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Richmond couple reflects on 20 years leading the fight to memorialize Shockoe Bottom

Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards pose with a piece of the asphalt that was once a parking lot over the burial ground in Shockoe Bottom.
Courtesy of Wilayto/Edwards
Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards pose with a piece of the asphalt that was once a parking lot over the burial ground in Shockoe Bottom.

Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom was once the epicenter of the Virginia slave trade, the second largest site of human trafficking in North America. Experts estimate the majority of Black Americans can trace their ancestry to this spot.

Today politicians and local leaders have thrown their support behind a memorial park and museum here. But two decades ago this history was buried under a parking lot. We caught up with the husband and wife team who have spent twenty years leading the grassroots movement to get this site memorialized.

Ana Edwards is the scholar, and Phil Wilayto the political street fighter. At least that’s how he puts it with a laugh when we all meet up.

“We make a great team,” Wilayto jokes. “When we stay in our lanes.”

For years this husband-wife duo have combined those skills to preserve this spot, tucked away behind Richmond’s Main Street Station under the shadow of Interstate 95.

We stand under a historical marker that the two played a crucial role in getting built in 2004. It was the first official recognition of the people bought, sold and buried here.

“It was the beginning of the really strong community engagement… with the idea that this space and this history mattered to people,” recalls Edwards, who works today at the American Civil War Museum.

Her husband, Wilayto, runs the all-volunteer newspaper the Virginia Defender. Together they’re the founding members of the newspaper’s backing organization, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. They also spearhearded the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

They have been activist leaders in Richmond for 20 years now, organizing around the idea that this space in Shockoe Bottom will “not be lost on our watch” as Wilayto puts it.

2004 marked the installation of the historical marker, their first victory, paid for with $1,200 in community funds. They asked that nobody give more than $50 in order to demonstrate broad support. More than 200 showed up for the unveiling.

Their next big victory came in 2011 when the site was still just a parking lot owned by VCU. The university was moving forward with repaving the lot even though Wilayto and Edwards had repeatedly told university leadership about the history.

So they staged a sit-in at the parking lot entrance.

“No cars, no trucks, no buses, no vans, it's closed, go away,” describes Wilayto. “And for 90 minutes, the police didn't know what to do.”

Wilayto and three others were arrested. A crowd packed the courtroom in their support and they won. VCU dropped the charges and the protest helped expedite a deal between the university and the state to restore the land to green space.

The Defenders were invited to participate in a ground-breaking ceremony. Some members opted to participate, but Wilayto and Edwards chose not. They came and watched from the sidelines, seeing it as a self congratulatory affair for the politicians and university leadership who had long ignored them.

But it was a victory all the same, and to this day they still have a chunk of asphalt from the former parking lot on a shelf at home.

“Every victory looks like a playbook for the next chapter of the struggle,” says Edwards. In the years since 2011 that playbook has been used multiple times. From halting a city-led stadium development nearby, to creating a community-led plan for a memorial park. Wilayto says those efforts have been supported by thousands of participants over the years.

“It wasn't a few individuals, it was always that the community became aroused and concerned and would come out for events, for marches, for protests,” he says. People would show up to pack city council meetings and sign petitions.

And today the fight continues, to ensure the official plan for a memorial and museum here relies on community input and keeps the descendents of those buried and impacted by the history of this space front and center.

“We're proposing that theincrease in sales taxes that the city receives as a result of this development, be plowed back into the Black community, for housing, schools, health care,” Wilayto says.

Various local and state officials have allocated funds for a museum and memorial space, and plans are in the works. But there’s no timeline for completion on the development here.

Edwards knows it’s a space ripe for historical interpretation.

“Almost any conversation you want to have about the history of the country and the history of the legal system, (about) labor, (about) an aspirational vision for a multiracial democracy,” she describes. “I mean, you could go everywhere from this place.”

When I ask if the past twenty years feels short or long Wilayto jokes that his wife didn’t have gray hair when they started. Edwards says it simultaneously feels like a blink of an eye, and forever.

They both though almost immediately start talking about the future, describing a vision of visiting this space in relative anonymity.

“We want to sit on a park bench and say, ‘We had something to do with that.’ says Wilayto. “Looking out over the Heritage Park, that will be what we want. And we'll accept nothing less.”

Edwards chimes in.

“And see people discovering the place and also develop their own relationship to it,” she adds. “We don’t necessarily have to know exactly why. But it matters to people.”

That vision has sustained them, and this community struggle, and they say it will continue to for as long as necessary.

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

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.