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Opponents of the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium rallied again Thursday, this time with a boost from a famous name: Solomon Northup.
At a rally in the Bottom on Thursday evening, descendants of Northup, whose story is featured in the Oscar-winning film "12 Years a Slave," read from their ancestor's account of his experience in a Shockoe slave jail in 1841.
A sign marking the area where Northup was purportedly held was affixed to the wall of the former Weiman's Bakery building at 17th and Grace streets, the same corner where Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced the development proposal last year. Activist Phil Wilayto placed the marker over a private-parking sign on the wall of the building, which was purchased by developers involved in the stadium proposal.
"This is Sacred Ground. Do Not Disturb," the marker read. "NO STADIUM ALLOWED!"
Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery, wrote a book about his ordeal, which includes a passage about being brought to Richmond before being shipped to New Orleans.
The precise location where Northup was held is something of a historical mystery -- many historians believe he was taken to a slave pen near Broad Street and what is now 16th Street -- but that didn't dull the excitement among the roughly 200 people who turned out to Thursday's event.
The rally was timed to coincide with the 149th anniversary of Liberation Day, when Richmond fell to Union troops.
At Lumpkin's Jail, a notorious slave-trading site, activists held a "libation ceremony" in which drinks were poured onto the ground to honor ancestral spirits and read accounts of the opening of slave jails.
"Today, we are gathered to reclaim Richmond," said Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality. "We are gathered to reclaim resistance."
The stars of the night were Linsey Williams and Justin Dixon Northup Gilliam, both great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Northup.
Williams, a 27-year-old school psychologist who lives in Fredericksburg, said she learned of the plans for Thursday's event on Facebook. She wanted to know more, and Richmonders were happy to oblige.
"There were quite a few people from the area who contacted me and provided me with a lot of information about what's going on here," Williams said.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Williams said she learned of her relation to Northup when she was about 10 and on a family trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Northup lived before his enslavement.
In his book, Northup wrote that he was taken to "Goodin's" jail, which many believe was a misspelling of "Goodwin."
William Goodwin and Henry Templeman advertised in 1834 that they were "prepared to take slaves for safe-keeping" at an establishment at 17th and Grace. By 1850, Goodwin was in business several blocks away, complicating efforts to pin down exactly where "Goodin's" was when Northup came through.
There was little mention Thursday of the $30 million that the mayor's plan envisions for a more robust commemoration of the Richmond slave trade.
In addition to the stadium and other private development, Jones has called for a pavilion at Lumpkin's, a slavery museum, and improvements to the Richmond Slave Trail and the African burial ground. The city plans to offer at least $5 million for the effort, with the rest coming from the state and the private sector.
Some have suggested that the development plan offers the best opportunity for a proper commemoration of black history.
Darrell Benton, a Shockoe resident who inquired about Thursday's crowd while passing by, said the stadium plan could bring a jolt of attention to the area's slave history.
"You need a platform. And the stadium is the platform," Benton said. "I think you build it."
Asked about the planned funding for slave history, Williams said archaeological excavation should come before construction plans.
"I don't think it's appropriate until we know exactly what we have here," Williams said.
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