The Slave Trade in Richmond

This Sunday, June 19th, is the 146th Juneteenth. First celebrated in Texas after Union troops enforced the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Juneteenth is now celebrated across the nation. In this installment of our chronological coverage of the Civil War we look at slavery in Richmond.

This Sunday, June 19th, is the 146th Juneteenth. First celebrated in Texas after Union troops enforced the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Juneteenth is now celebrated across the nation. In this installment of our chronological coverage of the Civil War we look at slavery in Richmond.

When I started this column, one of my goals was to go beyond the battlefields of the Civil War and examine some of the larger social issues affecting Richmond during the Civil War. I, like many others who take an interest in the Civil War, have a tendency to look past the atrocities of slavery and get caught up in the strategies, the generals, and the stories of soldiers and their gallantry. By doing this, we really do ourselves a disservice. It’s important that we remember the war within the framework of slavery and know that, in the end, the war’s bloodshed resulted in the emancipation of millions of enslaved people. One need only look to the local headlines or the dozens of confrontational comments left on every slavery-related article I reviewed online to know that the echoes of our slavery past still affect our lives and our culture today.

Slavery was commonplace in Virginia by the time of the Civil War, starting in the colonial period in the 17th century. Virginia was one of the first colonies to make use of slaves imported from Africa in the early days of the Atlantic slave trade. By 1861, African slavery had been in place in the colonies, and later the United States, for approximately 200 years. Considering that it has only been 150 years since the Civil War itself, it helps to really illustrate why it was so difficult to create the cultural shift necessary to abolish what was then a 200-year-old practice in Virginia.

However, well before 1861, things had already begun to shift. One of the first major steps was in 1808, when the U.S. congress banned the importation of slaves. While this put a stop to the United States’ involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, it left the status of the current slave population and their children very much unchanged. As years passed, pressure continued to grow to do something about the country’s existing slave population in the form of the abolitionist movement. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, most of the northern states officially abolished slavery. As the United States expanded westward, the question of whether slavery should be allowed in the new territories continued to fuel the fire of the abolitionist movement. By the time Abraham Lincoln was elected to office, the tension between northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders was at an all-time high.

Richmond stood apart as a city in that it shared many similarities with the industrial north, but was still connected to Virginia’s (and the South as a whole) agricultural economy as well. This meant that slaves in Richmond had a somewhat unique existence compared to that of many Southern plantation slaves. Slave owners, not needing as many slaves for their agricultural work, hired them out to work in factories or in local homes in Richmond. The slaves would be paid wages and then give a percentage back to their owners. Many of the flour mills and factories in Richmond, including Tredegar Iron Works, employed slaves in large numbers working alongside free men.

Where did these hired slaves live in the city? Domestic slaves often lived in the households in which they worked, but it varied for slaves working in factories and mills. I listened to a great lecture at the Virginia Historical Society by Gregg Kimball, author of American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, who answered this question saying:

“[Hired industrial slaves] were given money to live out in the community, although Tredegar’s policy was the opposite of that. They did house slaves on-site. We think we pretty much know where those quarters were, but that was a huge sore point in the development of industrial slavery [in Richmond]. The city fathers did not like it one bit and passed ordinances and restrictions about how late at night slaves could be out, restrictions about how many of them could gather in an assembly…it created an issue that was very politically charged.”

In pre-Civil War Richmond, the slave trade was a highly-profitable enterprise and one of Richmond’s largest sources of income. Even after the importation of slaves was banned in the U.S., Richmond continued to be a major slave trade city, second only to New Orleans. As Virginia’s agricultural landscape changed, slave owners would sell their slaves to traders, who would then, in turn, sell them to plantation owners in the deep South, often splitting up families when doing so. The slave trade process was absolutely brutal. Slaves would be cuffed together and marched naked up along the James River in Manchester and taken to auction houses located in the downtown areas of Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. To signal a slave auction, traders would post a red flag outside the auction houses. From what I can tell from the antebellum years, the slave auctions were viewed distastefully by the general public, but at the same time, several respectable Richmonders were, in fact, known slave traders. Prior to being auctioned, many slaves were held at the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, also known as “the devil’s half acre” which was located in Shockoe Bottom in what is now a parking lot behind the Main Street Station. According to Smithsonian magazine, Lumpkin’s Jail “sat amid a swampy cluster of tobacco warehouses, gallows and African-American cemeteries”. The conditions there, as described by escaped and former slaves, were truly horrific.

To try to get a better understanding of slavery here in Richmond, I spent a Saturday afternoon walking along Richmond’s Slave Trail, which recently unveiled 17 new historical markers documenting Richmond’s past in the slave trade. The trail starts on the southern side of the James River in Manchester, at the site of the original docks where slave ships would arrive. Once removed from the cramped and overcrowded recesses of the ships, the slaves would be shackled and bound together naked, and forced to walk a path along the river to the auction houses. The trail follows along this path to the location of the former auction houses downtown, while historical markers along the way document the history of the slave trade in Richmond.

Seeing the actual places where slaves were shackled, marched, and auctioned off was a sobering reminder of our history as a city and a nation. For the most part, I think people find it easier to avoid thinking about difficult subjects like this, especially when the struggle for equality continues today. On the sunny Saturday morning I had planned to walk the trail, there was definitely that voice in my head saying “It’s such a nice day…do you really want to spend it thinking about these horrible and difficult things?” So, believe me, I understand! While it may be more comfortable to visit a battlefield or think about the soldiers at war, we absolutely cannot forget about the atrocity of slavery and its impact on our nation both in the years leading up to the Civil War and today.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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