Makeshift sign for slave jail

Nearly 20 state lawmakers held an event marking the 400th anniversary of slavery on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at the historic Lumpkin's slave jail site in Richmond. Organizers made makeshift signs directing attendees to the site because there are no signs to direct them there. (Patrick Wilson\Times-Dispatch)

An event marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in Virginia held at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail site in Richmond highlighted a problem: It’s not easy to find the historic site.

“There were individuals who were calling me — ‘how do we get in?’” said state Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who coordinated the event Tuesday to counter the Jamestown festivities that other lawmakers went to commemorating the 400th year of democracy in Virginia. Nearly 20 state lawmakers attended the Richmond event.

On the day of the event, McQuinn directed aides to put up hand-written signs and balloons near entrances to the site so people would know where to go.

The site is located next to Interstate 95 in Shockoe Bottom, a neighborhood now filled with warehouse apartments and restaurants that was once the site of slave jails, holding pens and auction blocks. The Lumpkin’s Slave Jail was known as the “Devil’s Half Acre.”

McQuinn said she called Mayor Levar Stoney’s office this week to say the lack of signs marking the location of the jail needs to be addressed.

What’s complicating the issue, she said, is construction around the glass-encased train shed at Main Street Station. The city finished a renovation of the shed in late 2017 but construction around the site remains messy.

McQuinn, the longtime chairperson of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, said she wants to add signs to the area to direct people to the jail site and also to the slave trail, a self-guided walk that begins in Manchester and explains how Richmond was the largest hub of the slave trade on the East Coast before the Civil War.

Mark Olinger, the director of the city’s Department of Planning & Development Review, said by email that the city is working with a consultant to do the next set of directional signs in Shockoe Bottom, downtown and on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. New pedestrian kiosks to help direct people to the jail site and nearby African burial ground in Shockoe Bottom should hopefully be ready by the end of this year, he said.

Additionally, he said, he’s working on creating signs that will help direct people to the Shockoe Bottom sites while construction is happening.

Community activist Chelsea Higgs Wise, who attended the Tuesday event, said the lack of access and signage for the jail site isn’t a new problem.

“It’s incredibly apparent that creating access to stories of injustices done to those of African ancestry was not a priority for Richmond in the 400th year,” she said. “This space is becoming more inaccessible, and maybe it’s not meant to be found by many people. ... It’s just turning into a parking lot for the train station.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, spoke at the event, which is in her district. She said she agreed the difficulty in finding the jail site is a problem that needs fixing. There is only one way in by car, and for someone who has never been it’s challenging to navigate, she said.

“It is part of a larger problem, though, in that sacred sites related to black history overall, and slavery in particular, have been erased, including this one that for years was covered over by a parking lot,” she said.

City government officials have been talking for a decade about the need to create an African-American heritage site in Shockoe Bottom. In April, Stoney kicked off a new effort to come up with a plan.

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