You did not build the city of Richmond

August Wade
Staff Columnist

Illustration by Pauline Ailstock

The first time, I wasn’t sure I read the shirt right. Maybe it was a Jefferson Starship reference, and it could be just that. But context matters and seeing two white students wearing VCU shirts with the words “We built this city” is frustrating, to say the least.

Don’t misconstrue this as a direct attack of or on the student alumni association or individuals that choose to wear these shirts, but rather, an attack on the ethos, audacity and general historical ignorance permeating through some parts of VCU, both in reference to the institution and individuals. Undoubtedly, VCU functions as a strong addition to the city of Richmond, helping to boost the municipal economy by creating jobs, infrastructure projects and maintaining a student populace and their relevant needs (food, housing, etc.), but VCU didn’t build this city; slaves and a system of slavery did.

It’s crucial to remember that fact. Ignoring it allows us to live in an undeserved bliss, a kind of daze that allows wealthy interests to build parking lots over slave burial grounds and idolize Confederate military officers through numerous statutes.

The city of Richmond has an ugly history of racism, continued discrimination, class-based oppression, gentrification and other ills; I would not wish for VCU to take on that same history by allying itself with the message that a collective “we” built this city. This city, as well as this nation, was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the metaphysical destruction and enslavement of blacks. Layered onto that is Richmond’s time as the capital of the Confederacy, an aggressive actor of the slave trade and a participant in disenfranchisement laws.

That’s the foundation of the ground we walk on.

The achievements of black people in America, both modern day and enslaved, are routinely forgotten, especially by whites, as a matter of convenient ignorance. To live with eyes wide shut and to address issues of race by saying, “I’m colorblind” exclusively serves to perpetuate a status quo of misinformation. It is a sinful action that ignores and undermines truth to help people feel better. The past is not dead. History lives and acts upon us; even though we cannot see it, it influences us, changes us, exalts us, vilifies us and defines us.

Although it might be frustrating and difficult to accept, you didn’t build that. Aside from the inhuman toil that created this country’s structural foundation, a myriad of factors built this city, including but not limited to taxpayer money, honest labor, legislation, committees, grassroots organizations and petitions.

It would behoove certain members of our community to educate themselves on the history of Richmond before asserting VCU’s dominance in the role of the construction of the city, whether the comment is meant metaphorically or otherwise. The city is a separate entity from VCU, and without Richmond, there would be no VCU. The fraudulent claim that “we built this city” downplays the city as a municipality and implies that Richmond is lucky to have us, when, indeed, it is we who are fortunate to have Richmond, a city underpinned by a shameful history, but working toward righting past wrongs and progressing itself into a thriving, truly diverse community.

Read August Wade’s follow-up to this story here.

78 Comments

    • Dear Mister Wade,
      My great grand-father who was white, and his brothers owned a construction business in Richmond. I know for a fact that this man and his brothers built several blocks of the wonderfully crafted houses on Hanover Ave. in the fan. They weren’t slaves!
      Please stop spreading the lie that the entire country was built by slave labor. It simply isn’t true. During the period from 1800 to 1860, in the south, it certainly WAS true. I’ll grant you that. Whites who did common labor were looked down on as lower than slaves. That is a small portion of the nations history. Prior to 1800 progressively more labor in the south was performed by slave labor too. This is fact. But after the war, white folks buckled up and got back to work for themselves. As was good and right. And slave labor built none of the north.
      Nor did slave labor build ANYTHING after the war, as the institution was dead. Richmond burnt at the end of the war, remember? Not much was left. Whatever was left, that you may claim as slave labor, though maybe not. Anything afterwards can’t be. So your statement ” but VCU didn’t build this city; slaves and a system of slavery did.” is pretty much BS, right? So is your whole racist premisise that the nation was built on the slave trade. Boy are you skewed in your anti-white bias, dude! The black pop has never been more than 12% of the gross. You guys just haven’t been as important as you think you are. How could you be. There weren’t really that many of you, despite the way you rewriters are trying to make it appear.
      I spent my life doing honest work with a hammer in my hand and I’ve worked along side of blacks, hispanics and asians. I don’t give a fig what your heritage is, or your sex either, if you can do the work.
      But I’m not going to sit back and let you anti-white bigots get away with your lying rhetoric anymore. Correct yourself, sir.

  1. I think they should change the shirts to say 'I literally just got to this city,' which would probably be more accurate for the people I've seen wearing them.

  2. I submit that the VCU shirt is a commentary of yuppie egocentrism that ignores and devalues the true history of Richmond (as opposed to crypto-racists leanings)

  3. Except asserting that the problem is a binary between a lack of downtown investment (a legitimate argument) and "hysterical historionics" is graphically inaccurate and insinuates that persons concerned about historical revisionism or ignorance are "historionic" (Histrionic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people act in a very emotional and dramatic way that draws attention to themselves) is incredible disingenuous, intellectually dishonest and indicative of the very problem I/we are combatting.

  4. August Wade Apologies. My brain makes alliterative malapropisms….the "historionics" I referred to are at the people who draw offense at the mere mention of our past. I've studied it firsthand everywhere I go.

    I shared this article because it's important, and I appreciate it. Anyone involved in civil society must face our past so that we don't ignore the horrific injustices that persist today. But there's a lot to be done on that, which is where I'm facing.

  5. Speaking as the mom of a VCU student, I have to say August Wade, your mom must be incredibly proud of you 🙂 Knocked it out of the park with this.

  6. August Wade – you are entirely missing the context of the shirt. See: "Students of today, alumni of tomorrow shirt" – I no doubt believe in historical revisionism – but in this case, I feel you may have jumped to the wrong conclusion. I think these kids were probably just saying, hey "you, current student, you are helping to make this place what it is, keep up the donations when you are an alumni." Is there no room in your belief system to accept the possibility of an error in perception?

  7. I accept human fallibility and the possibility of an error in perception, but that's precisely the point: the error in perception wouldn't exist if people were more cognizant of the assertion they're making. Moreover, if "you, current student, you are helping to make this place what is is" is the point of the shirt, why not say "We built this university," which is more true than "we built this city"? I blame hubris, egocentrism and a general aversion (white) people have toward acknowledging that slavery, genocide, discrimination and racial violence inflicted upon POC by whites is
    the core of American history

  8. I think I agree with most of what you wrote, but just for clarification, would you say that if said students were not white, then you would assume then that their shirt message is recognizing the racism, continued discrimination, class-based oppression? Not that you care if I agree with you or not, which is understandable, but it seems like that historical ignorance could exist for anyone.

  9. I don't think the shirts would have been ruined if they said "We built this university," partly because it's 2014, who is Jefferson Starship (I googled them) and partly because it gives the students more ownership of the university, rather than the city of Richmond. It is, by the definition of irony, decidedly not ironic.

    I go to VCU, I know what STAT is and stands for and if you took care to read the article, I clearly state that this isn't an attack on STAT. "Come on..do it."

  10. Maybe the fact that they prized referentiality over respect says something about their organization. Maybe they, like VCU, care more about profit than humanity.

  11. We love VCU and the city of Richmond. But I find the tshirt sentiment a bit boastful and audacious – and not in a good way. This op-ed was thoughtful and well written!

  12. Its articles like this is why racism still exists: yes racism exists in our past and we should never deny it it but trying to pin it down on a tee shirt that could just be reference to a pop song is just plain stupid. If you truly want to give us a history lesson, please stop tying old racism to modern things and move on

  13. What you're asserting is a prime example of white supremacist thought and it's very typical of crypto-racists (and Fox news programing). Racism is an inseparable part of our nation and of human history. To say we have to stop talking about it is to say we should stop progress itself. You're saying that we shouldn't talk about violence or genocide or crime or the roots of evil in society or technology or invention or global advances or the good that we have done in society, the fights we have won. To deny discussions of racism, race and racists is inherently racist. Please read the article, share it and discuss it with your friends and with people who do not look like you or have your background. Please educate yourself because you are part of the problem.

  14. I'm not offended to be called Black because I am Black. If you're offended to be called white, it's because white people have a history of committing genocide, enslaving, discriminating, etc.

    By the way, Caucasian literally refers to people native to the Caucasus region and Irish-American people are white (Read "How the Irish Became White" by Noel Ignatiev)

  15. I do not remember committing any of these crimes myself, then again maybe in a past life. Then again I could have also been JFK in a past life so it does not really matter, but thanks for continuing to judge myself and others on the actions of our ancestors! Off I go now, I feel the need to oppress women and minorites ^^

  16. August Wade Thanks for putting words in my mouth /not. I never said we should try to deny it and none of those things have anything to do with the topic at hand. I said that racism is a part of our history and I will not deny that. But also the argument that *all* white people have committed racist crimes is a fallacy. Granted a lot of crimes committed in history are by whites, but to imply that every white person committed these crimes is wrong because the sins of the father should not become the sins of the son.

  17. Hey great article! Despite these other two being UNBELIEVABLY ignorant, un-informed, and basically a disgrace to the world of academia involving systematic oppression and patriarchal standards (logic, research, FACTS) you handled yourself with grace and you maintained a desire to inform. Nice job!

  18. Brendan McCurley – I didn't think I needed to stay this, but at no point have I accused you of a crime. Maybe you have a guilty conscious, but I never said you were, as an individual, guilty of anything and I didn't assert that in the article at all. Please don't joke about oppressing women and minorities. I would think a performer at Kings Dominion would care about presenting themselves as amicable, non-offensive individuals and I hate to think that you are a reflection of Kings Dominion

  19. Kendall Marie Lipscomb – I didn't put words in your mouth. If you feel like I did, maybe it's your conscious speaking? I never said that all white people have committed racist crimes – you, in fact, are putting words in my mouth by asserting that. Everything I stated is relevant to my article. This article isn't about individuals, nothing I said was personal or relevant to individuals.

  20. It seems to a lot of commenters that the author is poking his fingers in the eyes of today's middle class VCU students, but in fact, you have to dig your fingertips a bit between the eyelids to open the eyes of someone purposely clenching them shut.

    It's not pleasant that slavery and organized racism is such a huge part of this country and city's history, but to ignore that would be to ignore the city around us.

    Most of us were born into this country in a fortunate time where black people have legal equal rights, but we can't just "wish away" the brutal past of slavery, as it is inextricably linked to the prosperous and tumultuous chapters of our past and present. To remedy such deep wounds in a part of our society, we must be open to the plight of our city's poor black citizens.

    Racism isn't just using the N word and making people stand on a bus; it was a deliberate creation of an underclass in a society supposedly built on equality and liberty. To reverse it, more than just a handshake and a fresh start is needed, and it will take efforts from all of our citizens to do something constructive about our terrible past.

    The first step is a basic acknowledgement that our city's existence owes itself to this terrible economy that lasted under the protection of law for 227 years. The author here correctly takes this stance, and it is a shame that such a large number of people dismiss the truth he is telling.

  21. August Wade Dude, all it takes is a trip to Wikipedia or good ol' google. Almost EVERY race has a history of slavery. There's child & sex slave trade going on right now in Ghana. Slavery is not a crime that is prone to one race. Also great way to tag the guy's employer when he was obviously being sarcastic, really classy move man. Hope you're proud of yourself.

  22. August Wade The truth is many white people can't handle articles/comments like this. They become instantly defensive, because they don't want to be associated with racism (not to pick on her, but Kendall's comment is a shinning example of this). Obviously, this doesn't make them bad people or people with ill intent, but the unfortunate reality is racism, slavery, and the disenfranchisement of blacks is a part of all of our histories, as Americans, as Virginians, as Richmonders, as white, as black. There is no escaping it. Trying to ignore and downplay this fact is how racism continues to exist and thrive. This isn't even to mention the injustices that occur against people of color still today. Just because a person is white and "doesn't do anything racist", doesn't make him/her any less a part of the history of racism, or the struggle to overcome it.

    So, at first glance, this might seem like an overreaction to something seemingly insignificant, but it is not. I wouldn't make a federal case out of it, but the shirt is just plain insensitive and VCU should have known better.

  23. Byron Minnick The fact that Federal case even crossed your mind enough to say this is being taken too seriously. Seriously guys, its a shirt. I swear if you guys went into one of those novelty T-shirt stores in Virginia Beach your heads would explode.

  24. August Wade Also, you stating that Brenden McCurley is only offended by being called white because of the history of slavery is ignorant. You aren't in his mind and know exactly why he feels that way, I'm willing to bet you aren't a mind reader either. Being called white is a generalization, people who are 'white' come from many countries and backgrounds. If that offends him its his right to feel that way. You can't assume it's something because it supports your argument. But really, great try man.

  25. Andrew Goodwin – I'm sorry, but I can't take you seriously because you keep trying to make this about me somehow hating all white people that breath the air and it is not. You're not remotely attempting to have a discussion with me/anyone here. You're only here to say what you wanna say and that's not the point of a comment section. This forum is for serious discussions and you just want to paint me as you already see me. You're missing all of the point we're making.

    Also, yes, I am very proud that I tagged his employer. I think Kings Dominion should know the type of people they're employing, though I doubt they'll ever see this. Furthermore, if he is obviously being sarcastic, then hey, maybe they'll notice that? Or are you assuming that they are too illiterate to realize that?

  26. August Wade You obviously took me seriously to give out a thoughtful response, buy hey nice try again. How you were appointed to write articles on behalf of the commonwealth times I'll never know. Your responses to my comments and other reflect rather poorly on you as well, maybe you should consider that. You're acting like a child trying to tattle tell on his employer and I called you out on it, you getting heated about it only affirms that fact. I'm well aware of the point you are trying to make, you are just going about it all wrong and assuming things to fit your agenda. Be professional or start writing in a blog and do something else in life. You're embarrassing yourself.

  27. Andrew Goodwin – I took you seriously enough to give you a thoughtful response because I'm a professional and I'm pretty proud of myself. I don't think you get the point I'm trying to make because you're making this about the history of slavery globally, when I'm talking about slavery in the United States. I'm not getting heated about any of this; frankly, I think you are. I do admit I have an agenda: To speak truth to power. I demonstrated that in the article and I'm demonstrating that now. I've been a proud member of the Commonwealth Times for four years, served as Opinion Editor for nearly three years and continue to write for them as I venture onto other paths. My responses have been respectful, professional and focused. I am unapologetic about what I have written and what I will continue to write and encourage you to continue reading both mine and all the work at the Commonwealth Times and, if you choose to be respectful, comment on the articles. If you are serious about having a discussion with me or anyone on the staff, there are venues by which you can do that, but I refuse to engage in a discussion with someone who doesn't care to educate themselves, stay focused on the argument or really read what others have offered as replies.

  28. I don't know what to think about anything VCU is doing anymore. The renovation of the area is a good thing. The homogenization and making the campus look like a shopping center with classrooms is lacking in both an inspirating atmosphere and architectural innovation. Maybe making a shirt playing up how VCU has been a part of Richmond "rebuilding" from the murder capital it was in the 80s and 90s would be better. I don't know. I personally think that for an art school with fashion design as a major, they could make some better shirts than what they keep in stock at the campus bookstore. *shrug*

  29. August Wade As soon as I mention you not being professional all the politically correct language comes out, you're as see through as saran wrap. Thanks for the resume you posted but I'm not interested. Little you've written here is respectful, and if you're proud about how you've conducted yourself in the comment sections, you should screen shot it, print it and hang it up next to the C+ grades you've got hanging on your fridge. Honestly man, you're coming off as a joke, and a good one, I'm getting a good laugh at your expense. Really, speak the truth of power? That sounds like something a cult leader would say, hop off the high horse. Please don't try to enter the real world with that mind set, no one is going to want to work with you. You keep saying you won't engage in a discussion with me, but yet you keep popping up, funny isn't it? https://wordpress.com/ there is where your future lies.

  30. I don't like people who bully others by disguising it as being informed and politically correct. idc about how much education you have or where you live your skin color ect. telling white people to hate their history is saying hate yourself. dont read to much into that, but as stated every ethnic group commits the same crimes, but you live in the Americas so you will only focus on how we did it. do you see any other country talking shit about themselves because they did something unnaceptable by todays standards 400-10000 years ago? no, you dont. we look back and say "man that sucked" but we dont disown our heritage. when white people think about the past and history and marvel at it, they aren't thinking about slaves. and thats fine as long as we dont forget about it either.

    Just stand up for yourself and what you believe in folks, thats what im doing.

  31. That was a lovely editorial commentary of a seemingly innocuous t-shirt. But if you want to argue semantics and history, you should probably look a little closer. Obviously modern Richmond with its paved streets and reinforced concrete structures was not built by slave labor. We all know slavery existed in Richmond for a time, but slaves were generally sold to wealthy plantation owners and the fort, village, town and city of Richmond were built up by skilled laborers. Slaves were not considered skilled laborers. The slave market of Richmond was responsible for distributing slavery OUT of the city limits. And if you want to get even deeper into the history of slavery, the majority of what some modern revisionists would term slaves were white. The terms of indentured servitude became tantamount to slavery over time. Originally all African residents of VA prior to 1640 had the same form of contracted labor as their numerically superior European counterparts. Anyway, I would have to disagree with your claim that Richmond was built by slaves and simply shrug my shoulders at the T-shirt's claim that the University is responsible for revitalizing the city, thereby 'building it'. Meh… Money earned from the slave trade and profits from the outlying farms using slave labor would have been equally responsible for economically revitalizing the city. Ok, We'll call it a draw on that one interpretative stretch.

  32. I appreciate your comment. While I do disagree with some of your facts and claims, it is good to see that someone can make an articulate, informed disagreement that's actually related to the article.

  33. The wearers of these shirts are simply uninformed. They are victims of VCU ballyhooism. The solution is easy: get them to read the book "Built by Blacks" written by Seldon Richardson, a VCU graduate, and edited by Maurice Duke, VCU professor emeritus (and my advisor as an undergraduate at VCU). After reading this book they will never wear those shirts again, I guarantee it.

  34. I'd hope not. Additionally: "Don’t misconstrue this as a direct attack of or on the student alumni association or individuals that choose to wear these shirts, but rather, an attack on the ethos, audacity and general historical ignorance permeating through some parts of VCU, both in reference to the institution and individuals."

    I clearly state that I'm not attacking STAT, as an organization or individuals.

  35. Alex Bangley And what is August doing? Obviously, he is standing up for himself and his personal views, but that isn't acceptable to you because you disagree with him. Then you have the nerve to tell "folks" to stand up for what they believe. That is a hypocritical statement to say the least.

    This article was never an attack on white people; it was a well thought out view on something August saw as insensitive to history. The only bullying here started when you and Andrew immediately started attacking August and trying to degrade him and his views. You two aren't remotely trying to have a meaningful conversation, you're just trying to pick fights by attacking people you disagree with.

    If you have a disagreement with someone, that is fine; feel free to post a thoughtful rebuttal. You are not going to sway anyone over to your view point by attacking them personally. The only thing you are doing is reinforcing the point I made earlier, which I noticed no one has tried to refute…

  36. Byron Minnick If you're talking about how white people get offended about stuff like this and that is my motive, I'm afraid you're mistaken. I'm second generation Colombian, so I wasn't born with the concept of 'White Guilt' Thanks for assuming my heritage based on my appearance though. I just don't like when people literally stuff words and ideas in other peoples mouths because they can't act like a professional and be objective.

  37. Andrew Goodwin "I just don't like when people literally stuff words and ideas in other peoples mouths"

    I know what you mean, seeing as my last comment was a response to Alex's comment, and had nothing to do with you or your heritage. I didn't even look at your photo. You could be blue smurf for all that it matters.

    Simply put, the point is this isn't a White vs. Black issue, this is a People vs. Racism issue. Unfortunately the lines get blurred more often than not. Ignoring it and trying to sweep it under the rug like it never happened isn't going to make it go away. I think my points have been quite clear in my previous comments, so there really is no need for me to repeat them over again.

  38. I'm with you on this. A city is not built on one thing alone, so many parts went into it, I'm just annoyed that somehow a shirt saying "we built this city" suddenly says a person forgot about history and is somehow ignorant of a system that's around them. There are only so many characters that fit on a shirt.

  39. So I'm not going to argue about how this argument is going, but I will say this. Seriously the author wanted to tell someone's employer that he didn't agree with his views in hopes that he would be fired. That's the mentality I'm saying is hateful and becoming more popular.
    And as for the city of Richmond who do you think was the architects ? And do you really think they exclusively used slaves to build everything in Richmond? I do believe despite slavery being in use at the time white people had a hand in building it. So if you want to wear a shirt do it this is America after all

  40. I'm not gonna get in the middle of this argument but I always thought that the shirt referred to the recent revitalization of the city (economic, less crime, more national recognition as a place to visit, etc.) than it's original building. Vcu became a thing in the late 60s and RPI was built in 1910. It would be silly to claim that VCU literally built the city because the city is much older than VCU. But VCU has been very active in generating funds, publicity, things to do, and helping the city grow in recent years. Richmond was built on the backs of slaves and laborers originally. But I think the shirt is referencing recent revitalization by using catchy and flowery (tho a little misleading) song lyrics. I mean "we helped revitalize this city" doesn't have the same ring to it.

  41. why does every psuedo-sociopolitical issue have to be about race? no, it should be about sports. the shirt should have read: "HAVOC BUILT THIS CITY". richmond and VCU was nothing until Shaka arrived.

  42. Teri Thomas Dermody We are extremely proud of him. He is focused and hardworking, working more than 2 jobs to put himself through college.

  43. Stupid comment. You call what happened to people that were kidnapped, raped, beaten and killed luck? You have a lot to learn.

  44. Jessica Morris Maybe it is an over-reaction to an insignificant thing, but it is difficult not to think of what actually "built this city" when reading it; at least for people who actually care…. That, mixed with many people's general ignorance and apathy in regards to the history of slavery in Richmond, and in the country for that matter, can and most likely will rub people the wrong way.

    Judging by the responses to this article alone, there are obviously some deeper issues at hand than just some ambiguous quotes on a t-shirt…

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