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Race and reconciliation event commemorating slave life in Virginia draws crowd with music, historical readings

”We had very bad eatin’. Bread, meat, water.

And they fed it to us in a trough, jes’ like the hogs.

And I went in my shirt till I was 16, never had no clothes.

And the floor in our cabin was dirt, and at night we’d jes’ take a blanket and lay down on the floor.

The dog was superior to us; they would take him in the house.”

That was how Richard Tole, a slave in America, described his life on a Virginia plantation in the early 1800s.

More than 200 years later, his words were on display in Richmond on Sunday at The Gallery at Main Street Station, where scores of people gathered to commemorate the lives of enslaved Africans brought to America from 1619 through the end of the Civil War.

The program came less than a week after Virginia’s elected leaders and others celebrated the 400th anniversary of representative democracy in North America — along with a darker pivotal event that took place in 1619: the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on Virginia’s shores and the beginning of slavery here.

A large, colorful placard with Tole’s words was among several exhibits on display Sunday that included slave-era artifacts, such as fragments of ceramic dinner plates and whiteware, tobacco pipes, pharmaceutical bottles and even the sole and heel of a shoe that were among the few possessions of those held in bondage in Virginia and Richmond.

Attendees also came for the African-inspired music and the authentic readings of the African story in Virginia during a three-hour program, Unbound 2019: Truth and Reconciliation.

The event, sponsored by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, Norfolk State University and the Library of Virginia, featured state Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander of Norfolk State.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney also made an appearance. During an impromptu speech, he offered his view of what the event signified for African Americans, who made up the vast majority of the crowd.

Unbound, Stoney said, means to remove the binding constraints that hold back a people.

“Unbound means to be free, to be who you are, where you are,” the mayor said. “But the word I like to talk about is evaluation. And I think we can look back now 400 years [to] the first enslaved Africans’ arrival on this space. We have to go back.”

“But brown and black people here to this day ... are not free to be who they are, what they are,” he said, drawing some vocal approval from the audience. “And this is an evaluation here. We have to evaluate how far we’ve come, but also how much more we need to go.”

“We are not free,” Stoney said, until African Americans are afforded better housing. “And we are not free when a young man or young woman walks down the street ... and they are profiled because of the color of their skin. And we are not free when we have leaders that seek to divide us.”

As performers played or sung gospel and revival music with ancestral roots, many in the crowd stood, swayed and clapped in rhythm.

“I came here because this is a historical event. You have to understand your past to understand your future,” said Charles Wingo, a former Richmond resident who now lives in Powhatan. “Being a black man, our ancestors fought, died and built this country, and we don’t always get the recognition we deserve.

“And this is just to enlighten people to some of the things we’ve done, and why it’s important to know some of the things we’ve done and teach our young people that,” he added. “If you know where you came from ... then you can progress and can build on that. That’s why I’m here.”

Thomas Jefferson II, who said he was born 73 years ago in Amelia County, said he came to learn what reconciliation and being unbound mean in contemporary times.

“We need to be free in thinking and words and action,” he said. “And we do that whether you’re black or brown or white. We have to know the facts, and ask God to give us the faith to work on the facts.”

Valerie Gilbert, also of Richmond, said she came to celebrate her heritage. “And it’s also a wonderful commemoration. It’s so timely. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.”

Gilbert said she attended Tuesday’s event at the Lumpkin’s Jail site in Shockoe Bottom, which was the second-largest hub of the slave trade in America. And as she sat there for two hours, sweating in the heat, she thought about the suffering her ancestors must have gone through as slaves.

“I don’t know how they endured it,” Gilbert said. “I felt so bad, complaining about the two hours I spent there. I said, shame on me. The little inconveniences that we have — when we have a storm and lose our electricity — are very minute” in comparison.

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How did we get here? A timeline of plans for the $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment deal

What would be the biggest economic development project in Richmond’s history will land in front of the City Council on Monday, setting in motion a review that could change the trajectory of the city for years to come.

The $1.5 billion proposal would replace the Richmond Coliseum and redevelop a swath of publicly owned downtown real estate — but only if it clears the nine-member council that has vowed a thorough vetting. The process begins Monday, when Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney will formally introduce the plans at a special meeting of the council.

Supporters say the project will transform downtown and generate millions in new tax dollars that could help improve city services. The proposal could bring 12,300 jobs during a five-year building period and 9,300 permanent jobs after construction ends, according to a report commissioned by the private group angling for the deal.

Skeptics aren’t sold. They have scrutinized the rosy revenue projections the mayor has touted and criticized the complex financial setup on which the massive deal relies. Stoney has promised the project will not leave taxpayers on the hook if it does not pan out. Detractors have balked: They’ve heard that before.

The plans call for a 17,500-seat arena, the largest in the state; a high-rise hotel with at least 525 rooms; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income of about $83,000 for a family of four; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC bus riders; and infrastructure improvements to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the area.

How did we get here?

June 2017 — Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell and a group of corporate leaders publicly indicated interest in building a new coliseum and redeveloping the area around the existing facility.

November 2017 — Stoney announced a request for proposals seeking development plans for a roughly 10-block area north of Broad Street around the Coliseum. He called the arena, 46 years old at the time, a “decaying public asset.”

Stoney also listed other goals. Among them: a new hotel; preservation of the historic Blues Armory; new housing reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; and a transfer station for GRTC bus riders.

What Stoney laid out echoed the goals of Farrell’s group. “I am well-aware of their ideas, but this is a city of Richmond project,” Stoney said at the time. Would-be developers were given 90 days to respond.

February 2018 — After 90 days, the city received one response to its North of Broad Redevelopment solicitation. Who submitted it? NH District Corp., Farrell’s group.

The Stoney administration began reviewing the proposal but declined to release it, citing an exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that allows a locality to withhold documents that could harm its bargaining position.

June 2018 — The Stoney administration announced it would negotiate with Farrell’s group.

July 2018 — A Richmond Times-Dispatch report made public details about the then-$1.4 billion proposal that the Stoney administration had kept secret until that point. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the project’s financing depends on the establishment of a special tax zone called a tax-increment financing district.

New real estate tax revenues from within the zone’s boundaries would be set aside to help pay for the cost of the Coliseum redevelopment project. In effect, those dollars would not go to the city’s general fund, from which core services like public schools and the police department receive their annual budgets.

Farrell’s group wanted the zone to expand well beyond the area north of Broad Street to take advantage of new tax revenue from an office tower Dominion is building, according to the documents. The utility company quietly submitted plans for a second tower, as well.

August 2018 — Stoney said he would not pitch the plans to the City Council in September, citing dissatisfaction with NH District Corp.’s willingness to meet goals he set for affordable housing and minority business participation.

Days after making the comments, the Stoney administration said it had made progress toward meeting those same goals, though the substance of the ongoing negotiations remained private.

November 2018 — At a downtown news conference, Stoney pledged support for NH District Corp.’s plan and promised to submit the proposal to the council “in the coming weeks,” though he said certain details would require additional negotiation.

He emphasized the project posed “no risk” to the city, even if its revenue projections did not come to fruition. “The developers and bondholders will shoulder 100 percent of the risk for this project, and not the city,” he said.

December 2018 — The City Council established a citizen advisory commission to review the proposal in advance of receiving it. Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn told the council there was “no need” to take the step.

Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who proposed the idea, disagreed. “This is not an attempt to hurt this project or slow it down,” Gray said at the time. “It’s an attempt to get as much information as we can.”

January 2019 — The Richmond Coliseum is shuttered after 47 years. The Stoney administration says it cost more than $1 million annually to maintain the facility.

February 2019 — With NH District Corp.’s plans still under negotiation, a local developer proposed an alternate plan, saying there should be more than one option for city leaders to consider.

“What was being presented, it’s a concern, not only for me but the city as a whole,” said Joshua Bilder, of Sterling Bilder LLC, who pitched the idea. The Stoney administration dismissed Bilder’s plan, saying it came well after the deadline set in the RFP and would not have met muster even if Bilder had submitted it on time.

April 2019 — The Stoney administration declined to release documents about the project it had previously provided the Richmond Times-Dispatch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Paul Goldman, a persistent critic of the mayor and a self-identified skeptic of the project, filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court to fight the denial. Goldman is a former head of the Democratic Party of Virginia. He is also a former law partner of one of Stoney’s opponents in the 2016 mayoral race, Joe Morrissey, of whom Goldman is a longtime political ally.

May 2019 — A Richmond judge ordered the Stoney administration to give Goldman the documents it previously provided the newspaper. The Stoney administration challenged the directive, but eventually relented and gave Goldman the documents he requested.

However, the full proposal remained secret, and Stoney won’t say when he intended to unveil it, citing still ongoing negotiations with NH District Corp.

July 2019 — Goldman said he collected more than 14,000 signatures to amend the City Charter by adding language that could stymie the project. The amendment would require 51% of the money captured through the tax increment financing zone to instead go toward modernizing city schools. An ongoing review of the signatures will determine whether the proposed charter change appears on the November ballot.

Stoney called the referendum “a political stunt” in response to a question about it last week.

August 2019

  • — Concluding 17 months of negotiations with Farrell’s group, Stoney announces he will introduce a package of ordinances advancing the $1.5 billion project at a special meeting of the City Council on Monday at noon.

Former Richmond priest, Memphis bishop to be removed from mural after named on list of accused abusers

Bishop Carroll Dozier, a Richmond native, was known for decades as the first Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Memphis in Tennessee. He was remembered in a New York Times obituary as a social activist, advocating for racial harmony and opposing the Vietnam War.

In 2016, his face was included on a mural in Memphis across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum honoring people in the city’s history who stood up to injustice. He was painted alongside Ida B. Wells, the famous African-American journalist and civil rights activist, and the Catholic nuns who cared for disadvantaged people suffering from yellow fever in the late 1800s.

But Dozier’s image is being replaced because his legacy now includes accusations that he sexually abused children. Dozier was among the priests named in February whom Bishop Barry Knestout of the Diocese of Richmond deemed were credibly accused of sexually abusing children.

In his more than 30 years working in the Richmond Diocese, Dozier had been assigned to Christ the King in Norfolk, St. Joseph in Petersburg and St. Victoria in Hurt before leaving to lead the Diocese of Memphis in 1970. The accusation was made after his death in 1985, according to the Diocese of Richmond.

“As soon as we saw that, we knew he didn’t belong on the mural,” said Marti Tippens-Murphy, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves Memphis Region, the nonprofit that commissioned the mural. “It’s painful information to receive to know that there were victims. … We certainly wouldn’t want to contribute to that pain by having this representation on our mural.”

Confronting the legacy of religious leaders now accused of committing or covering up abuse is an issue the Catholic dioceses in Virginia are also facing in light of renewed attention to the church’s sexual abuse scandal. The release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report last year detailed abuse of at least 1,000 children by about 300 priests in that state.

Knestout announced a new policy in late June prohibiting any new diocesan institutions, schools and parish buildings from being named after any priest or other individual. New buildings will be named for saints, religious concepts, titles for God or geographical locations instead. But the policy doesn’t apply to rooms or wings in existing buildings or to signs recognizing donors.

The only name change occurring in the Richmond Diocese is that of Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach. The school was named after the late Richmond Bishop Walter Sullivan, but will transition to simply “Catholic High School” over the next year.

The change is coming after a Virginian-Pilot report last month on Tom Lee, a Norfolk resident who says he was abused at St. John Vianney Seminary, a diocesan-run high school in Goochland County for boys planning to enter the priesthood. It operated from 1960 to 1978. Lee called for the school’s name to be changed in light of the bishop’s response to abuse allegations during his tenure.

“I speak for the victims who came forward in 2001 to tell their story of the sexual abuse that occurred at St. John Vianney Seminary,” Lee wrote in a June statement.

“Our credibility was covered up by Bishop Walter Sullivan who hid facts from the Diocesan Review Panel and allowed Fr. John Leonard to continue ministry which put more children at risk. I am grateful to Bishop Knestout for taking action by removing Bishop Sullivan’s name from the High School. This will go a long way in the healing process.”

Deborah Cox, spokeswoman for the Richmond Diocese, said that she was unable to say how many diocesan locations are currently named after a priest on the list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor, which includes 49 names. She said that would require her to request all the names in each of more than 142 parishes in the diocese.

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which covers the northern part of Virginia, is aware of one parish hall and three councils of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, named after priests who were included in a list of accused clergy, according to Billy Atwell, the diocese spokesman.

Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge directed the parish to rename the hall shortly after the list of accused was released in February, Atwell said.

The Knights of Columbus chapters are also renaming their councils, which were named after Harris Findlay, Robert Nudd and Austin Ryder, all priests who worked in both the Richmond and Arlington dioceses and died by 1981. The councils will be renamed after Catholic saints.

“If a priest is found credibly accused of the sexual abuse of a minor and his name is associated with a parish building, facility or institution, it will be removed,” Atwell said in an email, although he would not say whether the Diocese of Arlington has a written policy on naming.

In a letter explaining the naming policy in Richmond, Knestout said that he was asking local administrators to exercise “prudential judgment” before making any changes and was leaving it up to various Catholic institutions to come up with their own policies on naming.

“Overcoming the tragedy of abuse is not just about holding accountable those who have committed abuses; it is also about seriously examining the role and complex legacies of individuals who should have done more to address the crisis in real time,” Knestout wrote in the letter.

“The continued honorific recognition of those individuals provides a barrier to healing for our survivors, and we want survivors to know that we welcome and support them in our Diocese.”

For David Brown, a representative of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Tennessee chapter, the removal of Dozier from the mural in Memphis is a first step.

According to Brown, Dozier’s name remains on a number of awards and institutions in Tennessee and that is painful for those who suffered abuse at the hands of clergy.

“They’re walking the halls of these buildings, hearing about these awards that are given,” Brown said. “Can you imagine the message it sends to them that this person is still highly esteemed though he is a pedophile?”

The fact that Dozier was able to become a bishop in Tennessee, even after allegedly abusing children in Virginia, is further evidence that the Catholic Church was moving abusers from place to place, exposing more and more children to danger, said Brown, who says that he was abused by a priest, Paul Haas, when he was 15.

“They did interstate trafficking of pedophiles,” Brown said. “They didn’t tell the other states and dioceses what they were getting into.”

Brown also said that the hurt is compounded by the fact that the Diocese of Memphis still has not released a list of priests accused of sexual abuse of a minor, although it has promised to do so.

“As your Bishop, I promise to do everything in my power to safeguard our children and youth and to help those who are victims of abuse,” said Memphis Bishop David Talley, who took his post in April. “We must be transparent and bring to light any wrongdoings of the past so healing can take place.”

Talley has directed the Diocesan Review Board, a group of laity tasked with deliberating on sexual abuse in the church, to prepare a list of credibly accused clergy and has authorized the hiring of a professional investigator to help the board complete its task “as expeditiously as possible.”

“The Memphis Review Board is actively investigating the matter of Bishop Dozier, and Bishop Talley is assisting them in their efforts to collect whatever information from outside the Diocese might be available to them,” said Amy Hall, a diocese spokeswoman, in a statement.

”Since the Memphis Review Board has not yet completed their review, at this time the Diocese does not want to pre-judge their recommendation.”

Meanwhile, Dozier’s face still appears on the mural in Memphis as Facing History and Ourselves comes close to selecting another person to replace him, which it is expected to announce soon, Tippens-Murphy said.

“When we conceived of creating a mural on the outside of our building, our aim was to celebrate Memphis’ leading historical figures who have made invaluable contributions to bringing our communities together and moving forward across racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. It was in that spirit that we included Bishop Dozier,” Facing History and Ourselves wrote in a statement.

“Given the allegations against Bishop Dozier, we have decided that [it is] in the best interests of our students, schools, and communities, to replace Bishop Dozier with another [yet to be named] Memphis historical figure. We wish to extend our sincerest wishes of comfort, healing and strength to the victims and families touched by the scourge of clergy sex abuse.”

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/times-dispatch  

Evelyn Woodward-Johnson sang with JG5, her daughters, during Unbound 2019 at The Gallery at Main Street Station on Sunday.