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Richmond has finally marked the 2.5 mile Slave Trail that tells the story of slavery and its consequences in Richmond and the U.S. with 17 handsome and instructive markers that make the journey well worth it now, even without a guide.

The trail begins South of the river just west of Ancarrow's Landing

As a Friend of James River Park, where the trail begins, I was with Ralph White, James River Park System park manager, to help unveil the second marker near the old Manchester Docks where Africans centuries ago disembarked from slave ships to find more misery in Virginia.  Later hundreds of thousands were shipped from Richmond, “sold down the river,” when Virginia had excess slaves that the states in the deep South wanted. A small group of us read the litany with him, promising to remember those who had passed through here, denied their dignity and rights, and acknowledge their strength, survival skills, and stories and those of their descendants.

Later at the big ceremony at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail site, where Governor McDonnell, Mayor Jones, Congressman Scott, Delegate and Slave Trail Commission Chair Delores McQuinn and many other dignitaries spoke to a crowd of nearly 1000 people of all ages and complexions, I teared up several times. Once when Claude Perkins, president of Virginia Union University, which rose from an earlier incarnation of a school for free blacks on the same site where the notorious slave jail had been, asked everyone in the audience who ever attended VUU to stand up. Such a proud moment. Goosebumps. I could feel the connections over the centuries vibrating in the air. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. It made it clear that the trail is much longer than two and a half miles and it commemorates much more than slavery.

Just a small part of the assembled crowd

 When the One Voice Chorus sang a spiritual and James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, and I saw so many people singing along, that got me, too, and then when the Mayor let it rip with his Sunday best, I was about ready to sign up for church again.

It was nice to see Del. McQuinn lauded for her tireless work to get this thing going. I wouldn’t bet against her when it comes to future plans she hinted at. Thank goodness one of the last speakers recognized Ralph White, Nathan Burrell, and Peter Bruce for all the work they’ve put in to taking care of the Slave Trail for 18 years with approximately no budget.

Peter Bruce and his helpers have done so much for so long.

Cricket and Ralph White were instrumental in making the trail whole.

They were a huge part of the group who turned what looked like nothing into one of the best somethings Richmond has to offer. I wish that everyone who ever sets foot in Richmond walks this trail. And remember, it’s bad form to complain about ANYTHING on the slave trail. Elegba Folklore Society’s torchlit trail walk will be June 18th this year. Put it on your calendar.

One of the most worthwhile walks you’ll ever take is best done with a guide.  I’ve walked the walk twice now–the first time with a small group of folks on a cold, gray Saturday in February a few years ago with a James River Park System guide and more recently on a hot June night as a part of Elegba Folklore Society\’s Juneteenth celebration with 300 other people. Both walks were moving and enlightening, yet remarkably different experiences given the weather, numbers of people, and the bells and whistles (or rather drums and dances) that Elegba brought to the event.

Elegba Folklore Society during Juneteenth

Sadly, tours of the Richmond Slave Trail come few and far between. If you missed the Juneteenth torchlit walk last month, you get a chance to take a Ralph White-led walk later this month on Saturday, July 24th at 8:30 p.m. Details from Friends of James River Park here.

 

My park-led tour was intimate and somber as it was a small group. After an introduction we walked a section in silence, arms outstretched, hands on the shoulders of the person ahead in a symbolic linking of the chains that bound enslaved people walking to and from the slave markets in Shockoe Bottom. Though slaves were initially brought here from Africa, Richmond’s slave trade peaked after the banning of the international slave trade. By then Virginia had excess slaves and the Deep South wanted them, so Richmond became the hub of the interstate slave trade.  Those of us on the tour had ample opportunity to ask our guide questions and ponder how unsatisfactorily our city and country have grappled with this all too hidden history.

Drumming and dancing and living history were dynamic additions to the torchlit slave trail walk that was the culmination of  the Juneteenth celebration and led by the eloquent Janine Bell. 

Starting out at dusk.

With so many people, q and a was understandably not available, but the dramatic sight of the torches bobbing ahead and across the Mayo Bridge and the sounds of children asking their parents questions added poignancy and energy. When we stopped at the Canal Walk, people filled the large staircase and the plaza below to listen to more fantastic drumming and watch exuberant dancing and re-enactments. I’ve never seen the Canal Walk so alive. 

Now this walk on July 24th won’t feature the drumming and dancing, but it will still be dramatic. Ralph ‘s rumbling voice and the torches will illuminate what’s been hidden too long. If you can’t make it then, at least take a look at the Richmond Slave Trail Guide which is essential for taking this walk along and across the river, starting at Manchester Docks at Ancarrow’s Landing at the end of Maury Street just south and east of downtown. More signs are due along the trail, but when the chance comes for a guided tour, take it.

I’m back!

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