Day of Reconciliation and Commitment in Richmond, Virginia
05 April 2007
Five thousand people celebrated the unveiling of a Reconciliation statue on March 30 at the site of Richmond’s former slave market. In this place of horror, where 300,000 kidnapped Africans and their descendants were torn from their families and “sold down the river” to Southern plantations, a symbol of healing gives hope for a new future.
The Ambassador of Benin called it “a blessed completion” of a triangle of new relationships between Benin, Richmond, and Liverpool, UK – each of which had profited hugely from the traffic in human flesh.
The statue of two figures in a close embrace, by Liverpool artist Stephen Broadbent, is one of three identical monuments now in place at each point of the triangle. It stands at the heart of the business district, in a specially designed plaza. Water from a cascading fountain flows over a map of the slave triangle. An inscription describes the suffering of the millions of Africans who were transported from their homeland. It concludes, “Their forced labor laid the economic foundations of this nation.”
“Our ancestors longed and prayed for this day,” said Rev. Benjamin Campbell, whose vision led to Richmond’s first “walk through history” organized by Hope in the Cities in 1993, and the marking of sites on the historic Slave Trail. He opened the event by welcoming everyone in the name of the Powhatan people, on whose land the city was built, the European settlers, the hundreds of thousands brought from Africa into bondage, the prophets of freedom, and those who had repented for the sins of racism.
Governor Timothy Kaine told the crowd that the resolution of “profound regret” by the state’s General Assembly in February was appropriate, since Virginia had “promoted… defended… and fought to preserve” slavery. In his keynote address, Dr.John Kinney, dean of the school of theology at Virginia Union University, said racial reconciliation, like surgery, carries a degree of risk. But it also offers the prospect of eliminating the pain of past and present generations and opening the way to a new future. He challenged the crowd, “Today is not a conclusion. Today is a day of commitment.”
Delores McQuinn, vice president of Richmond City Council, and chair of the Slave Trail Commission, recalled her enslaved great-grandfather. When his son asked to see the records of his family, the plantation owner burned them before his eyes. “If I stand here today, I cannot be a hypocrite,“ said McQuinn. “ I too must extend forgiveness from the depth of my heart and soul.”
Kim Johnson, diversity manager for Liverpool City Council, led a delegation of fifteen, representing local government, education and community organizations. On behalf of the Lord Mayor, she presented a framed copy of the city council’s 1999 apology for its leading role in the slave trade. She called for open and honest dialogue. “Only by taking personal responsibility will we bring about lasting change.”
Ambassador Segbe Cyrille Oguin of Benin told how in 1999 President Kerekou had launched a program of reconciliation between Africa, Europe and America by apologizing for his country’s role in selling fellow Africans. The following year he sent a delegation to Richmond to repeat the apology. “The Republic of Benin, that was unfortunately involved in those shameful deeds, is now here, taking part in this duty of memory, and the noble desire to restore our broken-down relationships,” said the ambassador. The ambassadors of the Gambia, Niger and Sierra Leone were also present at the unveiling.
Audrey Brown Burton, one of Richmond’s pioneers for racial healing said afterwards, “I saw something I thought would never happen in this city.” An inscription on the base of the sculpture, composed by Richmond school students, reads, “Acknowledge the past, embrace the present, shape a future of reconciliation and justice.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch headlined its front page story, “A monument to reconciliation.”
Ten years of coordinated efforts by Hope in the Cities teams in Richmond and Liverpool, working with both city governments, as well as visits to Benin, have played an essential role in facilitating the Reconciliation Triangle project. The Liverpool delegation spent several days in Richmond following the unveiling ceremony, to exchange experiences of honest conversation and trust building. Educators in public and private schools in Richmond hope that, by linking students with their peers in Benin and Liverpool, the Triangle can help to overcome one of slavery’s legacies – the prevailing racial and economic separation in the region’s schools.