African Americans and the waterfront
The Richmond waterfront is steeped in African American history. From the early days when Richmond was a colonial trading post, free, indentures, and enslaved African Americans lived and worked in the area. Later, the Richmond dock became a place of arrival for many slaves brought from other parts of the South to be sold at auction houses a few blocks north of here.
Both free and enslaved blacks worked in the ironworks and tobacco warehouses along the waterfront, and on the river, canals, and docks. African American batteauxmen, who plied both the James River and the canals, were known for the skill and daring with which they navigated the river's rocks and rapids.
Mayo's Bridge at 14th Street played a role in one of the most famous anti-slavery plots in U.S. history. In 1800, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith, recruited hundreds, and possibly thousands, to his plan to attack Richmond and demand that all slaves in Virginia be freed. Inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, Gabriel took as his motto "Death or Liberty," evoking the words spoken 25 years earlier by Patrick Henry at St. John's Church, just 10 blocks from here. The plan, which called for some troops to secure Mayo's Bridge, while others set fire to Rockett's Landing, was foiled by a violent storm. Before a second attempt could be made, Gabriel was betrayed. He was eventually captured, tried, and hanged at 15th and Broad Streets.
Henry "Box" Brown
The sale of family members was often a motive for escape from slavery, as happened with Henry Brown, who became known as "Box" Brown after his extraordinary journey to freedom. Brown, a worker in a tobacco warehouse at Cary and 14th Streets, resolved to escape after his wife and three children were sold in 1848.
With the help of a white shoemaker, Brown had himself boxed up inside a crate approximately 2 feet square by 3 feet high and taken to the depot on Broad Street, where he was loaded onto a freight car. During the 27-hour trip, the crate was turned upside down several times and he almost suffocated, but he finally arrived safely at an abolitionist address in Philadelphia. Brown went on to become a well-known anti-slavery activist. His helper, Samuel Smith, was arrested after attempting to box up two more fugitives from slavery.
"Buoyed up by the prospect of freedom?I was willing to dare even death itself." Henry "Box" Brown
With emancipation, Richmond's waterfront was no longer a place of slavery, but it continued to be a workplace for generations of African Americans. When the canals closed, the railroads replaced them as employers of many black men, and the tobacco warehouses and factories employed black men and women through World War II.
Today, the riverfront is a setting for recreation and enjoyment by all of Richmond's residents. When the restored canals opened in 1999, among the dignitaries present was Douglas Wilder, a descendant of slaves, who as governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994 was the first elected African American governor in the United States.