$16 million from Mellon

On December 20, 2022, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced that the city had received an $11 million grant from the Mellon Foundation via its Monuments Project for the Shockoe heritage campus interpretive center. This award was part of a larger $16 million package from the Foundation’s Monuments Project aimed at Richmond’s revised monumental landscape. The funding marks the largest grant from the project to a municipal government. The headline is noteworthy. But it is worth digging into the specifics.

That $11 million is directed toward the creation of a welcome center and exhibition space in the first floor of Richmond’s Main Street Station, which adjoins the Lumpkin’s Jail site and the African Burial Ground, elements connected to the nationally significant history of the slave trade in this neighborhood. As heartening as it is to see the mayor and the Mellon Foundation endorse a heritage campus approach, the proposed interpretive center follows years of mysterious and apparently unrelated deliberations from expensive consultants like Smithgroup. It connects to a tension in the city’s own small area plan that declared a shiny new museum planned atop the Lumpkin’s Jail site to be a central architectural element, even while proposing “a Shockoe Interpretive Center, at Main Street Station or another location in Shockoe, as a community hub and point of origin for visitors.” The museum element is apparently still being pursued via a private National Slavery Museum Foundation. So despite the hefty expenditures to Smithgroup for a result that has yet to appear, the Monuments Project seems to back the proposals by the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and similar voices to deemphasize plans for an expensive new museum and make better use of the resources already present (including those at Main Street Station).

Five additional groups have received or will receive significant grants, raising the total directed from the Monuments Project to $16 million since 2020. These projects include:

What I do not see on this list is any funding or recognition of the memorial spaces for individual Black graves. The African Burial Ground and the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground will both presumably benefit indirectly from the grant projects, and that is praiseworthy. But the city of Richmond owns and maintains the Barton Heights Cemeteries, the site of the region’s oldest surviving memorials to Black lives, raised by Black families. And right now that site is in shambles, with no city signage and with fallen markers and maintenance crews regularly driving mowers over antebellum-era gravestones. The Descendants Council has long been advocating greater care and attention there. Also, Evergreen and East End Cemeteries remain in a limbo of decline, with zero discussion from city council about those cemeteries’ future following the mistreatment and abandonment of those sites by the now-dissolved Enrichmond Foundation. There are 76 acres of historic Black graves in those cemeteries.

I celebrate the news of this funding and hope that it does good for the city. But the awards say a great deal about the value of marketing/messaging and how Monument Avenue continues to loom large, even by countering it.