On Sunday, April 3, 1865, according to Thomas Morris Chester, the only Black Civil War correspondent, “Brevet Brigadier General Draper’s brigade of colored troops, and Brevet Major General August Kautz’s division were the first infantry to enter Richmond. The gallant 36th U.S. Colored Troops, under Lieutenant Colonel B.F. Pratt, has the honor of being the first regiment…”
That memorable, important, and neglected historic event was commemorated and celebrated in Richmond on April 3 and 4, 2015. For me personally, highlights of the two day were as follows:
March down Main
The re-enactment of the entry of Black Union Troops: As the re-enactors marched down Main Street, which was the center of Richmond’s highly profitable trading and selling of African people, tears flowed as I visualized what must have been an incredibly emotional event for those ancestors. A significant number of them had probably been sold in Richmond. I remember reading once that a Virginia legislator in pre –Civil War times described his state as a “slave raising state.”
A joyous ceremony on the site of the African Burial Grounds where thousands of our enslaved ancestors are buried: For years the site was a concrete-covered parking lot. Only tenacious determination from concerned Black Richmonders (and some Whites) compelled public officials to remove the concrete so the site could live again. This movement was mainly led by former Richmond City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin. With a mind and soul stirring combination of African-inspired drumming, music, dance, poetry, chants and shouts, the military victory over the enslavers in the former capital of the Confederacy was celebrated. It was educational and exciting.
A walking tour of the area in Richmond called Shockoe Bottom: This was Richmond’s business district in pre-Civil War days and the main business was the trading and selling of many thousands of African men, women and children. In the book, “The Beleaguered City-Richmond, 1861-1865,” there is a passage describing how the vicious system worked. Potential purchasers would be urged to “Walk up, gentlemen. The sale of a fine likely lot of young niggers is now about to begin. All sorts of niggers sold for no fault but to settle the estate. Old ones, young ones, men and women, gals and boys…”
According to the book, “Stripped to the waist, the young bucks would mount the block, show off their points and be knowingly pinched and prodded. With the display of young women went sales talk that did not spare their sensibilities. A girl, 17, who had borne a couple of children might hear herself described as ‘a rattlin’ good breeder…’ And when a sale separated ‘a likely chile-bearin’ woman from her husband and children, the skinflint purchaser might console her with the assurance that he would get her a new husband…”
Only a phenomenally strong group of people could have survived such White supremacist brutality and depravity. We are blessed to have had such ancestors. Journalist and historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. once wrote that the past is a bet that our ancestors placed that we must now cover.
Unfortunately, too many Black folks today are not covering that bet. Thankfully the folks who pulled together the commemoration and celebration in Richmond contributed mightily to covering the bet placed by the Black troops and those buried in the African Burial Grounds.
A. Peter Bailey, whose latest book is Witnessing Brother Malcolm X, the Master Teacher, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.