Richmond, Virginia — The American South (Mid-Atlantic)
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
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
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.
Erected by Richmond Riverfront Canal Walk.
Location. 37° 31.986′ N, 77° 25.972′ W. Marker is in Richmond, Virginia. Marker can be reached from the intersection of South 14th Street (U.S. 360) and Dock Street. Click for map. This marker is on the Richmond Riverfront Canal Walk. Marker is in this post office area: Richmond VA 23219, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Use of Arms (within shouting distance of this marker); Burnt District (within shouting distance of this marker); George Washington’s Vision (within shouting distance of this marker); Shockoe Slip (within shouting distance of this marker); Early Shockoe James River & Kanawha Canal (within shouting distance of this marker); Canal Walk / Historic Canals (within shouting distance of this marker); Tobacco District (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line). Click for a list of all markers in Richmond.
More about this marker. African Americans and the waterfront
African American batteauxman. From Harper’s Weekly, 1874. Valentine Museum
Excerpt of an article from the Richmond Recorder, 1803, concerning Gabriel’s Rebellion. Valentine Museum
Above, Richmond, 1817, showing Mayo’s Bridge spanning the James River. Image from Letters of a British Spy, by William Wirt, 1817. The Library of Virginia
Background, detail from “A Plan of the City of Richmond,” by Richard Young, c. 1809, showing Mayo’s Bridge, a strategic target of Gabriel's insurrection plot. Redrawn by the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Survey & Design, April 14, 1932. The Library of Virginia
Henry "Box" Brown
Above, Henry “Box” Brown upon his deliverance from slavery.
Group of freedmen and children along the canal, c. 1865. Library of Congress
Background, black workers unloading railroad ties at Rockett’s Landing, 1928. Valentine Museum
Also see . . .
1. Richmond’s Historic Canal Walk. Venture Richmond (Submitted on October 30, 2009, by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia.)
2. James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District. National Park Service (Submitted on October 30, 2009, by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia.)
Categories. • Abolition & Underground RR • African Americans • Antebellum South, US • Bridges & Viaducts • Industry & Commerce • Waterways & Vessels •
Credits. This page originally submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. This page has been viewed 1,360 times since then and 63 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. 7. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. 8. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. 9, 10, 11. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. 12, 13. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016.