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Social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, on telling the complete story of the slave trade

Enslaved women and young girls (photo credit_ Library of Congress).jpg
Courtesy of EJI
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Enslaved women and young girls (photo credit: Library of Congress)

A new report out this week from the Equal Justice Initiative tells the full story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Virginia – and Richmond – play an outsized role in that story.

Bryan Stevenson is well known for his social justice work. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, puts up memorial markers for lynchings. Now they’re seeking to further that historical education with an in-depth look at the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Stevenson says the 13-chapter online document was created with educators and students in mind.

“Having students understand the multiple ways in which this long history, which took place over centuries, created conditions that we still see today,” Stevenson said in an interview this week. “And I think the goal is to kind of begin some of that honest reckoning.”

Reckoning that includes history here in Virginia.

A full chapter of the report is dedicated to the state, and another chapter specifically to Richmond and the city’s role first in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later in the domestic slave trade. As the report states, the city was founded in the1730’s specifically to serve as a hub for human trafficking.

“African people kidnapped and abducted from Guinea, from Sierra Leone, from the Gambia were brought to Richmond in part because of the many tobacco plantations that surrounded the Tidewater area,” Stevenson said.

According to the report, more than 11,000 enslaved Africans were trafficked through the upper James in the mid 18th century. Later, in the19th century, the international slave trade was abolished and Richmond served as a hub for shipping Black people born into slavery further south.

Stevenson hopes that if we more fully understand the harms of slavery and white supremacy, Americans will be more motivated to address the legacy of those things today. He himself has ancestors who were enslaved in Virginia's Caroline County.

“Many African-Americans in this country have roots in slavery in Virginia and that’s not talked about. It’s not acknowledged," he said. "You don’t have many places you can go in Virginia where there is a deep attention, a thoughtful attention, to the legacy of slavery.” 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.