Richmond, Virginia: a city still enslaved by its Confederate past

America Letter: memories of the state capital’s dark past are never far from the surface

Two hours’ drive south of Washington DC, the factory chimneys and elevated rail tracks of Richmond appear on the horizon.

The capital city of Virginia, Richmond was once the industrial heartland of the region. It also holds an important place in American history. After war broke out between the Union north and the Confederate south in 1861 and Virginia seceded from the Union, Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, due in part to its strategic location as a major transport and logistical hub for steamboats and railroads.

More than 150 years on from the American Civil War, Virginia’s complex legacy on race, slavery and power continues to haunt the state.

Virginia was plunged into crisis this year when pictures emerged of governor Ralph Northam in a college yearbook. Northam admitted he was one of two people in a photograph – one dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member, the other in "blackface" – though he later said he was not sure either of the people was him.


Further scandal ensued when the second-in-command at the state legislature, lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault, while the third most senior ranking Democrat, state attorney-general Mark Herring, admitted that he wore blackface at a college party in 1980. Herring had initially called for Northam's resignation.

The final upshot was that all three have kept their positions, but the controversy has threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the Democratic Party in the state, which has made major electoral strides in recent years fuelled in part by anti-Trump sentiment.

Race relations

The fact that Northam has kept his job – despite widespread calls to resign from senior figures in the Democratic Party including Nancy Pelosi and his predecessor Terry McAuliffe – illustrates the idiosyncrasies of Virginia's relationship with its past when it comes to race relations.

One of the first states established after British settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607, Virginia's rapid development as a political and economic hub was bound up with a parallel history of repression and slavery. This year the state will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves from west Africa to English-speaking America. In 1619, a ship docked in Fort Monroe, just outside Richmond, carrying a cargo of enslaved Africans.

Over subsequent centuries the economy of the new world, particularly in the south, grew exponentially, powered by the economics of free slave labour. The port city of Richmond was at the heart of this thriving industry. By the time of the Civil War – a war essentially fought over slavery – Richmond was home to the second-largest slave market in the country.

Slave-dealers took rooms in the nearby hotels, while slaves were kept in filthy underground holding facilities nearby

Today, in downtown Richmond, the story of Virginia's history – and of America itself – is evident in the urban spaces and public buildings. Presiding over the city is the impressive Virginia State Capitol. Designed by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding founders of the American republic and the third American president, the neoclassical building reflected the confidence of a new democracy.

Half a mile away, just under a busy underpass, stands a small sign with the words “Slave Auction Site”. It was here that hundreds of thousands of slaves were bought and sold throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Slave-dealers and merchants took rooms in the nearby hotels, now long gone, while slaves were kept in filthy underground holding facilities nearby.

Dark chapter

Today, there are few signs of the industry that once dominated this part of the city. But the memories of this dark chapter of the city’s past are never far from the surface.

Richmond's troubled history is also on display in the visual iconography of the city in other ways. Just west of the centre is Monument Avenue, a grand boulevard dotted with statues to southern "heroes" of the American Civil War. The first statue, a memorial to Robert E Lee, was erected in 1890 – part of a process of cultural appropriation in the south that sought to celebrate the pro-slavery Confederate leaders in the decades after the war.

Despite the events in nearby Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, which saw far-right neo-nazis flock to the city’s Confederate statues, prompting national outrage, most of Virginia’s monuments still stand. Last month a Bill to grant local authorities the power to remove statues was defeated. For now, it seems, they are here to stay.

As the Ralph Northam controversy shows, despite efforts at reconciliation and remorse in recent decades, Virginia is not quite able to leave its past behind.