01/20/2015 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Historic Places as Sites of Conscience: Shockoe Bottom's Potential to Change Society

By Rob Nieweg, Field Director, and Brent Leggs, Senior Field Officer

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia convened local leaders and historians at a retreat to weigh in on why Shockoe Bottom matters as a Site of Conscience.

On the third Monday of each January, Americans are called to reflect on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. On this national day of service, we also are encouraged by President Obama to take action to make our nation a better place to live.

The stewards of historic places take action, of course, to document and conserve evidence of the past. They inform and engage visitors, and preserve our shared heritage for future generations. At their best, however, the historic places we work so hard to protect -- places like the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Dr. King's birthplace, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis -- can serve as Sites of Conscience that raise hard questions, spark discussion of contemporary social problems, and inspire us to change society for the better.

Now, we are focusing on another historic and equally worthy place to join the ranks of these nationally significant Sites of Conscience: Shockoe Bottom.

As we've discussed before, this archeological site was historically a place of systematic violence and oppression and is now threatened with the ultimate injustice -- destruction to make way for a minor league baseball stadium.

While today the eight-block site seems little more than parking lots and vacant land, to those who value its underlying heritage and cultural meaning it is sacred space, irrevocably associated with the resistance and resilience of enslaved people in the face of generations of human rights abuses.

In Richmond, a new alliance of social justice activists and historic preservationists has formed to protect Shockoe Bottom against incompatible development. Leadership of the alliance includes Preservation Virginia; Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; and a working group of preservationists from nearby Church Hill.

These allies don't oppose sustainable growth in Shockoe Bottom, and no one wants to maintain the site's current deplorable condition. In fact, many activists support key elements of the City of Richmond's own 2011 Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy, which calls for compatible new construction that is sensitive to the historic context. (Inexplicably, Revitalize RVA ignores the City's 2011 strategy.)

What do activists in Richmond say about Shockoe Bottom's future? The National Trust and Preservation Virginia convened local stakeholders and national experts to discuss exactly that. The following video captures their vision for Shockoe Bottom's future and why it matters as a Site of Conscience. (A full report is also available online.)

If the stadium proposal can be stopped, local stakeholders are calling for comprehensive community engagement to inform an open and inclusive master planning process for Shockoe Bottom. In the meantime, they envision Shockoe Bottom as:
  • a center for educational programming, to acknowledge the historical magnitude and contemporary impacts of slavery;
  • a center for genealogical research, to connect the descendants of enslaved people to their family roots;
  • and as home to a Sacred Ground Memorial Park, a green and art-filled place to honor their ancestors and foster reflection.
In short, local stakeholders envision Shockoe Bottom as a Site of Conscience where people from all walks of life would be welcomed to bear witness to the human rights abuses of Richmond's slave trade, interpret the stories of this shared history, stimulate public dialogue about pressing social issues related to the legacies of slavery and racism, and promote healing and reconciliation.

As the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a peer-network of sites around the globe, explains, evocative places like Shockoe Bottom can "use the lessons of history to spark conscience in people all around the world so that they can choose the actions that promote justice and lasting peace today."

To best understand the power of Sites of Conscience, we encourage you to visit historic places like: Traditionally, Richmond has erected grand memorials to leaders of the Confederacy but has maintained near-silence regarding the slave trade which once flourished in the city. We believe that, today, Richmond's elected officials and civic leaders have an obligation to preserve Shockoe Bottom as a Site of Conscience where Americans can strive together to secure lasting justice and reconciliation.

January 19th is a federal holiday and, importantly, a national day of service. We ask you to take action today to protect Shockoe Bottom as a Site of Conscience.