Plans to Raze '12 Years a Slave' Site for Baseball Stadium Draw Outrage

6:35 PM PST 03/25/2014 by Seth Abramovitch
Fox Searchlight

Descendants of Solomon Northup are among those opposing plans to develop Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Va. — where a busy slave-trading district once stood.

Where the jail that held Solomon Northup once stood, a state-of-the-art baseball stadium may soon rise. That's if the mayor of Richmond, Va., has his way.

But descendants of Northup -- whose astounding story served as the basis for the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave -- are among those who oppose plans to develop Shockoe Bottom, a Richmond district that prior to the Civil War served as one of the country's busiest slave-trading centers. It was there that, in 1841, Northup was taken after being drugged by two vaudeville performers, later to be transported to New Orleans.

PHOTOS: '12 Years a Slave': Portraits of Solomon Northup's Descendants 

The site once held over 90 slave dealers and the infamous Lumpkin's slave jail -- also known as "the Devil's half-acre" -- that held Northup at the start of his nightmarish voyage. All that now remains is a stretch of underdeveloped asphalt lots and grasslands, a less-than-desirable construction zone due in part to its proximity to the nearby Shockoe Creek.

As proposed by Richmond's mayor, Dwight Jones, the plan seeks to revive the moribund area by erecting a $56 million park for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the local minor league team. Another $5 million has been earmarked for the creation of an adjacent slavery museum. The nearby slave burial grounds, discovered in 2011 and designated a historical landmark by the city, will not be affected by the construction -- but dozens of slave-trading sites will be destroyed to make way for the Flying Squirrels' dream home.

STORY: '12 Years a Slave': Solomon Northup's Descendants Gather for THR Photo Shoot, Reflect on His Legacy 

One vocal opponent of the project is school psychologist Linsey Williams, who takes great pride in her connection to Northup, her great-great-great-great-grandfather. (Williams was contacted by The Hollywood Reporter to take part in our historic reunion of five generations of the Northrup family tree, but was unable to attend.) 

"Most people of African descent in North America have had ancestors who came through that area as they were being sold to slave masters in the South," she tells THR. "I think it's insensitive in allowing it to become secondary to a ballpark." Williams has launched an online petition opposing the development and plans to join an April 3 protest held at the Lumpkin's site.

Richmond historical researcher Elizabeth Kambourian fears that unknown treasures may be lost in the process. "An archaeological dig at the Lumpkin's jail turned up a lot of artifacts and things of interest," she says. "They need to do more exploration down there and they need to commemorate."

VIDEO: '12 Years a Slave' Director Surprises Solomon Northup's Descendants During Emotional Photo Shoot 

But not everyone opposes the project. The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an op-ed in favor of it, praising the proposed slavery museum. "A stadium appears to be a strong way to draw attention to slavery and to commemorate the lives of human beings held in bondage," the newspaper argued.

Kambourian isn't convinced: "I don't feel it's what is needed down there. There's a lot of museums in Richmond already. And they say they're going to build this one, but we don't really know what it would be."

Time is running out. Mayor Jones' 2015 budget calls for $13.6 million in infrastructure spending in anticipation of construction on the stadium, which the city council must adopt by the end of May.

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