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Richmond’s Slave District Recreated in 3D

A still from the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab's 3-D animated map of the city's slave district
A still from the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab's 3-D animated map of the city's slave district showing Wall Street, the City Hotel, and the Lumpkin's complex. Digital Scholarship Lab

Researchers at the University of Richmond have created a 3D map of the city’s slave district in 1853. Part of the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold” exhibit, the map traces the steps of a British artist whose experience in Richmond led to abolitionist sketches, essays and paintings. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: View the University of Richmond's 3D animated map and other projects created by the Digital Scholarship Lab.


Eyre Crowe’s painting “Slaves Waiting for Sale” captured the tense moments before a slave auction in Richmond, when men, women and children quietly awaited a future of separation, suffering and cruelty. Exhibited at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1861, the painting had a big impact, says University of Virginia Professor Maurie McInnis.

Maurie McInnis: An exhibition that opened only a few weeks after the American Civil War had begun and so it was all the talk in London because everybody understood that this painting showed as one of the critic’s said, “the accursed guilt of that system.” It had the ability to bring British attention to the reason the Civil War was being fought.

McInnis wrote a book about Crowe, his paintings and the Southern slave trade and curated the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold” exhibit, which features the artist’s paintings. To help people better understand the Richmond Crowe experienced, McInnis enlisted the help of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

Robert Nelson: We’re looking at the commercial center of the city...

Director of the Lab Robert Nelson describes their collaboration: an animated three-dimensional map that follows Crowe’s steps through Richmond.

Nelson: It slowly glides into the city from above, lowering down like a bird would fly...

With F.W. Beers Atlas of Richmond as a base map, viewers see detailed architecture of the time, including dozens of buildings meticulously recreated using 3D modeling software.

Nelson: First African, the Capitol, Saint Paul’s Church…

After reaching Shockoe Bottom, the camera pulls back; thousands of buildings fade to white, while those used in the slave trade turn red.

Nelson: …to give viewers a sense of the significant physical footprint of the slave trade in the commercial district of Richmond in 1853.

Joined by the Lab’s Justin Madron and Nate Ayers, Nelson takes me on Crowe’s path, starting on Broad, outside the Library of Virginia.

Nelson: Right around here would have been the railhead...

Crowe likely passed the Capitol as he made his way to the American Hotel on 11th and Main. It was there that he discovered ads for slave auctions in a newspaper. After asking for directions, he walked down the steep hill to the Bottom.

Nelson: We’re coming up into the area that would have been the real nucleus of the slave trading district in the mid 19th Century. We’re nearing 15th and a little passed that there would have been two alleys, Wall Street or Lumpkins Alley to the North and Locust Alley to the South.

Turning left, we walk under the freeway, the same direction Crowe took to find the short, narrow passageway Wall Street. It was here that Crowe found the auction house where he sketched what would eventually become Slaves Waiting for Sale.

Nelson: Wall Street would have been running right, I believe, right under the interstate and right near the railroad overpass that we’re looking at.

It’s not easy to envision how this area looked 150 years ago. By reconstructing it in 3D, viewers can get a better understanding of both Crowe’s journey and the material infrastructure that made up Richmond’s slave market.

Nelson: This is a part of the city that’s remarkably different.

Using McInnis’s research on Richmond’s slave district, the Digital Scholarship Lab first created a simple 3D model using Google Earth. Last Spring, they began the much more complex process of creating the 2 ½ minute long 3D video. GIS Analyst Justin Madron says students hand modeled about 40 Richmond buildings.

Justin Madron: One of the buildings, the Exchange Hotel, took one of our students about a whole semester. It’s a huge hotel, he had a great amount of detail in the windows. So some buildings took a whole semester, some took a couple weeks, some took a couple months.

They knew about the footprints of thousands of other buildings, but didn’t know what they looked like. So they used a program called City Engine to recreate period architecture.

Madron: You input set of rules and give it these parameters that you want and it randomly spits out these models. So we talked with Maurie [McInnis} and had a list of things that were prevalent in Richmond at the time, certain sized windows, certain heights of buildings. For instance, other than some flour mills, most buildings weren’t over three stories. So we went through and gave it those rules and it spit out buildings that we didn’t know because our students modeled about 40 but there was about 4000 footprints, buildings we just didn’t have any photographic evidence of.

Nate Ayers: There’s thousands and thousands of frames...

Designer Nate Ayers combined all the buildings into 3D modeling software and added the “fly over” animation.

Nate Ayers: Basically probably 1000 hours of rendering time is what we’re looking at for the final version.

The team hopes their work helps spur more immersive learning projects and new ways to understand history.  

Nelson: This is meant as a kind of aid to help people imagine what this city looked like in 1853 and get a quick sense of the significance of a concentrated footprint of slave trading within it at that time.

The Digital Scholarship Lab is presenting this 3D map during a lecture at the Library of Virginia. And they’ll be at the 150th Commemoration of the Fall of Richmond to share an animated map of the evacuation fires and Lincoln’s visit to the city. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.