Richmond, Virginia, is home to one of the most important historically African American communities: Jackson Ward. Just like similar communities in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago, Jackson Ward is close to a resurgent downtown. As a result, the forces of change are bearing down on the area, with an influx of newcomers. As Mary Lauderdale, the long-time manager at the Black History Museum in Jackson Ward told me, “older folks are leaving and young students and professionals are moving in. Gentrification is going on.” In a tour, which was part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s What’s Out There weekend, dual efforts to preserve history and accommodate change were made apparent.
First of all, the Black History Museum itself is changing with the times. Lauderdale said the Museum was once the “best house on the block,” but that’s no longer the case, as young people move in and invest in the old fixer-uppers nearby. The museum is soon moving into the historic Virginia Volunteers Battalion Armory, which was a home to African American soldiers in World War II and has been long-time important community meeting place. The new museum space will offer far more exhibition space, providing more opportunities for cultural tourism. It’s right next to the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, which is an active parish. The church was designed by Charles Russell, one of the first African American architects in the 1880s.
Jackson Ward formed out of the deeply poisonous Jim Crow laws, which came into force after the Civil War and institutionalized “separate but equal” facilities for whites and African Americans, but, in effect, created a highly unequal society, especially in the south. In Jackson Ward, freed African American slaves took the initiative and created a separate world unto themselves. As Doug Kellner, Valentine Richmond History Center, explained, when slavery was abolished, many freed slaves fled plantations either to the north or came into the city to work at machine factories. Given Richmond was the second largest slave market after New Orleans, there were many slaves in the area around the city.
As the Black History Museum shows, Jackson Ward soon became the birthplace of “black capitalism,” home to the “black Wall Street of America.” Given white bankers wouldn’t lend money to African Americans, they needed to create their own sources of finance. W.W. Browne House, named for its owner, became the first chartered African American bank. African American community leader Maggie L. Walker, whose home has been turned into a museum run by the National Park Service, also became the first woman to start a bank.
When segregation ended, said Kellner, many of the wealthier African Americans moved out of the neighborhood. Then, in the 1950s, Interstate 95 plowed through a section of the neighborhood, taking down more than 700 homes, which Kellner said had long been vacant. This further sped up the deterioration of the ward, but towards the end of the 20th century, reinvestment began in earnest. Today, the neighborhood has a real mix of interesting residential building styles.
Before freed slaves moved to this area, it was home to German and other European immigrants. Some of these unique early homes have been restored by the Walker Row Partnership, a commercial development company dedicated to reviving architecture from the past. Kellner said he knows the owners and they are passionate about preserving the history of the ward. The restoration work was made viable when the district was declared a historic district in the 1970s. With that designation, all sorts of tax breaks are available to restore old buildings.
Jackson Ward honors its cultural heritage as well. The famed Hippodrome, where Billie Holiday, Dizzie Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, and countless other legends played, is still standing after a fire gutted it. It’s now a sort of cabaret theater, with a restaurant next door.
Near the theater is a great example of the murals that have popped up all over the district.
Also nearby is a statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a ground-breaking entertainer who paired off in dances with Shirley Temple when whites and blacks didn’t dance together on screen. The urban legend goes that he paid for the first stop light in Jackson Ward at one corner near a school. Before the traffic light, a number of children were hit by cars.
But the local musical culture seems to be under threat as well. Lauderdale said a historic African American Pentecostal Church played brass music with their masses for decades. Young residents moving in didn’t like the noise and complained so the music has stopped. “This is part of our culture. Can we create a culture that works for everyone?”, Lauderdale wondered.