Richmond is a very complicated place. Despite how complex its history, the one thing that is indisputable is that Richmond was once the biggest enslaved African trading industry outside of New Orleans. One can’t begin to part lips to speak on Richmond as a historical city without taking a moment of silence over its role in the Maafa, or African Holocaust. Why Richmond though? What made Richmond such a pivotal place for the traffic of human beings? There is so much to talk about on this topic, for the sake of brevity and your attention span I am going to get straight to the point. Richmond made a name for itself as the market for enslaved Africans.
The earliest sales of kidnapped Africans took place at Manchester Docks in areas such as Rocketts Landing. During the 1700’s the importation of kidnapped Africans was seen as a lucrative business opportunity by British merchants. Once the country broke revolted against Britain in 1775 and gained independence in 1782; the question of whether importing kidnapped Africans from overseas was raised, not from the stance of whether it was morally destitute to keep African people in perpetual servitude – more so if it was financially savvy to keep importing them from overseas. In the North, they built ships to import kidnapped Africans. In Virginia, the argument was raised that if the importation stopped the financial value of the children of kidnapped Africans would rise. The Virginia General Assembly outlawed the importation of kidnapped Africans in 1778. The federal government outlawed the practice 30 years later in 1808.
Virginia saw a vision for African people in the late 1700s and that was as a commodity. The expansion into the lower South gave rise to states such Louisana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. The tobacco that had made the original colonies successful was failing due to depleted soils from over-cultivation of the land. Planters decided to move south. They took the children of kidnapped Africans with them and the interstate slave trade exploded with these migrations due to the ban on importation. Historians theorize that the origin of the term being “sold down the river” has its origins in Virginia, for much of the work in the lower south cotton fields was so intensive. It is estimated that from 1830 to 1860 Virginia sold 300,000 of the progeny of kidnapped Africans into the lower south for perpetual bondage. Wealthy plantation owners took advantage of the ban on importation. Virginia was known as a slave trading state and Richmond was its capital.
By 1845, less than 40 years after the ban on importation of kidnapped Africans – the city of Richmond listed 9 agents associated with the slave trade. By 1860 it listed 18 negro traders, 18 agents, and 33 auctioneers all of whom were in the business of selling enslaved Africans. The Richmond Enquirer reported in 1857 that the receipts for slave auctions in the city totaled $3.5 million dollars. If we calculate for inflation that is the equivalent of $92,000,000 dollars today.
The sale of enslaved Africans was big business. There were large traders, small traders, agents, brokers, jail houses and auctioneers not to mention specialty retail merchants that sold the chains and shackles. You remember the movie Django right? Remember in the opening scene where you saw the shackles on the feet of Django and the rest of the coffle? A coffle was group of slaves that were manacled together and walked to auction for sale while attached to a wagon. Somebody specialized in selling shackles. Somebody specialized in selling clothing for enslaved Africans because when sold at auction they would get a much better price. You had people who sold enslaved African women as sex slaves, domestic servants, concubines, and prostitutes. Businessmen specialized in being bounty hunters or paddy rollers to capture runaway enslaved Africans. There were insurance salesmen who would ensure an enslaved African as someone’s property or as part of their estate. There were ships that were contracted to transport slaves down the river and along the coast lines. Railroads companies were used to do the same. There were ad agencies that advertised the auctions. The physique, specialty, skill, mental ability or training and temperament all played a role in determining price and there were businesses that catalogued and assessed what characteristics an enslaved African had in order to determine how much he or she would be sold for. The purchase and sale of enslaved Africans was interwoven into the very fabric of the city.
Auctions took place in the streets, taverns and hotels of Shockoe Bottom. The most infamous jail was Lumpkins jail – located at 15th street between Franklin and Broad Street. Countless enslaved Africans passed through the jailhouses as they awaited sale. The African Burial Ground on the opposite side is where Africans who died in the jail from diseases, or were too rebellious and were hanged. Free blacks were also buried in the African Burial Ground. Gabriel, an enslaved African who led a rebellion in Richmond, Virginia with a plan and strategy to kidnap the governor and hold him hostage was also hung and it is said he is buried in the African Burial Ground as well. It is only recently within the last 3 years that the African Burial Ground has been recognized by the city officially and there have been no archeological studies on the site to determine the size and scope of this mass grave.
Each time I walk in Shockoe Bottom, when I walk past the farmers market on 17th Street – when my feet hit those cobble stones, I think to myself these are the same cobblestones my ancestors feet walked on in shackles to be sold to the highest bidder. I walk past restaurants and clubs and think to myself – these places of entertainment and food were once boudoirs and auction houses. I visited a similar farmers market in London England that had the same exact cobblestones and design as Shockoe Bottom. The offices used to hold businesses that made their profit on the backs of my ancestors, for I am the progeny of enslaved Africans – living in Richmond Virginia. Slavery was an international business that localized itself in the states particularly Richmond ,VA to maximize its profit margin. Each time I pick up a magazine that promotes Richmond as a historic city – I crack a half smile – understanding that the whole story is hardly ever told. When I hear about plans to rebrand the city – that gloss over one of the most important aspects of the cities past – I say a silent prayer that one day we will realize we can’t run from this history; it lives with us to this day. When I think about the systemic poverty in the city, the disparity between those who have and those who have not – I remember that the roots of that disparity were created right here in Richmond, Virginia.