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Highlighting Minority Voices in Economic and Community Impact Studies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Center for Public Policy at VCU Wilder School
September 28, 2019

History is often told from the perspective of the majority, leaving many of the stories of minorities untold and forgotten. It wasn’t until recently that initiatives have been put forward to examine United States history in its entirety rather than through a filtered lens. To represent the stories of those neglected, communities are investing in the preservation and economic development of areas with historical significance, particularly for the stories of African American history. One of the locations that has recently emerged as a focus of historical revitalization is Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia. With the assistance of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA), located within the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, several community organizations are beginning to plan the creation of a commemorative memorial campus and museum in Historical Shockoe Bottom.

Shockoe Bottom, a district in Richmond, Virginia, was once the second-largest slave-trading district in the nation. The primary district in Shockoe Bottom was defined by Main and Marshall Streets, while 14th and 19th Streets became the greatest wealth-producing areas in Virginia and one of the greatest in the South. This area also housed some of the most formative sites in Shockoe Bottom and the slave trade. Lumpkin’s Jail is one of the best-known slave-holding establishments; its informal title of The Devil’s Half Acre reflects the brutality of the events that took place there. Behind Lumpkin’s Jail rests the African Burial Ground, a 32-block footprint first laid out in 1737 by William Mayo. At the time, this parcel of land was known as the Burial Ground for Negroes and was the first municipal cemetery open to the burials of black people. The African Burial Ground was active from before 1750 through 1816 and held gallows where many slaves were hanged, including the 24-year old enslaved blacksmith Gabriel. Gabriel, known at the time as General Gabriel, was executed on October 10, 1800, and was the principal organizer and strategist of the 1800 slave rebellion known as Gabriel’s Rebellion or Gabriel’s Conspiracy. Following its abandonment in 1816, the African Burial Ground was long forgotten and by 1970, it had been turned into a parking lot for Virginia Commonwealth University Health students and faculty.

2014 named Shockoe Bottom one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. A few years prior, there was an initiative to transform the area into a commercial center with a baseball stadium, hotel and grocery store. Because of this, community members and Richmond historical organizations began examining methods of revitalizing the area while simultaneously acknowledging its past. To see how this would impact the community and stimulate the economy for the area, the CURA team led an economic and community impact study to measure how developing the area into a memorial campus would benefit the area through a mixture of case studies and focus groups with community members, business owners, city officials and descendants of the slave population.

From the focus groups, several themes emerged stemming from the primary idea of transformation. No matter the group each individual belonged to, it was a shared belief amongst those within the focus group that the historical and modern transformation of the vacant space feeds into the past and future narratives of the space and how Shockoe Bottom is received within the City of Richmond. Because of these two narratives existing in the same space, it was a significant area of focus to acknowledge designing the space in a way that addresses both. A particular method of accomplishing this was prevalent within CURA’s case study; through the engagement of the descendant community throughout the design process. Involving the African American community in the design and construction of the memorial park was also a theme within the focus groups. This would assist in connecting the roots of Shockoe Bottom’s history to representative modern architecture and culture.

Within their economic impact study of the potential campus and museum, CURA found that these entities would not only structurally transform the area, but also lead to an economic transformation. Economic modeling suggests the two phases of construction—a campus and a museum—would generate $46.6 million in total economic activity in Richmond, supporting 255 jobs. However, these are one-time impacts, and the jobs would be tied closely to construction. The truly transformative and lasting impacts stem from both operations and visitor spending associated with the memorial campus and museum. Each $1.00 of operations spending in both phases of the project would generate an additional $0.68 of economic activity in the local economy annually, and spending associated with museum visitors could generate as much as $28.4 million of total economic activity in the city, supporting more than 300 jobs.

Through CURA’s economic and community impact study, the team found that the construction of a memorial campus and museum to the Shockoe Bottom slaving district would not only provide economic benefits, but also bring voice to the stories that have been silenced for too long.

Author: The Center for Public Policy aims to advance research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. We provide diverse public-facing services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @CPPatVCU



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