UMass Amherst Preservation Team Tackles the Hidden Legacy of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom Slave Market

Shockoe Bottom
Shockoe Bottom

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst architecture professors Max Page and Joseph Krupczynski, along with three of their graduate students, are about to embark for Richmond, Va. for a direct encounter with Shockoe Bottom, a vanished site that Page calls “ground zero of sorts for confronting the many evils of slavery, and its legacy.”

Paved over in 1951, and directly adjacent to an elevated portion of I-95, Shockoe Bottom was the center of Richmond’s slave trade, second only to New Orleans in size, and especially notorious as the focus of the internal or interstate slave trade.

Shockoe Bottom sits beneath the gaze of Jefferson Davis’ Confederate white house, unmarked and un-memorialized despite the belated attention focused on “12 Years a Slave” author Solomon Northup, who was imprisoned there. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is partially funding the UMass Amherst initiative, it is the site of a controversial proposal for a baseball stadium, supermarket and office space.

Page and Krupczynski, along with architecture master’s students Nicholas Jeffway and Randy Crandon and master of public history student Camesha Scruggs, will be on site in early June to bring to life the African-American community’s ideas about how to memorialize Shockoe Bottom—perhaps through an interpretive center and memorial park.

“The site has become such a crucial test about whether or not we can or will confront the full legacies of slavery,” said Page. “This is one of the most important public history debates around slavery and I am pleased that UMass Amherst faculty and students were invited by the community to be a part of this effort.”

The group plans to offer a presentation in September on what was learned and accomplished in that effort.

The crucial public history that remains embedded in, or beneath, man-made structures has long been acutely compelling to Page, often when that history is most difficult and disturbing. In 2013, he edited “Memories of Buenos Aires,” which explored the topography of terror that was Argentina’s “dirty war.”

Page and Krupczynski, along with faculty colleague Kathleen Lugosch, have founded the Center for Design Engagement, a nonprofit designed to provide design and community engagement assistance to underserved communities. It is headquartered in Holyoke.

In a new book, titled “Why Preservation Matters,” Page argues that if preservation is to play a central role in building more-just communities, it must transform itself to stand against gentrification, work with the environmental sustainability movement, and challenge societies to confront their pasts.

And in a second just released book, “Bending the Future, Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States,” Page and co-editor Marla Miller—who heads the UMass Amherst public history program—have assembled essays that address questions that Page calls critical: “What should be preserved? Why? How? What stories do we tell in preservation? How does preservation contribute to the financial, environmental, social, and cultural well-being of communities? And if the ‘arc of the moral universe . . . bends towards justice,’ how can preservation be a tool for achieving a more just society and world?”

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