In the column, “You did not build the city of Richmond,” a few very vocal individuals insisted that my column was somehow petty and inaccurate because I stated that slaves built the city of Richmond.
To them, I offer no apology. I was and am correct. The truth of the matter is that enslaved blacks both physically and metaphorically built this city.
What I do need to do, however, is offer an extended elaboration and an unnecessary clarification: Slave labor did not exclusively physically construct the entirety of the city of Richmond.
I take offense to the shirts for two reasons: As a black person, I take offense because it embodies the ethos of white southerner historical negationist who, generally speaking, claim that “slavery wasn’t so bad,” (it was a genocide against black people that involved unwarranted executions, sexual abuse, slave breeding, the destruction of cultural identity, family displacement, inhuman living conditions and general dehumanizing practices, among other crimes) and that “the Confederacy wanted to get rid of slavery,” (inaccurate for a number of reasons, but the fact that the Confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, believed slavery was the ideological corner-stone of the Confederate government should speak volumes); as a current (and temporary) Richmond resident, I take offense because it’s factually and metaphorically inaccurate.
When I say slaves built the city of Richmond, I am afraid I did not accurately articulate the truth as it should be known. In “Built by Blacks: African-American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond,” by Selden Richardson and Maurice Duke, the authors clearly state the role of slave labor in the construction of the city of Richmond: “Through their forced labor, African American slaves played a major role in shaping the physical appearance and moral structure of Richmond long before it was incorporate as a city in 1782 … [They] furnished much of the unskilled labor that dug Richmond’s canals, constructed buildings and manned the growing number of heavy industries. clustered along the banks of the James River.”
Slaves built the city of Richmond, from before it was a city, thus making it viable to incorporate as a city, and metaphorically after they’d been forced to physically construct the city by acting as Richmond’s economic engine.
To further emphasize the point on slavery’s economic impact, Professor Midori Takagi states in her 1999 book “Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782-1865,” that “slave labor that made tobacco manufacturing (the backbone of Richmond’s antebellum economy) a multimilliondollar industry by 1860 and greatly contributed to the growth of a range of other industries.”
It is interest to note that Takagi also found urban slaves in Richmond “highly skilled workers. Richmond slaves were not ordinary field hands, but craftsmen, ironmakers, blacksmiths, tailors, and tobacco processors,” showing that they weren’t just the economic engineers that made the establishment of Richmond and the antebellum American economy functional, but were physically involved with the construction of the nation and the city.
These are the clear, plain facts: Slaves built Richmond and slavery built Richmond, directly through forced labor and indirectly, by being an economic force and industry.
Without the kidnapping and enslavement of blacks (who would later become African Americans) by white Europeans, and the white European-inflicted genocide of indigenous tribes (that are collectively and colloquially known as Native Americans), there would be no America as we know it today. There would be no plantations, no booming industrial economy, no White House, no United States of America.
I don’t hate to say “I told you so.”
As an aside, as we all know, slavery did exist in Africa and throughout the world before the Transatlantic slave trade began. That point has little to nothing to do with my column or claims. Just because something is the norm doesn’t make it correct or somehow excusable. If, in a hypothetical world, the roles were reversed, I assure you my moral compass would be critical of my own people for their hypothetical role in inflicting a human and metaphysical genocide onto a people.
But that is entirely hypothetical and irrelevant to reality. The reality is that white Europeans enslaved, traded, murdered, mutilated, dehumanized and enacted a multi-generational genocide against persons of color and varying ethnicities throughout the globe for hundreds of years, the effects of which still reverberate today. That is the subject of history and reality. To in any way temper, detract or diminish that history in favor of the oppressors is racist, offensive and inexcusable.
Furthermore, and to that point, the fact that Irish people were also enslaved doesn’t make the genocide against blacks any less significant, so much as it further highlights the inhumanity of white Europeans. While the subject of Irish enslavement is, in my opinion, under-discussed, it is not germane to the column for a number of reasons (additionally, historian Noel Ignatiev has written a fine book detailing how the Irish became white, conveniently titled “How the Irish Became White,” by enacting violence against free blacks and supporting slavery). Anyone defending their beliefs regarding the treatment and status of enslaved blacks by highlighting the Irish or other white slaves is working in a false equivalency.
It seems generally agreed upon by commenters that the shirt is a bit silly, and I do understand why people would think me shallow for attacking a shirt (as a side note, an example of me being shallow or petty would be writing about my disdain for people riding Razor scooters around campus, something I did actually do). But it’s not about the shirt. It’s about the message, the arrogance and the ethos that created it.
As I have stated in previous columns throughout the years, VCU has and continues to be a driving force in the city of Richmond. What it has not done, however, is build or rebuild this city. This city has fostered VCU’s growth, given VCU a structure and provided VCU a community to further the betterment of both university students and residents. Richmond is VCU’s home, not the other way around. To assert otherwise, as the message on the shirts does, is yuppie egocentrism. It glorifies the temporary residents that VCU students often are at the expense of misaligning the truth for the sake of attractiveness and to profit. It’s pseudo-revisionism, printed onto a T-shirt. “We helped revitalize this city” may not have the same ring to it, but at least it’s honest and doesn’t prize referentiality and profit over respect.
I’m not saying we should burn the shirts or that they’re racist. Do wear the shirt, if you wish. It is your right as an American to do so and black foremothers and forefathers died so that you may have the right to do so.
If you do, remember what you’re wearing is a bold-print lie, a disrespectful, offensive assertion and an ignorant statement to make. I’m saying they’re disrespectful to Richmond’s current residents and irreverent to the history of Richmond. I’m saying you know nothing about this city or this university. I’m saying you should be ashamed of yourself.