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Richmond secret on verge of being forgotten

Posted at 11:55 PM, Feb 12, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-13 00:03:17-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom is currently known for its entertainment, bars, great restaurants and its history.

That’s why Genet Semere decided to open her wine and art gallery in the bottom.

However, there’s one historical aspect about the area Semere wasn’t aware of until she opened her doors in 2010.

“I don’t know, it just blows my mind,” says Semere.

Flip the page back to the 1800s when the Bottom was the second largest slave-trading hub in the country, with many slave auction houses lining its streets.

“I look out the window sometimes and I’m like they used to sale slaves in that place,’ says Semere.

Semere says she learned about this significant bit of history by word-of-mouth and often times, she finds herself educating customers who frequent the bottom.

“They’re like, this area? Really? Because they’re really surprised there’s no sign for it at all,” says Semere.

Semere says they expect a face to be put on such an historic period, like confederate soldiers who line Monument Avenue and Bill Robinson, known as Bojangles, who represents the art and culture of Jackson Ward.

“I think people do look for that tangible something, which is in the plans,” says Delegate Delores McQuinn. She chairs the Slave Trail Commission, started by the Richmond city council in 1998.

She says they’re working to give Richmond’s slave history a face, but in the meantime, you have to do the leg work. “It’s like a book. It’s there. Either you pick up the book and you read it or you leave it where it is,” McQuinn tells CBS 6’s Lorenzo Hall.

Since its inception, the commission erected the reconciliation statue, developed the slave trail, unearthed the Lumpkin’s jail and prevented VCU from paving over a slave burial ground.

However, CBS 6 wanted to know where the commission is heading.

The slave trail remains slightly obscure, some trail markers are in distant, not frequently traveled places. The Lumpkin’s jail site sits dormant, the burial ground has yet to become the park planned two years ago and plans for a museum have yet to be seen.

Additionally, the city was writing big checks for the commission in the past, like $511,000 in 2007 and $370,000 in 2008. However, between 2010 and this fiscal year, funding hasn’t topped $10,000. “We have been really focused on how we move this whole vision for this museum forward. That’s going to be extremely costly,” says McQuinn.

So, instead of relying on city funds, McQuinn says they’re reaching out to businesses and setting up a fund to accept donations for the museum… giving them little time to focus on those smaller projects.

The chair of Virginia Union University’s history department hopes they move quickly.

Dr. Raymond Hylton says the Bottom’s rich history has been washed away multiple times, naturally from floods and sometimes deliberately. “Many people after the war wanted to forget,’ says Dr. Hylton.

He says with burgeoning apartment buildings, the desire to build a stadium in the bottom and plans to make main street station a welcome center, slavery may be forgotten in the bottom once more.

In the meantime, Semere says she won’t let that happen as she continues with her impromptu history lessons over a glass of wine.

Like that glass of wine, McQuinn says it will get better with time.

She tells us, it will take work from everyone to make sure such a dark period in the city’s history gets new light. “This will take the involvement as well as the investment of everybody to make it happen. Yeah, this is going to be monumental,” says McQuinn.

In the meantime, foot markers will be placed along the slave trail to make it more prominent and easier to follow.