When I joined the Leadership Metro Richmond’s Quest Class of 2020, I had no idea the lessons I would be in for. I am not a native Richmonder, and prior to Virginia I lived in several states across our country. Unfortunately, what connects many of the cities I have lived in is the erasure of local black history (Richmond included). By choosing to ignore the former existence of certain people, places and events, valuable information and stories are slowly erased from our history. I came to this overarching realization while researching with my Leadership Quest Immersion Team (focused on criminal justice reform), as I attempted to locate Lumpkin’s Jail site to better understand the history of the criminalization of Black Richmonders.
To my surprise, I drove by the site unknowingly frequently. I spent so long trying to find this location that had sent so many off to enslavement or the gallows, a location I passed by every day. I just kept thinking to myself, ”How has this not been highlighted by the city? Every single slave who passed through here was sent to their death either through the enslavement auction block or the gallows, both of which were just beyond the tunnel. What am I going to do about this?”
These questions swirled around in my mind throughout the rest of my Quest experience, especially as my Richmond knowledge grew deeper through my involvement with the Navy Hill conversations, the Arthur Ashe Boulevard Commission, Cristo Rey Richmond High School and BridgePark RVA. As I was surrounded in our Quest seminar each month by community leaders from across the Richmond region, I was continuously reminded to keep pushing and working to make Richmond even better. What I began to understand most about this city and its citizens is that we are bursting at the seams with amazing ideas, but the unacknowledged pain of the city’s Black descendants continues to halt forward movement. How can this community move forward without owning up to the actions of its past? The thriving slave markets of Shockoe Bottom and the destruction of the Black community to build interstate 95 are just a couple examples of the history I had to dig to uncover as a curious new resident of the area.
My LMR experience helped propel me into the creation of a widely accessible, digitally available tour called Hidden in Plain Site, also known as HiPS. Alongside my business partners, Dean Browell and David Waltenbaugh, we explored and gathered data to create the initial tour. Our data was then both confirmed and enriched by a multitude of local resources including but not limited to LMR alumni such as Brelan Hillman (LMR ‘20) from my Criminal Justice Reform Immersion Team and Bill Martin (LMR ’07), Director of The Valentine Museum. The result is a free virtual tour of Black Richmond history, accessible by mobile phone, desktop, and/or virtual reality headset.
This is just the beginning. The current tour is part one of a series of tours that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster of both joy and pain throughout our amazing city. We want you to not only see the connections between the past and present but feel them as well. The HiPS team is in the process of acquiring funding that will allow us to continue to provide these experiences for free to the public, as well as incorporating them into local school curriculums. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is planning to house the tour as a permanent exhibit and additional plans are moving forward for traveling exhibits at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. When research began with Dean and David, two White men, and they witnessed the pain these sites caused me as a Black man, that recognition touched us all. It is my hope that in being present for this experience, feeling together, and continuously asking ourselves “What am I going to do about this?” we can all create good for our community and move forward united.
J. Dontrese Brown
LMR Class of 2020
Executive Director, EDGE Center for Career Development