Visualizing the Richmond Slave Trade
Visitors to Richmond today have no way of seeing these stories, and residents have few ways of marking them. The tragic and redemptive stories of these spaces are worth recalling, if only as a part of our own representational spaces. These spaces, marginal even in the 1850s, have been driven underground, below eight lanes of Interstate 95. They have taken on peculiar politics: until recently, a strip club resided just below the interstate, atop the obliterated Alexander Nott trading house. Its owner took the liberty of painting the sitting president of the U.S. as the Joker-a president whose wife's family, it should be noted, were possibly subjects of the Virginia slave trade, ending up in the southwestern corner of the state when emancipation came.
In such spaces, it seems, we lose the ability to mark stories. Distant bureaucracies control many of these spaces, and there isn't really any recourse. No one is moving I-95. Yet groundwork, in Karen Haltunnen's phrasing, proceeds. After a concerted effort by numerous local organizations, the City of Richmond commissioned an archaeological dig of the Robert Lumpkin jail site. Archaeologist Matthew Laird's careful study has determined that much of the site lies beyond the I-95 embankment; proposals for memorialization of the site are underway. The Burial Ground for Negroes, too, lies partly under I-95 but partly under a parking garage. Movement is currently underway to press the owners for appropriate recognition of the oldest municipal burial space in Richmond.ix
My colleagues at the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond and I, along with our collaborator Maurie McInnis at the University of Virginia, hope to participate in this place-making by taking a cue--actually several cues--from the painter Eyre Crowe. (Maurie, I should add, has just completed a book on imagery of the American slave trade focused upon Crowe, from which I've drawn my quick summary of Crowe's experience in Richmond and the political import of Slaves Waiting for Sale.)x As Crowe did in his painting, together we are developing an interpretation-a representational space-of the material world of the antebellum slave market. We have developed a three-dimensional virtual model of a portion of Richmond at the moment Crowe visited the city in 1853. This model represents the built environment of that moment, particularly the slave market and the larger commercial district of which it was a part.
In this model daguerrotypes, photographs, and other images are being overlayed at the locations they were taken or sketched. Users of the model are able to view these 2D images within the 3D model. These images document and provide a sense of how the built environment of Richmond appeared in the mid nineteenth century; the three dimensional and data rich portions of the model, in turn, become a heuristic device that helps users explore the images and make sense of what they are seeing.
If our work takes Crowe's work as both a rhetorical starting place and as an object of study, it takes as much inspiration from the place-making work at the cusp of emancipation. The men and women who built new spaces for new social relations are worthy of emulation, though recalling this history this is made difficult when so little of those stories are visible.
The visibility that we provide hides a great deal. It does not seek verisimilitude-the mess of antebellum life, the mucked streets, the disheveled streetscapes, the stench of the "bottom," as this downhill district is still known, and the sounds of enslaved men and women penned are completely absent. Our rejection of realism is at once a weakness and, we believe, a strength.xi Our representation may be less directly cathartic than others; it has little appeal as an authentic experience. Yet through abstraction it provides community members and others the opportunity to see the city's effaced landscapes in new ways. It grounds our reflection on slavery in the specific history of a place in time. And it provides a representational space for interacting with the material culture at the center of Richmond's history, and for re-imagining Richmond's past for the good of its current and future residents.
- ixKaren Haltunnen, "Groundwork: American Studies in Place-Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 4, 2005" American Quarterly 58.1 (Mar. 2006) 1-16. [back]
- xMaurie McInnis, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Visualizing the Southern Slave Trade (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 2011). [back]
- xiOn modern representations of slavery and the problems with realism, see Lisa Woolfork, Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009) 159-192; Cf. Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010) 296-353. [back]