Why don’t we demand more from the Slave Trail Commission? Maat Free answers that question with some more questions.
Ancient scene depicting the weighing of truth against falsehood upon the scales of justice, personified by the African people who originated in the Nile Valley as the fundamental concepts of the Universal Law of Maat.
Peace. A few weeks ago, the KUJICHAGULIA column was born. It hasn’t taken long to realize that together, we’re building a platform where all people will have equal access to previously underpublicized information regarding the authentic preservation of our slavery-related historical resources in Richmond, Virginia.
Several folks emailed questions after Part I, and I’m thrilled that we really got people thinking and talking about this–and not just the usual suspects around the table.
Each question opens the door to another aspect of this conversation, and we’ll share them one by one so you can check out what your neighbors want to know.
This is Tarra (photo used with permission). Tarra read Maat Free’s original Kujichagulia column and sent her this question:
Why does the Slave Trail Commission think it’s alright to present the African Burial Ground as a forgotten, desolate place with hardly any signage? They keep bragging about all these millions of dollars they’ve got in the bank. When you see how beautiful Hollywood Cemetery is and then look at the African Burial Ground, it’s like a slap in our face. Hollywood Cemetery is a place that honors people who were actually traitors to America but they get all the glory. Meanwhile, we have trash littered on our sacred space from one end to the other. Clearly, the Slave Trail Commission has the money and resources to do better but why haven’t they? What’s up with that?
Well Tarra, you’re absolutely right. It is fair to expect more of the Slave Trail Commission than what has been accomplished thus far. According to their website set up to promote a series of community conversations, the Commission has been working at this for 20 years. Mayor Jones is quick to brag on their efforts whenever he speaks publicly about anything related to Shockoe Bottom. This time, I want to focus on what’s transpired in Shockoe since the very beginning and follow it up to the current scene of trash and neglect you observed down at the African Burial Ground. Check it out.
When Richmond City Council voted to create a task force to deal with local enslavement history in 1998, provisions were made for these individuals to receive a portion of our tax dollars every year, plus dedicated staff assistance. It’s all written down for posterity’s sake on the official Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission website along with the resolution numbers from which the language was taken.
Now. In addition to those resources, the resolutions provide the Slave Trail Commission access to paid writers, graphic designers, event planners, project managers, promoters, and fundraisers to support the enslavement history work that they swore, hand to God, in City Council chambers, to accomplish. The Commission also has access to project engineers and management support provided by the Richmond Department of Economic Development. I think this is an incredible pledge of support and resources. Reading this made me very happy, actually.
So as you can see, City Council’s whole intent was to make sure the Slave Trail Commission would never have to scramble to receive the help they need but over the years, their spending record has attracted attention from lots of groups in town. Fair enough, because people have the right to know what’s really being done with that ginormous wad of cash. After all, it’s 19 million dollars. Hello…I just said NINETEEN MILLION DOLLARS.
Check out this very concise summary that Save our Schools put together that itemizes Slave Trail Commission expenditures, taken directly from the bottom of all the Commission’s own blogspot website updates. Notice, it’s not been updated in quite some time.
Let me be clear. None of this should be about anyone trying to keep this team from doing their slavery- and remembrance-related work. People just believe that transparency is essential and so is compliance with the law. We should be glad to have committed individuals that are keeping the ball in play on all sides, but it’s not cool to subvert the law and deny competent citizens the right to serve.
So now let’s talk about the roles and responsibilities of the Slave Trail Commissioners themselves. Their organizing document stipulates that they maintain a board of 17 members of specific origin, whose terms must expire after a maximum of six years in service to the community.
This may come as a shock to you, but the truth is, every single person (except for one) who currently serves on the Slave Trail Commission has long since exceeded their term limits and is in direct violation of the ordinances established by Richmond City Council itself.
Check out this response to the term limit question that came from Alexander Rawles, Boards and Commissions Administrator in the Office of the City Clerk when we asked him to clarify some facts for this story. Here’s what he said:
“Members of the Slave Trail Commission are eligible to serve two terms of three years each. Councilwoman [Cynthia] Newbille is the only member of the commission whose term has not expired. However, members of boards and commissions who are appointed by Richmond City Council may continue to serve after the expiration of their terms until they are either reappointed or replaced.”
People need to know that the City has been long aware of serious concerns over the Commissioners’ expired term limits, as well as the stagnant process of replacing expired members with others who are ready, willing, and able to serve. Former NAACP Executive Director King Salim Khalfani and Sa’ad El Amin, the Elder Civil Rights Attorney and Founder of the original Slave Trail Commission itself, filed a court motion specifically addressing this whole issue. Read El Amin’s allegations that he compiled into a paper entitled, “The Richmond Slave Trail Commission: A Self Inflicted Wound” (PDF).
After that bomb dropped in 2012, a squad of advocates for transparency in Shockoe were victorious in blocking a very bold Commissioner-led resolution that would have allowed them to serve for the rest of their lives, if they chose (read the withdrawn legislation here).
Although it’s a totally jaw-dropping revelation, this part of the story is actually nothing new, but back then, the information seemed not to be reaching as many people as it can right now.
Here lately, a whole new crop of questions is emerging because of a mysterious 2012 filing for the Federal 501(c)3 tax exemption of a Richmond-based group called the National Slavery Museum Foundation. Hold up. Wait, what? How’s that even possible? We all thought the proposed slavery museum in Richmond was the specific work of the Slave Trail Commission under the charter of Richmond City Council. This new group isn’t even going to be monitored by the City at all. Are you ready for the proof? Check THIS out:
The very next day after the KUJICHAGULIA column launched, I got an email from Rick Tatnall, this really dedicated citizen advocate for transparency in the Shockoe enslavement history debate. He forwarded me this email chain between himself and City Council President Michele Mosby (PDF).
Two of his major questions were (1) what are you guys going to do about these people’s expired terms and (2) what’s up with this new private foundation that has positioned itself as the boss of all things related to the proposed slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom.
Rick took the time to copy his letter to the entire Slave Trail Commission, all of City Council, and damn near every single stakeholder that weighs in on Richmond’s slavery-related historical resources debate. Here’s what Michelle Mosby, President of Richmond City Council wrote back:
…I fully appreciate that you and many others share my interest in the care of the City’s heritage. However, at this point in time, the City has not entered into any sort of agreement, formal or otherwise, with the National Slavery Museum Foundation, which is a private entity over which the City exercises no control whatsoever. Any relationship that might be imagined between the City and the Foundation, by Foundation supporters or others, would require the approval of Richmond City Council, and no proposal to create a relationship has even been submitted to the Council for its consideration. Rest assured that if a proposal is submitted, the Council will perform its due diligence. Until then, however, I do not have the information you seek about the internal workings of the Foundation.
Public records indicate that Delegate McQuinn serves as President of the organization. I note that you directed a copy of your most recent questions to her as well as me and others. I will defer to her any response on behalf of the Foundation about its operations.
OK so this is huge. Our Richmond City Council President point-blank acknowledges the existence of a National Slavery Museum Foundation with the current (and expired term-having) Slave Trail Commission President Delegate Delores McQuinn at its helm. Whoa. Isn’t that, like, a conflict of interest or something? I was totally surprised that with all the important people in receipt of these back and forth emails, I haven’t seen anyone else on the list making Rick Tatnall’s concerns public. In my humble opinion, Tarra, you as a representative of the readers who care, deserve to know what’s going on.
Rick’s email to City Council also asked what the deal is with all the missing Slave Trail Commission meeting minutes. When Delegate McQuinn took office as the Chairperson of the Slave Trail Commission, she agreed to be the head person in charge of making sure that her fellow Board members would follow their charter and conduct monthly meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order, which is the standard operating procedure that any Board in the known world abides by.
The Commissioners all know that it’s expected for them to take notes of what’s discussed and accomplished at every meeting. This is not just a reasonable request. It’s actually a long-standing State law.
Code of Virginia, §2.2- 3707(1) (PDF) clearly requires the same record-keeping methods all across Virginia. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting on a local government-appointed commission in a small rural town or the Capital city or anything in between. The rules don’t change: take notes, arrange them into a “minutes” format, find a place to store them and pull them out whenever anyone wants to see what’s been recorded and archived at your meetings. Same soup, different bowl, whether you’re operating in big cities, small towns, or any type of community in between, from one end of Virginia to the other.
I have been present at quite a few of the Slave Trail Commission’s latest series of Richmond Speaks community meetings, where people have no qualms asking for details about what’s going on with the missing minutes. The question keeps getting glossed, and so far, the minutes have yet to be presented. Now they’re saying that they have not been taking notes at all because they’re understaffed and don’t have the personnel to keep records of what’s being discussed in their meetings.
Hearing all of this, you begin to wonder if the current Commissioners (whose average age is about 57), are tired. Perhaps they’re burnt out from being in place for so very long when the original commitment was supposed to be just three years.
Which leads to another question. What happened to the applications people have been submitting over the years, hoping to be considered as qualified replacements to fill the expired seats on Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission? Could they be in some lonely, dust-covered file cabinet, along with the minutes nobody’s been able to find? It’s like Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine around here.
Clearly, these folks need help. The last time they updated their City of Richmond homepage with anything at all was in March 2015 to basically say that the monthly Commission meeting was cancelled. On their website, you’ll find a section for reports on their allocated budget and expenditures, a section that hasn’t even been updated that since 2013.
Speaking of spending (or not), this is what the African Ancestral Burial ground looked like last weekend while the African American Genealogical Conference was in town. I heard a large group of out-of-towners making very embarrassing comments about all the garbage on the gravesite. Trash is scattered all over the place. I know there are concerned families that volunteer to clean it up when they have time, but wouldn’t you agree that the Slave Trail Commission ought to be the ones organizing grounds maintenance on a much more regular basis?
So now everyone has the same information and can ask even more thoughtful, common sense questions. Thank you so much for writing in. Seeing it all in front of you, what do you think needs to happen next? I’ll await a response from you and anyone else that wishes to join the debate.
With love for our City’s African Ancestral narrative and in the spirit of Self Determination, I leave you as I came.
Peace and Kujichagulia,
Guardian of Ancestral Remembrance