Words by Duron Chavis (Brother Manifest)
Some of my fondest memories are of working for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as a tour guide. From elementary school aged children to senior citizens, it was my responsibility to interpret the history of African American’s in Richmond Virginia to diverse audiences - literally every day. The permanent installation on the history of Jackson Ward served as, perhaps, the most inspirational tours I ever gave though it wouldn’t be until almost 10 years later that I would find out the more intimate reasons for the demise of the, “Harlem of the South.”
Jackson Ward was created around 1870 and was originally home to free Africans, German, Irish and Italian immigrants. During Reconstruction free African Americans overwhelmingly moved into the area and by 1920 Jackson Ward was the center of black business for the city of Richmond. Due to American apartheid, in the form of segregation laws and exclusionary local attitudes by people of European descent, Jackson Ward developed independently both politically and economically from the rest of Richmond. In 1940, an estimated 5,000 African Americans lived in Jackson Ward. From retail businesses, insurance companies, lawyers, doctors, churches, newspapers, banks, fraternal orders, beauty shops and entertainment facilities Jackson Ward existed as a city within a city. The success of Jackson Ward was built on the principle of interdependence which is essential for strong resilient communities and the backbone for success for any group in our society.
Renown nationwide for its social scene, Jackson Ward was a famous stopping point for musical greats such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Artists would stay at the Hotel Eggleston or the Harris Hotel on 2nd Street and later perform at the Hippodrome Theatre. At least 5 black banks would find home in Jackson Ward, including the St. Luke Penny’s Saving bank founded by Maggie Lena Walker the first black woman to start a bank. The culmination of the five would take shape in the form of Consolidated Bank and trust as a result of the economic turmoil resultant from the Great Depression. Black owned insurance company Southern Aide Life Insurance would find it’s home at 3rd and Clay street. Waller’s Jewelry, the Richmond Planet, Chalmer’s Beauty School, fraternal orders such as the Knights of Pythagoras, churches like Sixth Mount Zion and Ebenezer Baptist Church all would find their roots deeply planted in Jackson Ward and this was before 1950 less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Imagine the economic power of having dollars turn over so many times in your community. Say for instance, you were a promoter of shows that featured Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Chances are you had a bank account with a black owned bank, life insurance with a black owned insurance company; you booked your acts at a black owned theatre and had them stay in a black owned hotel. They would then eat at a black owned restaurant, you would have gotten your clothes tailor made from a black tailor, your watch fixed by a black jeweler all the while holding membership in a black fraternal order and on Sunday you gave tithe and offering at a black church afterwards you could stop and pick up a copy of a black owned newspaper in the form of the Richmond Planet. Talk about black power! With 25% of the city’s population being overwhelmingly black, a resurgence of this type of economic self-sufficiency is certainly a way to re-emerge the city of Richmond from it’s current state.
Makes you wonder what happened right? Well a common misnomer is that the collapse of historically black neighborhoods and Black Wall Streets was a byproduct of integration with the inference that it was African American’s overwhelming desire to support businesses other than their own. The truth is that the opportunity to participate freely in mainstream America without concern of a white’s only sign may have had an effect on the Harlem of the South but the demise of Jackson Ward was a much more complicated, uncomfortably more insidious and unfortunately deliberate act.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s statue in Jackson Ward
In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in the 1930’s which instituted a myriad of economic programs with intentions of boosting the American economy. Sounds good right? Well it was if your ethnic persuasion was fit for the salvation. As it related to housing, the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was designed to refinance homes to prevent foreclosure. Field workers for the HOLC went through communities rating neighborhoods to determine if eligibility for refinancing. African American neighborhoods were given the lowest rating regardless of how much the median income for their respective communities with white communities even if on the decline receiving higher grades. This affected how much, if any, assistance was given to communities like Jackson Ward during one of the most economically trying times this country has yet to face.
Similar to the HOLC, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that was charged with guaranteeing low interest loans with small down payments and long-term payback periods. This program discriminated as well and refused to give loans to African Americans even if they had good credit. The FHA used the racist ratings determined by the HOLC to deny African Americans neighborhoods both loans and mortgages. If property ownership especially homeownership is the foundation of wealth, then African American neighborhoods had successfully been locked out of the giving circle while others got assistance without any semblance of similar obstacle.
To add insult to injury, the development of public housing targeted African American neighborhoods despite the original purpose of them being for people of all ethnicities. The suburbs didn’t get any public housing developments at all in Richmond. Centralizing public housing in and around traditionally African American neighborhoods in the city of Richmond, in the case of Jackson Ward - Gilpin Court, which meant the centralization of poverty close to and inside of black neighborhoods. That wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been the final deathblow administered by way of the initiation of the Interstate Highway program that would be built directly through the middle of Jackson Ward – despite the community being against the idea. State and city legislators created the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and built the highway anyway despite multiple public community vote downs. Seven thousand African Americans or 10% of Jackson Wards population would be displaced by this act of economic violence.
The interesting thing about the highway, the new deal programs, and the development of public housing in and or around traditionally African American neighborhood was that Jackson Ward in Richmond was not the exception to the rule. This was no anomaly. In fact when one does the research you find that every major metropolitan city across America followed the same blueprint that would crush the economic fortitude of major black epicenters that had been forced to develop out of necessity due to segregation. It was as if a memo was passed down from some secret meeting that read “this is how you stop black people from gaining political and economic power in your city.”
During this time of urban renewal; of course the civil rights movement was in swing working to provide access for African American’s into mainstream America. Inherently this is the way that it should be. Irrespective of such overwhelming economic terrorism, lawyers and activists in Jackson Ward would go on to spearhead numerous landmark efforts during the civil rights movement – with notables such as Oliver Hill locating their offices in Jackson Ward. Hill served on the legal defense team for the NAACP and championed cases such as the Brown vs. Board of Education. He would later become the first black person to serve on city council since Reconstruction in 1948. Henry Marsh III had offices in Jackson Ward, and his work on Bradley vs. Richmond School Board instituted school bussing programs to racially integrate the school system. He would later become the city’s first black mayor in 1966. The Richmond Crusade for Voters had its offices in Jackson Ward and fought for voting rights for people of African descent to be able to participate fully in the political system. The Richmond NAACP offices were in Jackson Ward and their work organizing sit-ins broke led to the first sit in at Woolworths. Efforts from leaders from right here in Richmond VA by way of Jackson Ward helped shape the civil rights movement immeasurably. Funding for these efforts came by way of businesses like Virginia Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company and citizens living right in Jackson Ward.
Oliver Hill and (a daper) Henry Marsh III. Civil Rights legends made power moves in Jackson Ward.
It is a hard argument to hypothesize what Jackson Ward would have been had its neighborhood been given high ratings and its residents had access to the same loans, refinancing options and mortgages that their white counterparts had been given, had a highway not been built through the middle of the neighborhood and public housing not been placed there virtually at the same time. Of course the convergence of so many economic wrecking balls aimed directly at a specific demographic would leave any community reeling. Once one takes into account the cumulative impacts of these events taking place simultaneously over two decades and the subsequent divestment from Richmond, Virginia in mass in the forms of massive resistance and white flight in response to integration, and later the influx of crack cocaine into
public housing developments in the late seventies and eighties – one starts getting a full scope of what communities like Jackson Ward were up against to
The economic violence done unto Jackson Ward was like a poisonous dart. it didn’t kill instantly – and great works were done in spite of; however it was an orchestrated attempt none the less. One thing is for certain, you can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. The lessons of interdependence learned from Jackson Ward are timeless and even more relevant today than ever before.
Current revitalization efforts of Jackson Ward are under way, however due to influences from the market and stifling poverty, intensive gentrification has inspired a major influx from the individuals with much higher financial means that the neighborhood’s historical inhabitants. What used to be for blacks only is slowly becoming too expensive a place for the city’ black residents to live. The black owned businesses that were once a mainstay of Jackson Ward are being replaced by white owned businesses or businesses that cater to “mixed audiences”. Croaker Spot – one of the oldest black owned restaurants in the city, owned by descendants of Neverett Eggleston – founder of The Eggleston Hotel – moved to newly developed areas of the city in Manchester. Consolidated Bank and Trust – once the oldest black owned bank in the country was sold to a white company in recent years. The Hippodrome theatre once feature legendary black acts who wouldn’t have been able to get major headlines in white venues. Ironically now, often feature non-black acts and are done by non-black promoters. Funny story, the venue had a show by a local band, from Richmond, called, “Black Girls,” which was paradoxically an all white male college-rock band. No one seemed to notice the irony tho…
Rebuilt – The Hippodrome now stands tall in Jackson Ward.
Duron Chavis (Brother Manifest) is the director of Happily Natural Day and coordinator of the Mcdonough Community Garden. He will be writing about RVA Black History every Friday this month.