Richmond Slave Trail
"The Union soldiers would put out the fires and push into the city within hours of the Confederates passing over the bridges. Among the first Union soldiers to put down their muskets and pick up fire hoses and axes would be several regiments of the United States Colored Troops, freed slaves who had joined the Union army to free other blacks. Instead of letting the Confederate capital burn to the ground, these black men who had every reason to hate Richmond helped save it."
-Clint Johnson, Pursuit: the Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis
Vastly different from the concrete and steel we stand upon today, the earliest version of the Mayo Bridge was little more than a series of rickety pontoons tied together by wood planks. Built around 1787 to connect Manchester with the northern riverbank, the first bridge - as well as the three that followed - were no match for the swirling floodwaters of the James River and by 1802, John Mayo found himself faced with the task of building the fourth iteration of the Mayo Bridge. To do this, he relied on a workforce often available for large scale construction projects, a group of free and enslaved, black and white, local and regional workers contributed brute muscle as well as highly ski1led craftsman.
When construction was in full swing, seventy men cou1d be working on the bridge at once - "highly skilled free Black artisans, like blacksmiths Samuel Redd and Claiborne Evans, supp1ied metalwork at the same time that ?Frank Sheppard the yellow man' was tarring timbers, Frederick Ayton, a white craftsman, was plastering the toll house." Gangs of enslaved men were also involved with the construction of the Mayo Bridge, and its successful completion depended on the coordination between all of these groups regardless of race, trade or social status.
In return for their efforts, Mayo provided meals and whiskey for all of the workers. After a long day of labor, the men would often eat and drink together, creating a social network that could strengthen their ties as laborers as we1l as communicate the news of the day. While most of the workers on the bridge were native to Richmond, the size of the project demanded temporary immigrant labor from Williamsburg and beyond, bringing men and their experiences to the capital city. Through word of mouth enslaved laborers could seek out news of long lost family members or learn of other events, such as troubles experienced by held by other bondspeople or of brewing conflicts. There is speculation that Gabriel of the Prosser plantation, who spent his life in Henrico County and the city of Richmond, included Africans as far away as Jamestown in his plans for rebellion through such communication networks.
D.F. LaPrade, D.F., Chief of Research, City of Richmond Department of Public Works; James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords, Rebellion, Race and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810; Richard M. Lee, General Lee's City - An Illustrated Guide of the Historic Sites of Confederate Richmond
About the Trail
Designed as a walking path, the Richmond Slave Trail chronicles the history of the trade in enslaved Africans from their homeland to Virginia until 1778, and away from Virginia, especially Richmond, to other locations in the Americas until 1865. The trail begins at the Manchester Docks, which, alongside Rocketts Landing on the north side of the river, operated as a major port in the massive downriver slave trade, making Richmond the largest source of enslaved blacks on the east coast of America from 1830 to 1860. While many of the slaves were shipped on to New Orleans and to other Deep South ports, the trail follows the footsteps of those who remained here and crossed the James River, often chained together in a coffle. Once reaching the northern riverbank, the trail then follows a route through the slave markets and auction houses of Richmond, beside the Reconciliation Statue commemorating the international triangular slave trade and on to the site of the notorious Lumpkin's Slave Jail and leading on to Richmond's African Burial Ground, once called the Burial Ground for Negroes, and the First African Baptist Church, a center of African American life in pre-Civil War Richmond. - Richmond Slave Trail Commission - 2011 -Title image: "After the Sale: Slaves Going South", 1853, Painted from live by Eyre Crowe, courtesy the Chicago History Museum