tidewater Virginia were half white and half black, half free and half enslaved. Slave owners “rented” their people to work in Richmond’s new tobacco, iron, and flour factories, and on Richmond’s docks in the guano trade. They tried to force free Africans to go to a new colony in Liberia via the American Colonization Society. But most insidiously, they developed a new domestic slave trade.
1830-1860: Rise of the Domestic Slave Trade
Between 1830 and 1860, Richmond slave merchants sold at least 300,000 enslaved persons of African descent “downriver” to the cotton and sugar work camps of the Deep South. Richmond became the largest intrastate slave market on the East Coast. The market was concentrated in Shockoe Valley, just down the hill from the Capitol, visible from the Governor’s bedroom window.
1844-1861: The Slave Jails of Shockoe Bottom
Below the Governor’s Mansion, Robert Lumpkin developed a “slave jail” holding as many as 100 persons for sale, torture, or transport. At least four other major slave jails developed in the swamps of what was known as Shockoe “Bottom,” along with an entire industry of brokers, clothiers, bankers and others supporting the horrible trade. Richmond’s Slave Market came to represent half the city’s economy. Then Virginia left the Union and the Confederate Government took over Jefferson’s Capitol.
1861-1865: American Civil War
Finally, in 1865, as Union troops surrounded Richmond, Confederate troops fled the city, setting fire to its munitions and liquor warehouses. People were drinking on their hands and knees as the city burned. The United States Colored Troops raced into the city and threw open the doors of Lumpkin’s Jail, to free the prisoners.
Mary Lumpkin, the mother of Robert Lumpkin’s children, inherited the jail, known as the “Devil’s Half Acre,” from the slave dealer. In 1867 she rented the building to be a school for freedmen, which led to the founding of what is now Virginia Union University.
1865-1878: Reconstruction Era
Following the defeat of the Confederacy, the First African Baptist Church, located at 13th and Broad Streets, was the center of civic life. Just up the hill, in the state Capitol, a Federally initiated Convention including 24 African-American delegates ratified a new state Constitution in 1878.
1902: Virginia’s Jim Crow Constitution
But Richmond’s attempt at a racially progressive society was short-lived. Almost immediately reactionary whites segregated most black voters into a single residential district known as Jackson Ward. By 1902 Virginia adopted a new, “Jim Crow” Constitution which restricted black voting and demanded racial segregation in nearly all aspects of civic and economic life. Housing was segregated and neighborhoods red-lined. Race was strictly defined and intermarriage prohibited.
1900’s-1940’s: The Birth of Jackson Ward
Richmond’s African-American community reacted to Jim Crow by establishing what was virtually a “separate city” in Jackson Ward. Crusading Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, and groundbreaking bank president Maggie Lena Walker were but a few of the growing corps of business leaders, doctors, nurses, teachers, and lawyers who built a separate society in the northern half of downtown.
1950’s: Building Expressways through Richmond’s Black Neighborhoods
As Virginia’s black lawyers neared victory fighting segregation in the Federal courts, the Virginia General Assembly and white business leaders destroyed most of Jackson Ward and nearly every other black community in Richmond, driving two major expressways and other four-lane industrial boulevards through homes and playgrounds. The black business community was crippled.
1951: Barbara Johns vs. School Segregation
Just an hour from the city, in 1951, Virginia high school student Barbara Johns led her classmates in a successful suit for integrated schools in Prince Edward County which was a part of the Supreme Court’s historic Brown decision. Virginia’s Governor and General Assembly retaliated by requiring any jurisdiction ordered to integrate to close their schools, an effort they called Massive Resistance.
1962: First Black Students enter Richmond’s all-white schools
Federal courts intervened again to strike down the latest ploy of the dominant white establishment. In 1962, African American students first entered Richmond’s formerly all-white schools.
1970: Richmond’s school system to become integrated
When a Federal court ordered all of Richmond’s school system to be totally integrated in 1970, Virginia’s General Assembly retaliated by prohibiting Richmond from annexing any more territory, and from consolidating its schools with the surrounding counties.
1977: Richmond’s First African American Mayor
The result was the election of the first African American mayor in the former capital of slavery and Confederacy, Henry L. Marsh. In retaliation, the General Assembly ratified a pattern of racial and economic imbalance between the central city and the surrounding counties which persists today.
1990: First elected African American Governor of Virginia
African American citizens continued taking leadership positions that were formerly reserved to the white population. In 1990 Virginia inaugurated the first elected African American Governor in the nation. A year later, Virginia’s Black History Museum first opened to the public.
2007: Richmond’s Reconciliation Statue
Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia and the Ambassador of Benin began the new era of truth-telling in 2007 by dedicating the Reconciliation Statue on the Slave Trail in Shockoe. Identical to two other statues – one in Benin and one in Liverpool – it identifies the triangular slave trade between England, Africa, and America. It was the first above-ground acknowledgement in Richmond that there had ever been enslavement or a slave market in Virginia. Virginia’s General Assembly followed the dedication with a resolution acknowledging its full endorsement of race-based slavery and apologizing for its part in the institution.
2020’s: A Time of Reckoning
Many scars of poverty and racism remain. But much has changed. 2020 added another point on the timeline of this arc as protests, initially national in nature, moved local public opinion to permit removal of the many monuments on their namesake avenue, then advancing removal across the city. In 2022, all of the statues of Confederate generals on Monument Avenue have been removed.
Jackson Ward is in significant revival. Memorials have been erected to Maggie Lena Walker, Barbara Johns, and Arthur Ashe. And the entire city has finally begun to learn of the existence of Richmond’s enormous Slave Market, a story which had been hidden from public knowledge for 140 years. The excavation of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, the identification of the African Burial Ground, the public acknowledgement of Gabriel’s Hanging, the establishment of the Slave Trail of historic sites, and the planning of a National Slavery Museum in Shockoe Bottom are signs of the new commitment of Richmond’s emergent generations to tell the whole story of Virginia and, by extension, our nation.
Given this history, Richmond offers a unique potential to serve as a conduit for those unaware of the truth, those scarred by it, and those who deny it to engage in an honest conversation about the past and the inequities that divide us today.
In doing so, Richmond could become a model for the rest of the country of how a deeper understanding of our shared past leads the way to compassion, redemption, justice, and reconciliation.