Free Egunfemi in her office, with her Untold RVA posters.

Photo by Gregory Scruggs

This Tactical Urbanist Is Pasting Narratives of Enslaved People All over Richmond

The capital of the Confederacy should be known as the capital of the American slave trade, but civic leaders can’t agree on how to tell that story. So Free Egunfemi stepped in, armed with typography, historical knowledge and a spiritual commitment.

Story by Gregory Scruggs

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“Omohundro’s enslavement dungeon was right there, in that Exxon. And that was the baseball diamond, that was home plate right there.”

Self-described historical strategist Free Egunfemi is giving an impromptu tour of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, where history ricochets from the cruelest implements of the slave industry, in which Richmond played a leading role, to modern-day urban revitalization schemes such as a minor-league ballpark.

She pulls into a parking lot behind Main Street Station’s gleaming new glass-enclosed train shed, a $91.5-million renovation, and approaches a crooked sign that reads “Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Archaeological Study Site,” next to a one-room white cottage up on blocks. Two more detailed signs propped against a fence explain the site’s significance: Robert Lumpkin maintained a slave-trading complex here for 30 years leading up to the Civil War. Vehicle traffic roars overhead on Interstate 95.

Egunfemi pops open her trunk, pulls out a bucket of wheat paste, and unravels a rectangular black-and-white banner. She paints the paste onto the concrete base of a light post and then wraps the banner. In huge Helvetica, it reads: “Dial 804 277 8116 Then Press 67#.”

A man’s recorded voice answers: “We call out the name of Emily Winfree, a self-determined enslaved Richmond woman that insisted on establishing her black matriarchy by any means necessary. The wind-battered old cottage in the corner of this parking lot was owned by Ms. Winfree, where she raised her many children, whose father was none other than the man who had enslaved them.”

“Ms. Emily Winfree rented out part of the house to a boarder so that she could maintain as much autonomy from the enslaver who failed to provide the necessary resources for his own children,” it continues. “Even though the cottage was not actually situated here originally, we see it as a symbol of the strength of Richmond’s black matriarchal queen mothers that made a way out of no way, by any means necessary.”

For the last several years, Egunfemi, a 44-year-old Richmond-raised social entrepreneur, has researched these stories, recorded them to a phone-activated system, and put up posters big and small encouraging passersby to call in for a dose of the untold Richmond history reflected in her company’s name, Untold RVA.

Posting untold history guerrilla-style in Richmond’s public spaces is an act that Egunfemi calls “commemorative justice,” a concept that resonates during a time of national debate about Confederate monuments, African-American historical memorials, and white supremacy. Her use of tactical urbanism to tell the story of enslaved persons in the former capital of the Confederacy comes as Richmond debates the future of the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, and the adjacent African Burial Ground, where bodies of free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans have been found.

Nearly ten years after the city’s first master plan for the site, and with little to show by way of progress as real-estate developers increasingly eye Shockoe Bottom for historic loft conversions and hip cafes, Egunfemi is determined to take matters into her own hands. She maneuvers past the signs installed by the city-sanctioned Slave Trail Commission. When asked if she needs permission to put up her own handiwork, she responds, “I don’t operate in the space of permitted activities.”

“A City Within a City”

If Robert Lumpkin is antebellum Richmond’s archvillain, the site of his slave jail also abuts the final stand of the city’s tragic hero. This week, Untold RVA will mark the 218th anniversary of Gabriel Prosser’s aborted slave revolt, which, if successful, might have altered the course of U.S. history.

Gabriel was an enslaved blacksmith on a plantation near Richmond who had the rare fortune of literacy. He had read about the successful slave rebellion in Haiti and in 1800, he led a conspiracy spread by collaborators on several plantations to capture the state armory and hold Governor James Monroe hostage. Thunderstorms thwarted the planned August 30 attack. Two conspirators betrayed the cause, and the plot was revealed. Gabriel was eventually caught and hanged from gallows on the same site as the African Burial Ground, just a short walk from the church where Patrick Henry intoned “Give me liberty or give me death!” 25 years earlier.

Stones from the gallows platform are still visible in the bridge carrying Broad Street over I-95. The burial ground was later paved over to make way for the city jail, the dog pound, and most recently, a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot.

The African Burial Ground, at one time paved over for a parking lot, is where black Richmonders come to pay their respects to enslaved ancestors. It's also a site for the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Gregory Scruggs. 

Following Gabriel’s aborted revolt, fears that a Haitian-style rebellion had infiltrated the U.S. spread throughout the young country. “This was the geopolitical event of the New World in terms of slavery,” argues Ana Edwards, who chairs the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which fought with protests, and through arrests, to reclaim the African Burial Ground. In 2011, the state legislature turned the site over from the public university to the Richmond City Council’s Slave Trail Commission, founded in 1998, and the city removed the asphalt. Today, the burial ground is an open, grassy expanse with a trimmed lawn, separated from the Lumpkin’s Jail Site by a tunnel under Broad Street. An entrance sign informs visitors that sports or recreation are prohibited

On the edge of the burial ground that abuts I-95, weathered wooden signs offer up free history lessons on the Men’s and Women’s Sacred Trees — earlier prototypes of Egunfemi’s project — and the women’s tree is bedecked with scarves. On a June visit, apples, cinnamon sticks, a penny, and a lone candle form an offering at the base of the men’s tree, while the trunk is wrapped in clothesline from which hang the names of enslaved persons culled from a recently discovered database — another Untold RVA project. A short obelisk frames a blue-and-white mural. There is an official historical marker from the city’s Slave Trail Commission, but otherwise these offerings and monuments to ancestors are homespun, grassroots efforts from groups within Richmond’s African-American community such as the African Ancestral Chamber and especially from Egunfemi and other practitioners of African spirituality.

In the seven years since the African Burial Ground was uncovered, it has become a gathering place for black Richmonders, who pay their respects as one would in any cemetery. Richmond cultural ambassador Janine Bell, who runs the Elegba Folklore Society, a cultural arts group, concludes the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration there, replete with a libation-pouring ceremony.

Bell also sits on the city-council-appointed Slave Trail Commission, which installed and maintains 17 historical markers throughout Shockoe Bottom and along the James River, delineating the Richmond Slave Trail. This oldest part of the city was the epicenter of the antebellum slave trade that extended far beyond Lumpkin’s Jail, a history that contemporary Richmond first began to reckon with in June 1993 during a momentous “unity walk” along what eventually became the trail.

“There were dozens of dealers lining the streets, whether they were in their own places of business [or] went to a hotel lobby, a basement, an [auction] block, the courthouse steps — in terms of the actual sale of people,” Bell says from the Elegba Folklore Society storefront and office, a space scented with burning incense and dotted with displays of jewelry and traditional clothing. Pan-African music plays softly in the background.

“Shockoe Bottom historically has been called a city within a city,” she says. The Commission is the steward of $19 million in state and local funds to establish a museum or interpretive center in a proposed historical park on the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, which Bell hopes will be the centerpiece of a heritage district.

“The landscape needs to be built around that commemorative act,” she says. “Drop the pebble, then build the rings around it.”

But the road to achieving such a vision has been rocky. The Slave Trail Commission proposed a 4.5-acre museum plan in 2009. In 2013, former Mayor Dwight Jones announced a minor-league baseball stadium and slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom that would have hampered efforts to uncover more evidence of Richmond’s slave market. The next year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Shockoe Bottom one of its most endangered historic places. Jones withdrew the plan in 2015 under heavy protest from activists and historic preservationists, who pitched their own community proposal for a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

Lumpkin's Slave Jail site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre. Years of back-and-forth over how the historical site will be presented means that the current commemoration consists only of a few rickety signs. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

That same year, the city hired a cultural consultant to conduct a public engagement effort called Richmond Speaks that delivered a report calling for immediate action on an expanded site. Sacred Ground prepared another community proposal in 2017. Now three years later, the city has hired a design firm that conducted its own round of community engagement this month. Meanwhile, former Governor Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first African-American governor, insists that the $19 million is destined for his erstwhile National Slavery Museum, which foundered in Fredericksburg and he now hopes to install in downtown Richmond. In a June interview with Next City, he brandished a $25 check that he said was the museum’s annual incorporation fee. The next month, he halted fundraising.

The saga has led Bell to conclude, “I don’t think there is a comprehensive civic vision.” But she is adamant that something will happen on the Lumpkin’s site with the current design firm, SmithGroupJJR, which was part of the team that designed the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “[There is] design work that is going to sit at the Devil’s Half-Acre and that may continue over to the African Burial Ground,” she says.

Despite the public money set aside, moving from design to build is still up in the air. The National Slavery Museum Foundation, which was set up by several commission members as the Lumpkin Jail site’s fiscal sponsor and is not to be confused with Wilder’s National Slavery Museum, had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Commission chair Delores McQuinn, a state delegate, says a new 501(c)3 will be incorporated soon now that there is a significant sum of money available for the project, which she believes will ultimately require fundraising beyond the $19 million.

“The work has been done with very little resources,” she says. “We kept the vision moving forward to make certain that the story would be told with truth and reconciliation.”

A memorial in Shockoe Bottom is necessary because Virginia — the “virgin state” as Bell wryly notes — invented the slave-breeding industry and Richmond was its export hub. Over the objection of South Carolina’s elite, who profited heavily off the importation of enslaved Africans to Charleston, Virginian planters, led by Thomas Jefferson, inserted a clause in the constitution that allowed for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade no earlier than January 1, 1808. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill that made good on the clause.

According to the book “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry,” as the U.S. expropriated indigenous land in the Deep South and allocated it to whites in need of labor for their plantation agriculture, Virginian planters, facing exhausted soils, found a new economic system based on human capital where slave-rearing women produced interest in the form of children. Richmond, a port city on the James River, became the focal point for this system to transfer enslaved labor from the Chesapeake region to the Deep South.

“[Richmond] was a funnel for Virginia’s massive slave-breeding industry, perfectly situated to feed both overland human traffic (the infamous coffles) and ocean-going exporters of captive people bound for the big end-user markets: New Orleans, and, farther up the river, Natchez,” writes “The American Slave Coast” co-author Ned Sublette, via email. “Richmond made heavy use of the auction technique, because it was the most efficient way to move numbers of people.”

Cinemagoers got a taste of the city’s auction history in the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave,” where Solomon Northup is trafficked through one of Richmond’s slave jails in 1841. Receipts from Richmond slave sales in 1857 totaled $3.5 million, which equates to about $106 million in 2018 dollars.

My Ancestors Love Me

Egunfemi, born in New Jersey and raised in Richmond from the third grade, learned none of this in school, despite taking Advanced Placement U.S. History. (Last year, the Kellogg Foundation gave a racial-healing grant to the Richmond-based non-profit that led the 1993 unity walk. It will be used, in part, to ensure that every Richmond pupil is given a guided tour of the Slave Trail.)

She credits a trail walk hosted by Elegba Folklore Society around Juneteenth in 2000 with opening her eyes to Richmond’s untold history. As early as 1998, however, her sisters circle of seven other women met regularly at Ancarrow’s Landing, a boat launch that was home to the Manchester Docks. The docks were a jumping off point for enslaved persons traveling by ship, who were packed into boats to sail south around Florida to the slave markets along the Mississippi River.

Free Egunfemi at work.  “Typography is my superpower,” she says. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Egunfemi is a fourth-generation African spiritualist whose surname, which means “my ancestors love me” in Yoruba, was derived in a roots ceremony in 2014. Dressed in white, the members of her circle would make offerings to their ancestors along the banks of the James River with white flowers, coconuts, and moonshine brewed from rainwater. On the advice of their ancestors, they substituted magnolia leaves, buckeyes, and pine cones for plants such as the kola nut traditionally used in Yoruba divination.

The spiritual conviction that members of this community can tell their own story, the story of their ancestors, is what motivates much of her work. (Her first name, Free, is an homage to ancestors who settled on Pocahontas Island, one of the oldest black communities in the U.S. that was home to a large number of free black residents.)

Egunfemi has soured on the glacial pace of the formal memorialization process, which has failed to deliver thus far on a decade of promises for commemoration. “We’ll be dead before a [museum] happens,” she tells me. But her defiant streak also stems from how she is perceived for her spiritual beliefs.

“There’s a deliberate tone deafness from those that are working in this space, that they don’t understand or care to understand that people are taking care of this ancestral work as a result of their spiritual practice,” she says. “You’re talking about commemoration but there hasn’t been a recognition that this is ancestor remembrance, not just history for history’s sake.”

Egunfemi sees an ecumenical underpinning to civic dialogue on the subject, as when the city erected the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue in 2007 concurrently with similar statues in Liverpool, the main British port for slaving ships, and the Republic of Benin, where African slavers captured victims to sell. She rejects reconciliation. “Why reconcile when there is only one guilty party?” she asks.

Ultimately, Egunfemi believes that the heavily Christian identity of Richmond’s populace — especially within the black community — disdains her spiritual practice. “They believe that this is devil worship,” she says. However, Reverend Sylvester “Tee” Turner, a Slave Trail Commission member, told Next City, “I do not consider it as devil’s work and I have learned to respect it.” Bell, who Egunfemi regards as a respected elder, is also a spiritualist and sits on the commission.

Egunfemi was part of the protest movement against Dwight Jones’ harebrained stadium proposal. But in 2013, she says her godfather told her, “I’m tired of you blocking, it’s time to start building.” She took his advice to heart and founded Untold RVA the next year with a mission to tell the city’s untold historic narratives in order to inspire self-determination in today’s Richmonders. A serial entrepreneur who has hustled as a face painter, loc twister, jewelry importer, and even a vegan iron-chef champion, she incorporated as an LLC, having no interest in grant-based non-profit fundraising.

Along the way, Egunfemi has ingratiated herself with Richmond’s creative community, the folks who moved into Shockoe Bottom’s converted tobacco warehouses for cheaper rent and a patina of historic authenticity. This is a neighborhood where an artisan denim manufacturer chose to set up a workshop that acknowledges the slave-trading past, but increasingly a neighborhood where homegrown bank Capital One has set up a business incubator.

At first, Untold RVA was a self-directed effort and a money-losing proposition. In conjunction with a carpenter, she made wooden signs, called “portals,” at a cost of $600 each — a big expenditure, especially if any were stolen or vandalized. Then she discovered posters and had a revelation. “Typography is my superpower,” she says.

In 2014, she won a $1,500 grant from Feast RVA, an event where patrons make a small donation and then vote on which artist presentation should receive the total sum. Egunfemi pitched an idea to put the stories of historic black Richmonders on city buses. The idea never panned out, but the approval was validating.

“Even if the established memorialization community wasn’t going to support what I was doing, I knew that my friends in the creative community — the maker, doer, start-up, DIY media, blogosphere in Richmond — were all supportive,” she says.

Egunfemi also discovered that her modus operandi had a name: tactical urbanism, a term she learned from Ryan Rinn, executive director of Richmond’s Storefront for Community Design. (Rinn’s is the voice in the Emily Winfree recording.)

“She’s the consummate tactical urbanist in Richmond,” Rinn tells Next City, over Jamaican food near the storefront’s office, where wild inversions of the city’s iconically controversial Robert E. Lee statue festoon the walls, the product of a recent design studio. “For someone not trained in design, her aesthetic is unique, recognizable, and worthwhile for our city’s landscape.”

Over the last five years, Untold RVA has been Egunfemi’s umbrella for what seems like too many side hustles for one person to manage. Over a fried seafood lunch at Sugar’s Crab Shack, she lays them out. She gives tours for scholars and occasionally tourists, but downplays those because of limited time. Institutions such as local colleges and museums hire her to teach the history of Shockoe Bottom to students through interactive workshops that include candle-lighting ceremonies, poster-making, and narrative recording sessions. Richmond Region Tourism contracted her to do the same for hospitality industry workers.

Today, she is the social-entrepreneur-in-residence at the Six Points Innovation Center, a teen community center. 6PIC is in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification — something else Egunfemi hopes to halt. She’s created a plan to paint walls and put up posters to signify that the block is a black ethnic enclave before any outside investors attempt to buy up properties.

“My ancestors speak to me through the language of bright ideas,” she says.

Unseating the “Lost Cause” Lie

Egunfemi maintains a hard-line stance in favor of the tactical-urbanism approach for commemorating the history of enslaved persons in Richmond. “I don’t think we should use Gilded Age methods to memorialize ancestors,” she says. “Why build a $1-million statue when the schools are falling apart?” (A statue of Maggie Lena Walker, a Richmond native daughter who was the first black woman to serve as president of a bank, was unveiled last year. There are also statues in Richmond of tennis great Arthur Ashe, the free and enslaved boatmen who plied the city’s canals, and of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself to freedom.)

A statue honors Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man in Richmond who, at the age of 33, packed himself in a wooden crate and shipped himself to an abolitionist in Philadelphia, thereby securing his freedom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

She is critical of the Slave Trail Commission signage for being too wordy, likening it to a textbook that no passerby will stop to read, although others find the signs — some of which were crafted by Bell — engaging and informative. In the face of audio technology where she can track the area code of incoming calls, she believes text and sculpture too static and not adapted to today’s digital culture. “With a monument, you can’t get any feedback,” she says. Her goal is to make people want to take pictures and share online — to make Richmond’s untold history go viral.

Egunfemi’s unorthodox attitude comes at a critical time when many believe that formal memorialization is a necessary counterpart to existing monuments. In the wake of Charlottesville, the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue and other statues glorifying Confederate soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is a perennial topic of conversation for the national media. For as long as Lee remains on his pedestal, many local activists are more interested in the kind of additive approach that building up history in Shockoe Bottom can provide.

New-World memorials and museums are opening regularly, from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama to the Memorial ACTe slavery museum in Guadeloupe, which sees 300,000 visitors annually. Charleston’s International African-American Museum is slated to open in 2020 and Rio is debating a slavery museum. Two years ago, the U.S. chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites launched a national initiative to inventory sites for the UNESCO Slave Route Project.

Richmond has a site of conscience as significant as those recognized by UNESCO — Gorée Island in Senegal and the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in Ghana — even if currently, most of it is buried under a parking lot.

“People will flock here like when you go to the dungeons in West Africa,” Bell says. “People go there, stand at the Door of No Return, prostrate themselves on the floor, pour libation, feel the presence of people. They want to know.”

Public historian Christy Coleman, head of the American Civil War Museum, concurs. “People are flocking to these places,” she says, also citing the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, which centers the enslaved experience.

“For so long Richmond hung its hat solely on its role in the Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ mythology,” she says. “Part of the lost-cause mythology was that slavery wasn’t that bad. The acknowledgment of the second-largest slave trading port in Richmond, Virginia unseats that lie.”

Coleman is quick to acknowledge Untold RVA’s strength. “The guerrilla [approach] — it’s frigging fantastic the way that they get the message out,” she says. “Too often folks like that are not brought to the table for creative solutions. There’s an innovation that happens when you don’t have money.”

But she still believes that a formally sanctioned historical park — she favors the 9-acre proposal and doesn’t believe a large facility is necessary — is the best way to draw widespread attention.

“The rest of the world needs to know about this place,” Coleman says.

Whether they ever will remains an open question, as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown comes next year, with few signs that Shockoe Bottom will have been transformed into a globally significant site of memory by then.

“If the history people don’t get their act together, they’re going to lose out,” warns Coleman. “Not because [real estate developers] have money, but because they have a vision.”

The Urban Land Institute sent a team to Richmond in February with the goal of advancing economic development alongside uncovering more of the neighborhood’s antebellum heritage. Louis Solomonsky runs the most active real estate development and management company operating in Shockoe Bottom, which over 25 years has accumulated a portfolio of more than 1,000 apartments. “We’re hoping and crossing our fingers that the Slave Trail Commission can develop their park and museum,” he says in his Shockoe Bottom office, piled high with blueprints. Solomonsky’s latest proposal is for a hotel where the baseball stadium would have stood.

“Our city council refuses to even have an opinion on Shockoe Bottom,” Edwards laments. (City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents the district that includes the Bottom and serves on the Slave Trail Commission, declined to comment for this story.)

“We are being presented with a black electoral leadership front that seems to be an obstacle. But the main reason that they would be the obstacle would be because they either know or are afraid that their funding or support will be pulled if they do this,” Edwards says, affirming that support comes from the white Richmond establishment. Despite her frustration, she remains hopeful that, in collaborating with the city to “make the case for the economic significance of the site’s use in the way articulated by our plan,” they can influence the ultimate outcome of Richmond’s master planning process, including the plan to celebrate the city’s tricentennial.

Signs of gentrification in Shockoe Bottom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s office will issue a proclamation on August 30 declaring “Gabriel Week.” Osita Iroegbu, Senior Policy Advisor for Community Engagement, Inclusion and Equity, told Next City via email, “The Mayor is working collaboratively with the community and other stakeholders on the best ways to honor and memorialize the history of Shockoe Bottom while simultaneously working to ensure any future effort will create educational, cultural and equitable economic opportunities for all City residents in terms of access to employment, minority business inclusion and affordable housing opportunities.”

Egunfemi, who spent years in the trenches, is ultimately agnostic, confident that she and other spiritualists will continue to make offerings at the African Burial Ground to Gabriel and their ancestors no matter what type of official memorial is erected in the vicinity. Meanwhile, she’ll keep mixing wheat paste.

“I’m going to be putting up signs for the rest of my life. And my kids will be too.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended to correct several errors. The name of the slavery dungeon owner cited in the first sentence was Omohundro, not Alejandro. The kola nut is used in Yoruba divination, not Igbo. And Free Egunfemi did not say the land of Shockoe was her ancestors’ land.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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