As another long cold, snowy winter is predicted for the eastern two-thirds of the United States, Richmond, Virginia comes into focus as a place to be. It is a blue sweet spot in a state of red. Once the capital of the Confederate States of America (Lincoln referred to them as the “so-called Confederacy”) during the War of Northern Aggression, Richmond is a modern day city thriving with Virginia Commonwealth University at its hub.
Here in Richmond, the famous words Give me Liberty or give me Death were spoken by Patrick Henry in 1775. In 1997, the General Assembly voted to cancel the 1940 adoption of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny as the Virginia state song, in response to criticism that the words of the song “glorified” slavery.
That segues to our walk along the Slave Trail on the James River in Richmond today. It has been said that slavery was a stain on America. Please! That’s hardly a potent enough noun to characterize this tragedy. Recorded in the history books that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, phooey. That sounds like spin to me. It was all about enslaving fellow human beings for King Cotton.
Hannah’s College of Wooster classmate Bambi offers us the opportunity to educate ourselves further about this “peculiar institution” (an historical euphemism for slavery meant to defend its use despite the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal”).
Having seen Bambi maybe once in the 40+ years since they graduated from college in Ohio, Hannah reconnects immediately as if they are just down the corridor at Wagner Hall. Just as active as we are, Bambi arranges a walk in Richmond to satisfy our neurotic urge to exercise any day, every day.
Winding our way by car past a recycling and waste treatment center on the James River, in shirt sleeves we pull into the parking for the Slave Trail on this mid-October day.
It begins at Manchester Docks, a major port in the massive downriver Slave Trade that made Richmond the largest source of enslaved Africans on the east coast of America from 1830 to 1860.
Parking for what seems to be for 50 cars leads us to this river front trail. Along the trail are 17 explanation markers about this despicable time in American history. From my brief exposure to the trail, it seems like these trail signs are not sanitized to absolve the white Southerners of the 18th and 19th centuries or demonize them.
From Explanation Three.
We were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts, with a short chain about a foot long uniting the handcuffs and their wearers in pairs. In this manner we were chained alternately by the right and left hand; and the poor man to whom I was ironed wept like an infant. Charles Bell, 1854.
Across the river from Richmond, we three spend the time catching up. Bambi was a sociology major in a time when a liberal arts education was held in high esteem (At Wooster, I majored in political science and Hannah in physical education.) Service was at the center of the lives for many of us Flower Children of the Sixties.
Winding along the James River, we are in a rural setting in the Richmond metropolitan area where 1.3 million people live and work. As you would expect, the three mile river trail is level and tree covered; accessible to all ages, shapes, and sizes. The dirt trail gives way to concrete sidewalks in front of massive flood walls along the James. Here the trail is wide enough for the three of us to walk side by side.
Built in the late 18th century, the Mayo Bridge was the access over the James for slaves and slave traders. Today, we cross on a crumbling sidewalk to the side of its four lane highway into the heart of Richmond. In the past, the James River was an industrial river that no one loved. Why in the mid-20th century, public access to the river was prohibited given its status as an open sewer. Today Richmond area residents are rightfully proud of the area and take full advantage of its multi-use trails and recreation opportunities.
The climate in Richmond begs New Englanders to head south. Average highs are in the mid-40s in January and by April highs are in the low 70s. Snow? Even a snowy first winter by local standards for our son Will and his fiancee Laurel still meant that Will never shoveled once! It snows, it melts, and it’s gone. Sounds like a dream world.
The temperature does rise inside VCU’s Siegel Center where Coach Shaka Smart has led the Rams to the NCAA basketball tournament each of the last four years. Fifty-two straight sell outs are testament to the appeal of VCU’s fast break offense and swarming “HAVOC” defense.
Being close to three in the afternoon, we lunch al fresco at the Sine Irish Pub in the Shackoe Bottom section of bustling downtown Richmond. With no one about, we have a private “room” watching the world go by. Forty years of lives unfold as we share our journeys and Bambi shares hers.
It’s a delightfully warm three mile walk back to the trailhead as we enjoy the sunshine, the exercise, and especially reconnecting with a new “old friend.”