We started a fresh week of touring walking the Richmond Slave Trail. This is a trail of several miles consisting of several informative signs placed through downtown Richmond and along the James River. It is a clever use of space that might otherwise go unused.
Walking the trail, I learned a couple of interesting facts. First, Richmond has the sad historical designation of being the “largest source of enslaved blacks on the east coast.” Early in the slave trade, Virginia, like many other colonies, imported slaves from Africa, primarily for farming its lucrative, but labor-intensive, tobacco crops. By the 1830’s, Virginia’s soils were mostly exhausted and tobacco farming declined. Virginia had too many slaves for its needs. At that time, laws were passed to end the importation of slaves from Africa. While part of this was motivated by humanitarian concerns, part of it was a more sinister business decision. Since Virginia had a surplus of slaves, if importation was banned, this would reduce available supply and raise the prices for existing Virginia slaves.
Richmond became “the most active exporter of enslaved Africans to other American territories, primarily those in the Deep South.” The money to be made from the slave trade was huge. A slave trader could make as much as $7 million in today’s dollars in just one two-day sale. Men in the prime of their lives were the most valuable slaves and typically sold for around $35,200 each in today’s dollars. Slaves tried to reduce their sale price by feigning (or causing) injuries. The lower the sale price, the greater the chance the slave might one day be able to buy his or her freedom.
None of the history lessons I received ever discussed the economics of the slave trade in detail. Knowing the money changing hands both makes the practice that much more revolting as well as helps shed light on why slaveholders resisted measures to end slavery. In general, none of the attempts to end slavery offered compensation to slaveholders for the loss of their slaves. If a family farm owned say three slaves and all of those slaves were freed, the family would lose their labor force as well as their $100,000 investment. It would be a devastating economic loss to be sure. One wonders whether we might have ended slavery sooner if the U.S. had engineered some sort of economic transition program for slaveholders.
There is a touching reconciliation statue in the center of downtown Richmond. The statue is one of a set of three. The other statues are in Liverpool, England and Benin in West Africa.
In the morning, we toured the city side of the slave trail. We saw the site of the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail which is a shovel-ready archaeology dig site. The slave jail was a multi-function house that served as lodging for slave traders, a slave holding facility, an auction house and a family residence. The city has already done a test dig to confirm that it is the correct site and has discovered period artifacts. The land area for the dig is sectioned off and waiting. At this point, the project awaits a large donation of money to get the dig underway.
In the afternoon, we explored the portion of the trail close to the James River. It was a hot day and walking in the heat was a little tough.
The main problem with the trail, however, is that there is no clearly marked path to follow it! You can look on the map they give you at the visitor’s center to see where the markers are located. However, even with the map, it is not always clear to go. At one point, the map seemed to be pointing us right up a freeway onramp! I couldn’t imagine that there would be a trail sign up there so we wandered a few blocks in either direction until we found the trail in a parking lot below the freeway.
It is really a shame that the trail isn’t more clearly marked. The content is very rich and engaging and the route is interesting because it takes you some places you might not otherwise think to go. The website for Richmond tourism seems to indicate that more permanent markers are on the way. What would be ideal would be for some sort of colored asphalt or brick stripe that you could clearly spot and follow on the sidewalk, along with some of the metal pavement markers seen above.
The last part of the trail (or the first part of the trail depending on where you start) is in a wooded and shady trail along the James River. My children were getting tired by this point in our journey so we didn’t spend too long here.
Overall, this would be a great trail to walk in cooler weather and would be great for school or homeschool history lessons. I hope the slave trail continues to develop and improve. While slavery is one of those heartbreaking periods of history we might prefer to forget about, I found this quote from the reconciliation statue an inspirational framework for thinking about this period.