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Unsung sites of black history in the Richmond area

Unsung sites of black history in the Richmond area

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Black History Month frequently shines the light on touchstones of Richmond's past – including pioneering businesswoman and educator Maggie L. Walker; entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; and the Jackson Ward neighborhood, the former "Harlem of the South" that spawned these luminaries and others. More recently, the city has begun to explore its role as a major center of the domestic slave trade. 

But black history in Richmond remains largely unexplored terrain in unheralded spots, unpretentious neighborhoods, largely neglected cemeteries and spaces reclaimed from asphalt or, sadly, victimized by the wrecking ball. Some of that history's seminal figures are also unsung. Here is just a sampling:

Virginia Union University: This historically black college traces its roots to the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in Shockoe Bottom, which was leased by the jailer’s African-American widow as a school for the emancipated. This school, through mergers with other institutions, eventually landed at Lombardy Street and Brook Road in 1889, with the construction of distinctive buildings of Virginia granite in late Victorian Romanesque style. In the lead-up to World War II, a pavilion designed for and exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York was gifted to VUU by Belgium, then under Nazi occupation. It was reassembled on campus, and the Belgian Friendship Building’s landmark tower would become a signature of the university. (In an interesting footnote, the original set of bells from the tower are in Stanford University’s Hoover Tower.)

Chandler Junior High School: On Sept. 6, 1960, Gloria Jean Mead, 13, and Carol Irene Swann, 12, became the first black students to enroll in formerly all-white Richmond Public Schools. But meaningful integration of the school district proved elusive even a half-dozen years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, leading to court-ordered busing a decade later to achieve what Brown had not. Today, the Richmond school district is 90 percent minority, and the Chandler building on East Brookland Park Boulevard houses Richmond Community High, a well-regarded alternative school.

William Washington Browne House: Browne was president of the United Order of True Reformers and founder, in 1888, of the first black bank chartered in the United States. Browne opened the bank in the parlor of his Jackson Ward home at 105 W. Jackson St., which has been restored. He was born into slavery but escaped and joined the Union army before attending school in Wisconsin after his discharge. He returned to the South to become a leading temperance advocate, launching his business empire.

Woodland Cemetery: This cemetery, along Richmond’s line with Henrico County, was established in 1918 by John Mitchell Jr., the banker, Richmond alderman and crusading editor of the Richmond Planet. It is the final resting place of Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion, human rights activist, author and humanitarian who was born in Richmond. His black granite monument sits next to the headstone of his beloved mother, Mattie Ashe, who died when he was a child.

Evergreen Cemetery: This burial ground in Richmond’s East End is in a neglected and overgrown state that belies its status as the final resting place of numerous black Richmond luminaries. Among the distinguished residents buried here are Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr. and pioneering African-American architect Daniel J. Farrar Sr. (An example of Farrar's work can be seen at 1401 W. Leigh St., which he built for Reuben Thomas Hill, the True Reformers cashier whose embezzlement brought down the historic bank.)

Westwood: This neighborhood in Richmond’s West End, north of Patterson Avenue and west of Willow Lawn Drive, was founded by emancipated African-Americans who left the Patterson Plantation in the 1870s. The neighborhood and its church, surrounded by white suburban communities (and not to be confused with the area near Libbie and Monument avenues), were denied basic services such as water after annexation by the city – residents had to obtain water from a fire hydrant. It survived repeated attempts to level the neighborhood in favor of a city park, and its children were not allowed to attend all-white Westhampton School – within sight of the community – and were sent to Carver School some 5 miles away. Despite this history, the neighborhood endures largely intact a century and a half later. The maternal family of Arthur Ashe is among those who called Westwood home.

African Burial Ground: This downtown area, north of Broad Street and just east of Interstate 95, was reclaimed from a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot and is now a grassy, meditative setting and one of the final stops on the Richmond Slave Trail. The burial ground was just north of the heart of a slave-trading district that was the second-busiest in the U.S. after New Orleans. Adjacent to the burial ground were gallows whose victims included Gabriel, who led a failed rebellion of the enslaved in 1800.

Spring Park: This tiny park, off Lakeside Avenue in Henrico County, is at the site of the now-dry spring where Gabriel, a literate blacksmith, planned what in the summer of 1800 would have been a complex and far-reaching rebellion of the enslaved. But torrential rains foiled the plan, which was disclosed by two slaves to their owners, and Gabriel and dozens of co-conspirators were hanged. In 1997, Henrico commemorated the site, which has interpretive information on the rebellion. And the man treated as a criminal is being reconsidered in a more enlightened era as a freedom fighter.

Ethel Bailey Furman: Furman (1893-1976) was first black female architect in Virginia. She is credited with the design of some 200 buildings, most of them no longer standing, according to "Built By Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, Va." In 2010, Furman was honored as one of the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Women in History. She worked out of a family home designed and built by her father, Madison J. Bailey, that still stands at 3025 Q St. on Church Hill.  In 1962, she designed the educational wing of Fourth Baptist Church and also was the architect for former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s childhood family home on Church Hill, since demolished.

St. Joseph's Memorial Park: The original bell of St. Joseph's Catholic Church marks the spot where the first black Catholic congregation of the South worshiped and attended school. This block in Jackson Ward contained a brick Gothic church, a parish house, a Franciscan convent and Van de Vyver, a K-12 parochial school that educated 3,500 black students over 50 years, many of them non-Catholic. The church and school were closed in 1969, in part to further the integration of the Richmond Diocese. The school was gutted by fire in 1973 and demolished along with the church. Only the convent at First and Duval streets still stands.

Sixth Mount Zion Church: The Rev. John Jasper, renowned for his "De Sun Do Move" sermon, organized the church in an abandoned Confederate stable on Brown's Island in September 1867. It now sits in Jackson Ward at Duval and St. John streets, along the edge of Interstate 95. The church historian, Benjamin Ross, maintains a John Jasper Memorial Room and Museum on the church's ground floor.

Frederick Douglass Court: This neighborhood, in the shadows of VUU, was a streetcar suburb designed and built by African-Americans for a black clientele. It sits northwest of the corner of Brook and Overbrook roads and featured homes by notable black architect Charles Russell, attracting upper-class homebuyers to streets named after such black luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and John Mercer Langston. Among its most prominent residents was Spottswood W. Robinson III, the civil rights lawyer who worked with Oliver Hill on the Prince Edward County school desegregation case, which became part of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Robinson, whose split-level home still stands at Brook and Overbrook, became a federal judge.

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