The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Stadium Developers Threaten Historic Slave-Trade Site

by Catherine Komp

Richmond, Virginia residents fight to preserve a vibrant neighborhood as Global Development and Lehman Brothers look to hang a commercial shadow over or bury critical pieces of African American history.
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Richmond, VA; Aug. 12, 2005 – 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.

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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).

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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.

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.

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.

Shockoe Bottom

[PHOTO: Shockoe bottom neighborhood. (© Kim Chen, rights reserved)]

The involvement of Lehman Brothers is bringing present-day inequality into play.

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.

Many streets bear visual reminders of defeated Civil War leaders.

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.

Historic building in Shockoe Bottom, considered for demolition, near area Global Development wants t

[PHOTO: View of Main Street Station and Loving's Produce in the top center of photo, and the former site of Lumpkin's Jail. (© Kim Chen, rights reserved)]

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.

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.

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.

historic building shockoe bottom

PHOTO: Historic building in Shockoe Bottom, considered for demolition, near area Global Development wants to build the stadium and "market village." (© Kim Chen, rights reserved)]

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."

Dotts and other researchers have discovered that the Shockoe Bottom area is teeming with links to the city’s African-American past.

"We need a full-scale archeological survey to locate physical remains, and to honor the burial ground," said Dotts. "I don’t think you can tell a comprehensive history of one of America’s most historic cities if you forever change the landscape of the earliest, oldest, and most significant neighborhoods."

After Dotts learned about Global Development’s plan for Shockoe Bottom, she began organizing to stop it. "When you have sites of this importance, the idea of a large scale entertainment venue is incompatible. We wouldn’t consider putting a stadium next to a holocaust site, so I can’t fathom we’d do this in Richmond."

A Direct Connection to the Bottom

Another Richmond resident fighting the stadium is Ana Edwards. Before she moved to Richmond more than two decades ago, Edwards had heard that one of her ancestors was sold out of the city’s slave market. She later learned from her father that two of her great grandmothers had been sold out of Richmond’s high-trade period, one of whom was said to have been impregnated by her overseer.

That revelation became increasingly important to Edwards, and she began to trace her roots in the city, joining other researchers looking for Richmond’s "invisible past."

Last October, around the same time the stadium proposal was introduced, Edwards was part of a group that succeeded in erecting a highway marker near the slave burial ground to honor the slave rebellion leader Gabriel.

Edwards, a vocal member of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, another group staunchly opposed to a sports complex in Shockoe Bottom, says she feels a deep connection to these sites, especially the burial ground. But she adds that throughout history many were denied this age-old human ritual.

"We hear about black cemeteries and native cemeteries and burial grounds – sacred places that aren’t respected by the conquering peoples and that’s deliberate," Edwards said. "If you conquer, you need to eradicate to establish your culture as dominant. These are the ways in which we have to fight back, and reclaim basic humanity and then cultural relevance in the community."

Though the burial ground on 15th and East Broad is adjacent to, but not directly in, Global Development’s stadium proposal footprint, Edwards says this is the wrong site for an entertainment complex. Despite Global Development’s offers to fund a scholarship and to help build an African-American genealogical center, Edwards said Sacred Ground’s position was firm: the stadium should not be built in Shockoe Bottom.

The community needs to have a voice in projects like this, Edwards said. "It shouldn’t be money and private conversations that determines what happens to public sites that are of importance to people."

Alternative Development for the Bottom

Over the last year, Sacred Ground, ACORN and CORD began collaborating to create an alternative plan for Shockoe Bottom. Kim Chen, who has been working with Dotts to put Richmond’s slave market on the National Historical Registry, formed CORD with Lee Buffington after learning about Global Development’s plans.

Buffington and Chen said their goal in developing the alternative plan was to integrate an acknowledgement of the area’s history with a means of helping to create new small businesses and residences that are appropriate for the neighborhood.

CORD’s plan would construct mixed-use residential, office and retail space, including an inn, a movie house and a school of green building and renovation. It would also improve walkways that connect Shockoe Bottom to a nearby pedestrian path along the city’s riverfront and to adjacent downtown districts. The plan also features a genealogical center, a guided slave trail, a recreation of Lumpkin’s jail, a site for the Winfree slave cottage, and, at the slave burial ground, an amphitheater, green space and a reflective.

Lehman Brothers Profits

For many months, the Richmond stadium proposal was hardly more than a distant vision of little-known developers, and some city officials started to question their commitment to the project. But this past June, Global Development principal Kissler announced that he had secured $50 million in funding from Lehman Brothers, a global investment firm that controls assets in excess of $136 billion as of November 2004. In local press reports, city leaders, including Mayor Wilder, expressed renewed optimism about the project.

But the 155-year-old company might have to explain its reputation, especially to community members determined to see Shockoe Bottom development incorporate elements of the city’s history.

Lehman Brothers is a defendant in a class action reparations lawsuit against 17 corporations accused of profiting from the slave trade or with slave labor. The case was dismissed for a second time this July, but the plaintiffs say they will appeal.

The company admitted in 2003 that the three brothers who founded the company in 1850 purchased one slave and may have owned others, although it has said there was no evidence the slaves were used to make money for the company.

In addition to these revelations, Lehman Brothers is also known as the "fairy godmother" of the private prison industry, according to Bob Libal, co-director of the Not With Our Money Campaign, an organization working to stop prison profiteering.

The company has been involved in several deals to help some of the largest private prison firms pull themselves out of debt and bankruptcy or raise capital, including Cornell Companies Inc., Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.

"At a time when no one else would touch some of these private prison corporations, Lehman Brothers would step in and put its financial clout and reputation on the line," Libal said.

Lehman Brothers’s investments in for-profit prisons is troubling to many because it funds a system that disproportionately incarcerates men of color, continuing a centuries-old pattern of disenfranchising the descendants of slaves. Black men have a better chance of going to prison than to college: one in three will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, compared to one in every 17 white men, despite falling crime rates across the country. Edwards says this trend, and Lehman Brother’s profiteering from it, is appalling.

"The fact that entire economies based upon keeping people in oppressive conditions are being developed and maintained is a very sad, and dangerous, commentary on how little progress has been made in socio-economic development since the end of slavery," Edwards said.

Lehman Brothers has also profited from predatory lending, a practice that largely targets low-income people of color with deceptive loan offers that carry extraordinary interest rates. In 2003, a federal jury found Lehman Brothers liable for 10 percent of $51 million awarded in a predatory lending lawsuit against mortgage company First Alliance Corp.

The Future for Shockoe Bottom

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves who also served as the first elected black governor in US history from 1990 to 1994, has given the Shockoe Bottom Advisory Committee until December to make a recommendation about development proposals. Wilder has expressed support for community involvement in the decision-making process, saying that past projects have failed because the public was not involved.

But Edwards is not overly optimistic about a fair and open forum to vet development ideas and gather community input. "As soon as you know your piece is going to be controversial, you call a public hearing as soon as possible, before anybody can mobilize or organize," Edwards said of the single public hearing held since the stadium proposal was introduced nearly a year ago. "You have [the hearing], and you say you’re going to have more and then that schedule just sort of never really quite happens."

According to Bill Farrar, Wilder’s press secretary, the Mayor does not have any concerns with Global Development Partners "specifically." And, with regard to Lehman Brothers’s controversial history, the mayor’s office does not "have direct knowledge of those supposed involvements."

Whether or not the advisory committee will ultimately have any impact on the final stadium decision remains unclear. But some Richmonders, including Jennie Dotts, hope that city leaders will realize that this is not an "either-or" issue; that either Shockoe Bottom will have a stadium or it will fail to develop.

"History does attract people to the city," said Dotts. "And if you destroy continually the historical fabric, you’re going to lose the very thing that brings people here."

Edwards says the solution is obvious. "If you’re going to look at developing Shockoe Bottom, which is the beginnings of Richmond," she said, "then you’re going to want to pull up this history and make it obvious for the people that are coming here."

If Global Development’s stadium deal does go through, Edwards and Sacred Ground have promised to lead an international economic boycott of the city in 2007 – a year that coincides with the former colony of Virginia’s quadcentennial.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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