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Activists: Ballpark not best use for Shockoe Bottom

Richmond Flying SquirrelsEfforts to bring a new ballpark for the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Class AA: Eastern League) in Shockoe Bottom must be balanced with an awareness of the sad history of the slave trade in the area, according to activists opposing the project.

Though there’s no proposal formally on the table, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones has been talking up Shockoe Bottom as a ballpark site, leveraging the city’s investment as an economic-development tool. Under the right circumstances, we’ve seen Minor League Baseball ballparks stimulating economic growth, as was the case in Birmingham during the opening of a new ballpark for the Barons. It’s not a new idea — former Mayor Doug Wilder, a man certainly sensitive to the area’s history in the slave trade — pushed for a Shockoe Bottom ballpark at one point.

Activists, led by Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality, say that putting the ballpark in the middle of an area once known for its extensive business in the slave trade is culturally insensitive. They were at Richmond City Hall yesterday to express their displeasure with the potential ballpark development in the area. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

[Monica Esparza, chair of the African Ancestral Chamber], and other activists were joined by history scholars who have signed a petition with more than 1,600 other people opposed to the stadium as a desecration of a place of great suffering for hundreds of thousands of Africans in bondage before the Civil War.

“We are not opposed to growth — in fact we encourage it — but not if the cost is so high it allows us to forget our past, even the most painful elements of it,” said Christy S. Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.

“And while there are certainly those who will say, ‘Good riddance. We don’t need reminders of that awful past,’ the reality is we do, because without them we lose a piece of ourselves in the process,” she said.

Slavery was an exceptionally ugly part of early American life, but efforts to derail the ballpark doesn’t necessarily mean any monument to the horrors of the slave trade will be built. And there are plenty of Richmond residents, including some of the activists, who want to see economic development in Shockoe Bottom.

But, in fact, we are not talking about pristine tracts of land here: a gas station, for instance, sits at the site of one of the biggest slave jails in Richmond. And there are no plans to put a ballpark at truly historic sites, such as the former Lumpkin’s Jail or Devil’s Half-acre. The area is large enough where some sort of powerful tribute to slavery could be built as well as a ballpark.

So there could be some room for compromise — at least according to one activist speaking out yesterday, per the Times-Dispatch:

“What is asked of city leaders and developers is that any plan to build a stadium in Shockoe be must undertaken in such as a way that does not decimate what remains and provides a proper vehicle of remembrance that is not an afterthought, place holder or appeasement, but rather a genuine effort to commemorate our shared past,” Christy S. Coleman said.

Michael Paul Williams comes down against the idea of the Shockoe Bottom ballpark, arguing it would be better located elsewhere.

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