Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Nottingham's online course, Ending Slavery: Strategies for Contemporary Global Abolition. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds We’re here today to discuss the relationship between public history and activism within the context of slavery. And slavery has had a relatively controversial public history. In some instances, it’s been remembered. And in some instances, it’s been forgotten. And the moments at which it’s been remembered and it’s been forgotten are very, very different, and often very telling of the ways in which we think about ideas about national identity, ideas around things like contemporary slavery, and ideas about race. Sometimes we’re silent. Sometimes we remember. And it’s some of those things that we have to navigate. And we have been helped to do so by educational activists, public historians, and academics.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds I’m joined here today by Professor Monti Datta from the University of Richmond. We’ve worked together on some of these issues. I was wondering, Monti, if you could tell us a little bit more about the history of slavery, including its public history in Richmond, in Virginia? Certainly.

Skip to 1 minute and 14 seconds The history and legacy of slavery in Virginia is deep and complicated. Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, of the Confederate States of America, which had seceded from the United States. It was really the city of Richmond where the battle for the hearts and minds of keeping slavery was fought.

Skip to 1 minute and 41 seconds Prior to the Civil War, about a quarter of Virginians had owned slaves. And a tremendous amount of money had been earned from the buying and selling of human beings in Richmond, Virginia. There’s a section of the city of Richmond called Shockoe Bottom or Shockoe Slip, where an estimated 300,000 African-Americans were sold domestically in our slave trade. For that reason, Shockoe Bottom was the Wall Street of Richmond. A lot of wealth was accumulated by families and different stakeholders who profited handsomely from slavery. The challenge of looking at slavery today in Richmond is there are essentially what I’d call two competing narratives in our public history. One narrative is what I call the “Monument Avenue Narrative.”

Skip to 2 minutes and 36 seconds Monument Avenue is about a two-mile boulevard in Richmond, Virginia, in which there are large, stone edifices, these huge statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and other soldiers who fought to defend slavery and preserve the Confederate States of America. The statue of Robert E. Lee, who was the general of the Confederate States, the great, military tactician, stands about 60 foot high. It’s the largest public statue in the city of Richmond. So you have a part of the city that, historically, wants to enshrine, and honor, and remember this legacy of having fought to defend the Confederacy.

Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds On the other hand, a growing number of activists, over the past 20 years or so, have wanted to develop a narrative of public history about Shockoe Bottom and the Richmond Slave Trail. The slave trail is roughly a two-mile stretch of land that goes from the James River, the Manchester Docks, all the way to a burial ground where African-Americans were laid to rest during the days of slavery. Different activists have quietly and painstakingly tried to develop a conversation of remembering this space where until today, however, I think the Monument Avenue narrative is still more enshrined. And can you tell me about what kinds of work those activists have done?

Skip to 4 minutes and 23 seconds And what kind of problems, or barriers that they’ve encountered when they’ve been attempting to bring about a change in the narrative of Richmond’s local history? I think there are two main challenges. The first challenge is really logistical. How do you curate this space that has been long forgotten in the city of Richmond? And to give you an example of this first challenge, the United States has a vast interstate highway system that connects all of our nation’s roads. You can drive from Washington DC to California, back and forth. But a great deal of this interstate highway system actually covers part of the Richmond Slave Trail, or what used to be the slave trail.

Skip to 5 minutes and 12 seconds You’ve literally got concrete poured over the space where slaves were brought from the Manchester Docks to where they were housed before and after auction. The challenge is how do you physically curate this space that, in a way, doesn’t exist anymore? There are problems of developing signage, of placards, of literally digging the archaeological sites and uncovering the bones, or historic artifacts of these things that are literally long forgotten. The second challenge in this public history is how do you fashion a narrative that meets the diverse interests of stakeholders around the city, some of whom may not care about remembering slavery? Or other stakeholders who might care about economic revitalisation of the city?

Skip to 6 minutes and 5 seconds As an example of that, the current mayor of Richmond has been very active in leading a proposal to build a baseball stadium in downtown Richmond right by the Slave Trail that, if built, would literally cover up more of these unexplored archaeological sites. So the challenge is not an easy one. And for about the past few decades, different stakeholders have struggled with the curation and actual exploration of how much of the space should be dedicated and set aside for memorialization, in spite of using it, or instead of using it, for economic development.

Skip to 6 minutes and 48 seconds It’s been a site that has provoked a degree of controversy in the city, both from people who want to explore and represent the history, and from people who want to see economic development in the present. Do you think that public history, particularly the public history of slavery in Richmond, is something that can bring communities together to heal? Or is it essentially something that will always bring conflict? Do you see a way through, in terms of the work that activists and educators can do, to bring a sense of healing in the city? I think this is a matter of faith and hoping that the process of uncovering the past and discussing the past can lead to some sort of restorative justice.

Skip to 7 minutes and 41 seconds You’ve got generations of African-Americans who still live in Richmond, who are descended from slaves. These people tend to be part of the economically depressed in the city. And the hope is that by talking about slavery, and by honoring the past of what happened in an open, transparent way, there can be more healing. Kate, one thing that I’ve thought about, and I am thinking about the visit that you took along with me to the Richmond Slave Trail, is looking at the role of these heritage trails. I’ve only visited the Slave Trail. But I know you’ve visited other heritage trails here, also in the UK. And I’m wondering if there are any lessons we can learn about previous experiences with heritage trails?

Skip to 8 minutes and 33 seconds Or compared to looking at the Richmond Slave Trail, what have you seen that might be different or similar to other heritage trails and the healing they have promoted? I think the heritage trails that I’ve been involved with, or have walked myself in the UK, really, in comparison with the US, draw a sense of difference, in terms of the way that slavery figures within the stories we tell ourselves about our nation’s history. Many of the slavery heritage trails that I’ve walked in the UK were developed as a result of the 2007 commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade. And I think what was very successful about them was that they engaged with local history.

Skip to 9 minutes and 25 seconds They made slavery something that was noble and understandable to local communities. They stopped thinking about it as something that happened simply in the Caribbean. And they began to think about the ways in which it had impacted on the development of the local spaces and sites that they inhabited themselves. And I think that brought about a degree of critical reflection about how we think about local identity, national identity, the ways in which our histories interconnect with global histories. I think that’s one of the powers of public history is to challenge narratives about what we think about people and place, and in many ways, to offer a different perspective on what the present and the future might offer, as well.

Skip to 10 minutes and 22 seconds As I think about the public history around the Richmond Slave Trail, I’m reminded of something that I heard recently, where I was attending a workshop. And there was the descendant of a slaveholder from the United States. He read a poem. And in this poem, he was acknowledging the shame that is necessary to be felt to be experienced in order to move through the healing process. I’m wondering, in your looking at heritage trails in the UK, how do you embrace the shame? This is something I don’t know how Richmonders can do in a way to fully move forward. I think it’s a really interesting question how to negotiate a history that is shameful.

Skip to 11 minutes and 18 seconds I think it’s a question that many, many different nations have to engage with for a variety of different reasons. I was speaking to a colleague who works on the history of slavery in Liverpool and the way that it’s remembered there. And she has quoted from a politician who was around at the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, who spoke about Liverpool’s proud and shameful eminence, a sense that it was a city that became great on the back of slavery and the slave trade. And how do you negotiate that duality, that sense of both pride, but also shame? I think it’s something that has to be done on an individual basis.

Skip to 12 minutes and 6 seconds I think that for people who were actively involved in slave ownership, it’s something that families have had to come to terms with. I think, collectively, as a nation that’s benefited from the profits of slavery, it’s also something that we have to negotiate within our sense of self as a nation. I think, in some of my experiences when talking to the descendants of enslaved people, I’ve also come across the attitude that this is a shameful part of their history. And I think something needs to be done to address that. I think that the history needs to be reclaimed.

Skip to 12 minutes and 46 seconds I think we can do that by making sure that we engage with histories of resistance, and rebellion, of agency, of making people aware of the massively important role played by enslaved people in the dismantling of the system. And I think there also needs to be a realization that these are the histories that bind us together, for good or for bad. And that it’s only really through dialogue and education that we can begin to understand historically what our relationship is, and to build on a sense that something better can be done for the future and for the present.

Skip to 13 minutes and 33 seconds I think I’d like to end with thinking about perhaps the role of education, and what that might do, potentially, in terms of helping our young people to think through some of these complicated ideas about slavery, public history, collective memory, national identity, and the ways in which these are, I think, essentially, the ties that bind us.

Public History Activism

Dr. Katie Donington and Richmond-based professor Dr. Monti Datta have been working together on a new project about the Richmond Slave Trail in Virginia.

Richmond is at the heart of the “history corridor” of the east coast of America. Proud of its history as a birthplace of democracy, a more recent telling of the story has acknowledged that Richmond was also second only to New Orleans in the domestic slave trade market. In the first half of the 19th century as many as 300,000 people were sold in the city’s auction houses and transported to plantations in the Deep South. The city continues to grapple with the legacy of its past.

In 1996 the City of Richmond created a Slave Trail Commission. In 1999 apologies for slavery were issued by Liverpool City Council, UK, and President Kerekou of Benin, West Africa. In 2007 the Virginia General Assembly issued a resolution of “profound regret” for slavery and 5000 people gathered to see the Reconciliation Statue unveiled in the heart of the city’s commercial district at the site of Richmond’s slave markets. And in 2011 the city unveiled 17 Richmond Slave Trail Markers that help tell the story of Richmond’s role in slavery.

In this film, Monti and Kate discuss the Richmond Slave Trail, how acknowledging history can be a form of restorative justice, and how public history more broadly connects to contemporary activism on national issues.

After watching the film, you can visit the map of the trail. Tell us in the comments what you think of the whole concept of slavery walking tours. Please share as well any slavery trails you know about. For example, there are trails in Bristol, in London, in New York and in Charleston. But where are the others? Are there any in Europe, or elsewhere in the US and the UK? What about the Caribbean and South America? If you don’t know about other slavery trails and can’t find others online, tell us about other kinds of history trails that explore difficult pasts. What is their purpose and what do they bring to our understanding of history that books cannot?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Ending Slavery: Strategies for Contemporary Global Abolition

The University of Nottingham