Black business owners are leading a revolution in a Virginia market haunted by its ties to the slave trade

A group of people in masks wearing headphones outside at night
UnlockingRVA’s silent party. Courtney Jones
  • Richmond was the second-largest slave-trading hub in the United States.
  • Black business owners are reclaiming the city’s 17th Street Market with events and commerce.
  • “Our whole role is to restore the energy” while “honoring the past,” a yoga therapist and CEO said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“Richmond is the root of oppression.” That’s one of the ways Ashley J. Williams described the city she’s called home for 10 years.

She said she was speaking of the Virginia capital as a whole, as well as specifically the neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom and the 17th Street Market.

The 17th Street Market has been a site of commerce since the 1700s. Depending on whom you ask, that commerce included enslaved Africans, with the 17th Street Market being the site of an auction block. (Others say it was close to an auction block.) A few minutes away at Lumpkin’s Jail, or Devil’s Half Acre, enslaved people were jailed and tortured before being sold.

Richmond, with a prime location on the James River, was the second-largest slave-trading hub in the United States and the largest on the East Coast.

Today, less than a five-minute walk from the open-air 17th Street Market, you’ll see a few markers for the Slave Trail, but these are easy to miss if you’re not keen on the history.

But for Williams, a yoga therapist and the CEO of BareSOUL Yoga, who founded the brand in 2015, “there’s energy that’s very present.”

Ashley J. Williams
Ashley J. Williams, the CEO of BareSOUL Yoga. Soho Photos/Frank Pitchford

“Our whole role is to restore the energy there and reenvision what it looks like to bring more life and vibrant energy while acknowledging and honoring the past,” she said.

The wellness space, especially yoga, can feel extremely white, she added. BareSOUL Yoga employs a dozen Black instructors, and each 17th Street practice begins with a brief history of the space that was once a source of pain.

“The 17th Street Market was a place where Black families were split up. It’s where the Black life was devalued. So the practice of yoga is a practice of connection. And it’s a practice of liberation of our minds,” Williams said.

A group of people on yoga mats in the street
BareSOUL Yoga on 17th Street. Soho Photos/Frank Pitchford

Williams isn’t the only small-business owner bringing new life to the space. After being approached by Richmond Parks and Recreation to host an outdoor, COVID-19-friendly event in August, Faith Wilkerson, UnlockingRVA‘s owner and founder, who’s run the event-planning company for five years, lined the concrete and cobblestone walkways with partyers donning neon-lit headphones playing old-school and current tunes.

“Every single moment I step foot on that market, it’s done with authority and purpose because it’s what the ancestors would want us to do. Black Americans have this special gift of turning tragedy and pain into triumph and longevity. You see so much joy in our guests’ faces as they dance the night away, and it makes the moment even more special,” Wilkerson said.

Faith Wilkerson
Faith Wilkerson, the founder of UnlockingRVA. Soho Photos/Frank Pitchford

Participants in yoga or the silent disco usually work up an appetite, so Williams and Wilkerson do their parts to support and promote food vendors, especially Black-owned ones, in the area.

But the women acknowledged initial hiccups in businesses not exactly embracing their audiences, which tend to be predominantly Black.

Williams even recalled one business owner calling the police on a homeless yoga participant. Both women chalked it up to establishments adapting to new faces, new spaces, and a COVID-19 world.

Adrienne Cole Johnson and Melody Short, the cofounders of the Richmond Night Market, also experienced the same blowback from some owners in the area when they brought their nighttime affair to 17th Street two years ago. They said that quickly blew over once they introduced themselves.

The Richmond Night Market
The Richmond Night Market. James Loving

Johnson and Short described the work they and the Night Market do as reprogramming and reclaiming the space. The market operates on the second Saturday of each month in the summer to early fall.

Though they’re open to all vendors, Short acknowledged that the market naturally attracts a majority of Black businesses.

“I think people feel safe. It’s different when you’ve got Black women leading the charge because we welcome everybody – versus sometimes when it’s led by other groups. Black people, sometimes, we don’t feel welcome,” Short said. Being heavily invested in the businesses and the people behind the businesses is what she said keeps vendors returning year after year.

A kid selling food outside
A chef at the Richmond Night Market. James Loving

For their first in-person event since the pandemic, the market hosted about 20 vendors selling everything from art to handmade goods and food.

“We’re often, as Black people, putting our money in other communities,” Short said. The market allows them to flip the script, she added.