About the Oscars, Billy Crystal once famously quipped, there’s nothing quite like being in an economic recession, watching millionaires giving each other gold statues. But this year, there was one bright spot from the overindulgent marathon – Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. In it, she conjured the ghost of Patsey, a slave she portrayed in the heartbreaking drama, 12 Years a Slave. She saluted her spirit, saying, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” and later, “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”
So what if all the hundreds of thousands of slaves processed through Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district were brought back to life and could say a word to our Mayor about his recent plans to plop a baseball stadium in the middle of their Devil’s Half Acre?
Mayor Dwight Jones, a graduate of Virginia Union University, which was built on land leased by the widow of Robert Lumpkin, says there’s no need to worry, as the baseball stadium will not be built on Lumpkin’s jail. True enough. According to a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the proposed baseball stadium will cover Goodwin’s jail and many of the ‘trading’ areas that bought and sold humans like so many tobacco shucks in the area. In other words, it won’t be built on Lumpkin’s jail, but on the very jail where the hair-raising story of Solomon Northup originates. Ever defiant, Jones still claims that the baseball stadium, “will in no way impact the sacred ground.”
This, of course, all depends on your definition of ‘impact’ and ‘sacred’ and ‘ground.’
I have to wonder what a reified Solomon Northup would have to say about this word parsing?
Sadly, we live in a culture that tends to honor winning over everything else. Even the arguments about the baseball stadium’s location are carefully couched in the language of economic efficiency, pro or con. As though Richmond’s families and descendants of slaves were no more a factor in this decision than acquiring, by hook or by crook, a suitable number of parking spaces. We like to think of ourselves as a practical people and all practical people know the past is dead. The future insists on primacy, and today is simply a moving dream we must temporarily span. But the past influences the present and the South—in particular, this region of the South—has gone out of its way to revise its history. That’s why all those statues of dead Confederate Generals line Monument Avenue. That’s why Lumpkin’s jail and Goodwin’s jail have laid buried and ignored for the last two centuries. They are unpleasant reminders that the revisionist’s narrative of a heroic Confederacy held in its dark heart some pretty gruesome sins.
So the baseball stadium is really a double threat. It bears all the hallmarks of an economic boondoggle, much like the other boondoggles we’ve seen embraced by the Richmond City government. There’s no reason to believe that a baseball stadium occupied three to four months out of the year will provide more of an economic stimulus to the area than the small businesses already growing there. A new traffic study suggests a stadium in that location will be a logistical nightmare. The promise of state matching funding for the museum and slave trail has evaporated, slashed by Virginia’s state legislature in this year’s state budget. Yet, proponents of this scheme keep insisting this is the ONLY road to development in the bottom. As if development isn’t already occurring, or that the development couldn’t be enhanced with flood mitigation plans that could be done at a fraction of the cost of the full-blown stadium roll out.
In some ways, the proposed stadium in the bottom is an inverse Field of Dreams: build it and they won’t come. The locals will be shut out; and who could imagine that any ghosts arriving from that hallowed ground will be looking for a baseball stadium? Recall that Solomon was an educated black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and processed through Richmond’s ignominious trading centers like a package of Perdue Chicken. He had to hide his education and intellect under threat of physical violence because Southern landowners couldn’t countenance the idea that a black would be educated. They feared education and knowledge as the real threat to their hegemonic control of ‘property’ and wealth. Thus, Solomon didn’t play sports when he was finally rescued from slavery. He wrote a book to preserve his long-buried history. He understood the importance of history –how what has occurred inevitably influences what will occur. The reactionaries that built the Confederate Statues understood the same lesson. A resolution in the Virginia legislature recently memorialized the progenitor of massive resistance, Harry Byrd. He has a statue in front of our state house for much the same reason. Given Virginia’s history in these matters, is it any surprise that no strings were attached as his name was emblazoned across the state? No one needed to build a minor league baseball stadium in a back room deal with developers to gin up the funds to honor him. Wouldn’t it be nice if Solomon Northup, and the millions who passed through Richmond’s slave processing center could finally get the same deal?