Historian Goes Underground To Shed Light On Richmond's Role In Slave Trade

Dec 28, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 10:11 pm

When Donald Trump won the presidential election, he made a pledge to every citizen: that he would be president for all Americans. In the weeks before Trump's inauguration, we're going to hear about some of the communities that make up this nation, from the people who know them best, in our series Finding America.

Historian Free Egunfemi worries that the history of the black community in Richmond, Va., is getting lost.

"When people come to Richmond, it really feels like a hipster haven. The first thing you see is a lot of restaurants, you see a lot of social entrepreneurships, you see a lot of boutiques," Egunfemi says. "But I don't want people that look like me to be forgotten in the midst of that."

It's easy enough to find monuments celebrating Confederate history in Richmond. It's harder to find evidence of Richmond's role in the country's slave trade — unless you go underground.

Egunfemi explores the basement of a local restaurant that she believes was used in the Underground Railroad.

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the nation prepares to inaugurate a new president, we've been getting glimpses of some of the communities he will soon lead. Our series is called Finding America. Today we go to Richmond, Va.

FREE EGUNFEMI: When people come to Richmond, it really feels like a hipster haven. First thing you see is a lot of restaurants. You see a lot of social entrepreneurships. You see a lot of boutiques. But I don't want people that look like me to be forgotten in the midst of that.

SHAPIRO: Historian Free Egunfemi worries that the history of Richmond's black community is getting lost. It's easy enough to find monuments celebrating Confederate history in Richmond. It's harder to find evidence of Richmond's role in the country's slave trade unless you go underground, which is what Free Egunfemi and producer Kelley Libby did. A local restaurant employee led them into a basement that Egunfemi believes was used in the Underground Railroad.

EGUNFEMI: So as we come down in this hole...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, this hole - you're right, (inaudible).

EGUNFEMI: This basement is actually part of Sweet Teas restaurant, which is a black-owned soul food restaurant here in Shockoe Bottom in this section of downtown Richmond, Va.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lower your head down when you come down. Come on down.

EGUNFEMI: In this basement, you'll find a very low ceiling. You'll find very old bricks...

Yep, ouch.

...But certainly the ability to understand what this space could have been like in the 1800s.

Do you have a flashlight?

There's boarded-up and bricked-up tunnels that were used in the Underground Railroad.

(Laughter) So being down here right now today feels so strong because I know that this was the last space in Richmond that many people actually occupied before they whisked themselves to freedom and started a new life in places like Philadelphia.

OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Inaudible).

EGUNFEMI: Yes, let me get - you get...

This was something that I was able to uncover through conversations with the people that live and work here in digging for the untold story.

Did you hear about this when you first came? Did they tell you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The owner told us about all this.

EGUNFEMI: Richmond, Va., is the nucleus of the slave trade in Virginia because there were at least 300,000 people that were gathered from all over the surrounding counties and brought to ships and sold down the river. That's actually the term that they used - sold down the river to never see their families again.

We are only a few steps from auction blocks on every corner of this area. They're not marked. There's no memorials. There's no signage. There's no remnants. There's no evidence. All of this stuff has been erased to time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Inaudible).

EGUNFEMI: So you're going to have to shimmy up that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, (inaudible).

EGUNFEMI: Richmond is a majority black city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Little bit closer or what?

EGUNFEMI: There's more black people than any other background here in Richmond, Va., and our narratives have not been celebrated. Nor have our accomplishments.

There's two (unintelligible).

This is something that I feel is very important to be told by the descendant community itself, to be held as a historical remnant of all we were able to accomplish when the city and the state and the nation had laws on the books that made us not be able to have life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness like everyone else. So for my ancestors and for those that were enslaved here, tortured here, disrespected here, I say power to the people. May we never forget what this space represents for self-determination and self-liberation and all the things that go into people preserving their freedom. May it be so.

SHAPIRO: That's historian Free Egunfemi in Richmond, Va. Her story was produced by Kelley Libby. It comes to us from "Localore: Finding America," a national production of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. You can find more stories at NPR and at Finding America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM SONG, "BIDUAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.