In May the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of Richmond, Virginia, invited Max Page and Joseph Krupczynski from the Center for Design Engagement—a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Amherst—to spend a week in Richmond working with the community to produce a design proposal for Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. Part dialogue, part design charrette, the resulting report is now available for review and comment through August 31.
|The Center for Design Engagement design proposal for a Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park seeks to recognize and reinvigorate this landscape as a Site of Conscience, a sacred site, and a place that can help built economic opportunity for all Richmonders. | Credit: Center for Design Engagement
Three students from UMass Amherst accompanied Page and Krupczynski and took away key lessons about Richmond, its people, and the challenges the memorial park project faces.
- Randy Crandon is a rising undergraduate senior studying architecture and art history, whose work at the Center has focused on food justice, public art, and design engagement.
- Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral history student and, as part of pursuing a certificate in public history, also works with the National Park Service and the National Collaboration for Women’s History Sites.
- Nicholas Jeffway is currently pursuing a master’s degree in architecture. His passion for design is driven by a desire to understand and reimagine past and forgotten spaces as new, contemporary environments.
We asked these students to reflect on their experiences.
What were your first impressions of Richmond and of Shockoe Bottom? What were you expecting from the city and the neighborhood? And what did you find?
Randy Crandon: I came to Richmond with a general knowledge of its history, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Nick and I flew in early and had an opportunity to explore the city. We found a place rich with history, culture, and architecture. Everyone we spoke to was pleasant and helpful, and the food was excellent. I was especially struck by the vibrancy of the murals painted on old structures throughout the city and the lively street scenes underneath the renowned triple crossing and elevated traffic lanes of the Canal Walk district.
As a Northerner who is used to the energies of Boston and New York, I found the city quieter and much more easy going. Large hubs of people were few and far between, but the city seemed ready to take on more. I recall one Richmonder telling us that “the city was asleep, waiting to be awoken.”
I remember a sense of gravity at the African Burial Ground, brought forth by the flat, empty landscape; the isolated interpretive signs; and the rushing echoes of I-95 at its edge. Had it not been for my involvement in the charrette, I know I wouldn’t have stumbled upon this place, and that affirmed the necessity of the work.
Camesha Scruggs: My initial impression was that Richmond is a place with competing and complicated histories. While I noted a reverence toward the Confederacy, I also saw genuine efforts to represent African American history. And as a woman of color and descendant of slaves, Shockoe Bottom is significant for me personally. I walked the grounds and felt awash with emotions—appreciative of my ancestors and their travails and eager contribute to the commemoration of that history.
I expected a combination of reluctance and cooperation from the city and neighborhood, and I found that my expectations were justified. While some were hesitant to participate, many more were enthusiastic. I came away from the final presentation with a sense of hope for the project.
Nicholas Jeffway: Previously, I had only passed through Richmond while heading further south on family road trips, so I was not sure what to expect. Upon arriving, I immediately set out to explore the city with Randy. This first expedition proved to representative of my experience as a whole.
Upon crossing into Shockoe Slip and then passing under the overpass into Shockoe Bottom, my understanding of Richmond was immediately transformed. I was confronted with murals—splashes of color and strange, intriguing figures, patterns, and stories that brought new life to the red brick walls lining the narrow streets. Passing mural after mural, I began to understand that there was a powerful underlying energy within the city.
As I moved further through Shockoe Bottom and arrived at the site of Lumpkin’s Jail and the African Burial Ground, the energy became tangible. As I moved toward the interstate and Lumpkin’s Jail, light posts punctuated the grassy field. Soon I was standing near the site of the Burial Ground, which was a very emotional moment. The mementos and candles placed thoughtfully around two trees offered a space for reflection and solace, and I contemplated the sacred nature of the ground I was standing on.
|More than 100 people gathered for two community meetings on May 30 and June 1 to discuss ideas for the memorial park. | Credit: Center for Design Engagement
What are your views on the balance between memorializing Confederate heroes and commemorating enslaved people? Is balance the right goal? Can it be achieved in the former capital of the Confederacy?
Crandon: It quickly became clear that there was an imbalance of memorialization in Richmond. The geography of the city is telling: Jefferson’s capitol building and the Confederate statues of Monument Avenue sit on hills overlooking the lowlands of Shockoe Bottom and the neglected Burial Ground and Lumpkin’s Jail sites.
Not all of American history is righteous and admirable, but all of it must be recognized and remembered. Balancing these layered stories of Confederacy and slavery is important, and thanks to the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project and other activist groups, Richmond is on its way to realizing such a balance. Our design proposal seeks to make the memorial park a point of intersection for all the existing resources in the area, including the Slave Trail, Reconciliation Statue, 17th Street Farmers’ Market, and the forthcoming Main Street Station.
Scruggs: The balance between memorializing and commemorating is a challenge, as we must try to do both without being biased. The Confederacy and slavery were inextricably linked, and one can’t be accurately represented without the other. Historians must try to present a narrative in which all voices have agency—that is the only way to minimize bias and accurately recount the history. Although it may sound idealistic, I am optimistic that memorializing Confederate heroes and also commemorating enslaved people is possible, especially in the former capital of the Confederacy—based on the meetings we facilitated, we know that community members value an inclusive interpretation of Richmond’s history. Given the revisionist history taking hold across state capitals and schools, Richmond must tell its complicated history without shame or bias to move into its future with an authentic understanding of its past.
Jeffway: I firmly believe that establishing a balance between recognizing the past of the Confederacy and the people enslaved by it is essential. As in other parts of the country, the underrepresentation of African American history in Richmond has left a large portion of the city’s story neglected and untold. Today, Americans continue to struggle with racism, as well as social and economic inequality, and I firmly believe that underrepresentation, in Richmond and elsewhere, is tied to those issues.
The community efforts to revitalize Shockoe Bottom create a powerful opportunity to use design and urban planning to bring to light the narrative of Richmond’s slave trade while providing a sense of ownership to underrepresented members of the community.
|Aspects of the vision include creating a commons called Shockoe Square, which would serve as a gateway to Shockoe Bottom's memorial sites; provide space for interpretation, outdoor films, music, and dramatic performances; and include a visually and symbolically striking "grove of light" installation. | Credit: Center for Design Engagement
What was your experience interacting with Richmond residents who are dedicated to truth and reconciliation? What motivates these local activists? What motivates you?
Crandon: There’s so much to be said about the people we worked with, and it’s important to remember that our team came to gather and represent the results of their many years of effort.
The generosity and passion of everyone who participated was special, and that really heightened my eagerness and sense of responsibility. During the community meetings, residents were eager to chime in, learn, and work toward the betterment of their city. I recall not being able to record their ideas fast enough. They were proud of their individual stories but always respectful of each other’s opinions. More than anything, they were beaming with a contagious hope.
The experience was meaningful for me: it was my first time participating in a design charrette of this significance, it was my first time in Virginia’s capital, and it was my first time pulling the iconic all-nighter with a professor. The charrette really got me out of my comfort zone and prompted me to think bigger. It exposed me to important conversations and reminded me of the capacity of design to be socially conscious and active.
Scruggs: My experience with Richmond residents was gratifying. I learned so much from them all—from hotel staff to entrepreneurs, students, and charrette participants. The intangible benefits of working with them were amazing because I gained perspective from them that I wouldn’t have gotten from a report or presentation. The community clearly cares about this place, and I was astounded by their passion, concern, and ingenuity. Students provided real answers to economic revitalization and environmental design questions; entrepreneurs brought unique wisdom to the table; and local teachers and tour operators were supportive of our efforts and supplied us with additional information and context.
Activists were eager not only to hear our thoughts but also to share their goals with us. They are motivated to pursue reconciliation in Richmond by telling the story of Shockoe Bottom, and they see this project as an opportunity to create partnerships with a greater reach and impact on the community. Additionally, they want those who visit Richmond to see how a complicated topic can be presented honestly, provide inspiration, and promote community and economic development. I, too, believe in presenting honest narratives—good, bad, or otherwise. Without them, we can’t expect to learn from the past or prepare for the future.
Jeffway: Prior to arriving, I expected to encounter some resistance because I am not from Richmond, but that concern proved to be unfounded. From the beginning, I felt comfortable and included in the movement, thanks to the hospitality and good hearts of the citizens of Richmond. Over the course of my stay, I engaged with a large spectrum of community members through tours of the city and the community workshops that our team facilitated. While I had the opportunity to interact with diverse people, they shared a common passion and dedication to truth.
It was remarkable to interact with such a devoted and galvanized group, and the energy I felt served as a catalyst—I performed to the best of my abilities and got the most out of my short time in Richmond. I remember one woman in particular, whom I met after a community workshop. She had already created a memorial marking the Burial Ground and was incredibly determined to tell the story of Shockoe Bottom, regardless of whether city officials would give permission to build on the site. Talking to her helped me gauge the drive and commitment of the community. #Diversity #ShockoeBottom #design #AfricanAmerican #NationalTreasure