The Jackson Ward of Annie Blount’s childhood is no more.
The home the Maggie Walker High School alumna grew up in, on the 200 block of West Baker Street, is gone. It was among roughly 1,000 homes and businesses in Jackson Ward razed in the mid-1950s for a turnpike connecting Richmond with Petersburg, now Interstate 95.
For Blount, then a 21-year-old mother of three, the highway meant leaving behind her support system of friends and neighbors for the all-white section of the neighborhood where she moved: Church Hill’s Oakwood Avenue.
“Regardless of who it was, you had to go. You had no say-so. They had already did their plan to bring the highway through there,” said Blount, now 85, in an interview.
The destruction marked the beginning of a sharp decline for Jackson Ward, once the epicenter of Black life in Richmond. The highway, and its aftermath, rendered the neighborhood unrecognizable in the decades to come. Since then, divestment, demolition for other municipal projects and, more recently, gentrification, have beset the community that remains.
Jackson Ward marks its 150th anniversary this weekend. The celebration comes amid a renewed push to preserve its history and honor the figures who embodied the values that made the community an incubator for Black excellence.
“I firmly believe that Jackson Ward can’t just be defined by its geography,” said Janis Allen, president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association. “The number of people who have come through here … we’ll always be defined by our legacy and by our values. The place may not be what we remember it to be, but the legacy of Jackson Ward, 150 years strong, I’m confident that magic, whatever it is, that won’t ever go away.”
When Allen was an infant, the highway forced her family out of the home her uncle owned on St. Peter Street. They moved to what was then a newly built public housing complex in the East End: Creighton Court.
An estimated 7,000 African Americans — about 10% of Richmond’s Black population at the time — were displaced.
“It just broke the spirit of the neighborhood, I believe that,” Allen said.
The prospect of mass upheaval did not deter the city’s white power brokers, who forged ahead with the plan they deemed progressive. During the period, leaders around the country — in Detroit, Baltimore and elsewhere — followed the same playbook, routing roads through predominately Black neighborhoods with little regard for the people whose lives were upended by them.
“The project will change the city’s appearance as bulldozers and wrecking crews push aside scores of dwellings and businesses to make way for the ribbons of concrete to follow,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in August 1955. “Unfortunately, the demolition of scores of dwellings and business places will create difficult problems for some of the persons involved. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when individual citizens must be inconvenienced for the good of the community.”
Richmond’s first public housing complex, Gilpin Court, took a chunk out of the Jackson Ward in the early 1940s. Migration of middle-class Black families from the neighborhood to the city’s North Side picked up that decade. So, too, did talks of an expressway routed through the heart of the Ward, and the homes of poor Black residents.
White, city-hired consultants and prominent business interests pushed the idea, saying it would revitalize the city’s central business district, where Black residents were unwelcome, and clear blighted housing in the historic Black neighborhood to the north of it.
Two prior attempts to build the highway had been defeated at the ballot box by a multiracial coalition. Rather than drop the idea, the city’s all-white City Council outsourced the job to the state. The Virginia General Assembly, itself all-white, then formed a special authority to carry out the work, insulating the project from public opposition. As a result of the maneuvering, residents like Blount, already without representation, had no recourse.
Construction split the neighborhood in two. The blockwide gulf isolated the headquarters of the neighborhood’s most famous figure, pioneering Black businesswoman Maggie L. Walker, from the community she helped grow.
Narrowly escaping the wrecking ball was Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, at 14 W. Duval St. The congregation, started in 1867, was synonymous with its legendary founder, the Rev. John Jasper.
The highway route consultants originally proposed would have plowed through the church. Then led by the Rev. A.W. Brown, the congregation rebuffed the state’s offers to physically move the building to another location or rebuild the church elsewhere.
Residents rallied to protect the church tied to Jasper’s legacy, said Benjamin Ross, Sixth Mount Zion’s church historian. In a compromise that spared the building, the turnpike authority agreed to build a retaining wall, just feet from the sanctuary’s foundation, and swing the road around it.
The victory was “bittersweet,” Ross said.
While the church was unscathed, the same could not be said for its congregation. As Brown predicted, hundreds of his parishioners were forced to move.
Some returned for Sunday services at first, said Ross, who was baptized into the church a few years after the highway’s completion. He recalls singing in its choir to a packed sanctuary as a teenager. But as years passed, elderly members began to die. Among the younger generation, who did not have long-standing ties to the neighborhood, loyalty to the church waned, he said.
It wasn’t just Sixth Mount Zion. Congregations around the neighborhood suffered declines in membership after the highway tore through. That is one aspect of its legacy that is seldom considered: its direct role in weakening a core institution for the Black community, Ross added.
“It was not just in churches, but in the neighborhood as a whole,” Ross said.
Other factors contributed to the decline as well.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned race-based discrimination in housing and drastically expanded African Americans’ ability to pursue homeownership or rent elsewhere. Middle-class families that remained in the decade after the highway moved in greater numbers.
Jackson Ward was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. But even the honor underscored a cruel irony: The boundaries of its historic district — Belvidere Street, Broad Street, Third Street and the interstate — were only a portion of the vast swath the neighborhood once comprised. It once stretched as far north as Shockoe Valley and as far east as 18th Street.
“Jackson Ward has suffered considerably during the past generation … Buffeted by every affliction visited on inner city neighborhoods elsewhere, it has also paid the price of its own success,” according to the nomination form the neighborhood submitted at the time. “Segregation in a sense made Jackson Ward, and the leadership nurtured in the Ward helped to unmake segregation.”
It was in that period that James Stallings was growing his real estate portfolio. He acquired and rented out dilapidated homes in the neighborhood, as well as landmarks that had shuttered over the years: the Hippodrome Theater and Walker’s former headquarters, the St. Luke Building.
When Ronald Stallings, the elder Stallings’ son, came home from college to start his own business, the vibrancy that characterized the Jackson Ward of his youth had faded.
Businesses that had been staples of the neighborhood he grew up in were gone — casualties of a shrinking customer base in a community sliding deeper into poverty. Blight proliferated. Then came crack cocaine. The scourge stigmatized the shell of the neighborhood that remained.
“It made this area a pariah,” Stallings said in an interview.
A decade after the highway, the city cleared the eastern portion of the neighborhood to make way for the Richmond Coliseum, which opened in 1971. In the ’90s, the Greater Richmond Convention Center rose and walled off the neighborhood at Third Street. All the while, Virginia Commonwealth University’s ever-expanding Monroe Park and medical campuses squeezed the Ward from either side.
An influx of students has accelerated the neighborhood’s demographic shift. VCU students occupy a significant share of the area’s rental housing, a source of tension for some area homeowners.
Residents and business owners with long-standing ties to the neighborhood are fighting to make sure the shifting demographics don’t erode Jackson Ward’s history.
Loss of character is the neighborhood’s biggest present challenge, said Stallings, now a developer specializing in historic renovations. He has dedicated himself to carrying out his father’s mission: preserving as many old buildings in the neighborhood as possible. Too many have already been lost, he lamented.
“I just hope that the story can still be told,” Stallings said. “And it’s much easier to tell the story if you have some semblance of the structures, something tangible that people can latch their eyes onto, not just a plaque.”
Stallings’ firm, Walker Row Partnership, rehabilitated the famed Hippodrome Theater on Second Street. Since it reopened in 2011, it has hosted more than 2,000 events, he said, bringing thousands of visitors back each year to a strip he believes could be Richmond’s version of Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.
Around the corner from the theater, new development is rising and reshaping portions of the neighborhood.
New apartments built on Marshall Street in 2019, a block from the Maggie L. Walker statue, became a flashpoint. The scale and style of the project, and the feeling it was foisted on the neighborhood without consideration for residents’ input, registered as disrespect, said Gary Flowers, a fourth-generation Jackson Ward resident. Stallings agreed. The same developer is planning a taller building on the same stretch.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to make sure that Jackson Ward doesn’t become Scott’s Addition,” Flowers told a group tagging along with him on one of the walking tours he leads to highlight the neighborhood’s history. “We don’t want to become that.”
More major changes could be on the horizon.
The 781-unit Gilpin Court complex dominates the neighborhood’s northern half, but its days might be numbered. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has made clear its plans to demolish and redevelop the public housing community eventually.
Richmond’s newly adopted master plan proposes a bridge deck spanning the highway. The project, yet unbudgeted for, is meant to serve both symbolic and practical purposes. It would reconnect the northern portion to the historic district while simultaneously priming the pump for new mixed-use development.
Allen, the civic association president, moved back to the neighborhood 10 years ago. Her home, on Jackson Street, was the first bank opened by an African American anywhere in the country in 1889, the W.W. Browne House. From there, the hum of the highway is ever present.
Sometimes, she wonders what Jackson Ward would have become if not for the interstate.
“The optimist in me would like to say that the neighborhood would have thrived and been much different today, and we would have been OK,” Allen said. “But the realist in me, when I study some of the systemic injustices that just keep happening, it looks like there is something deep in this culture that, until we fix whatever that is, things could keep happening like the highway. If it were not the highway, it might have been something else.”
Whatever happens, the community will always have its cornerstones, she said: The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in the revived Leigh Street Armory; Walker’s home, with its distinctive green awnings, standing proudly on Quality Row; the annual 2nd Street Festival that draws thousands back to the neighborhood to which they are inextricably linked.
“All those things will keep us tethered here,” Allen said.
So, too, will the pride she feels anytime she tells someone she’s from the Ward.
That historic Jackson Ward endured to celebrate its 150th birthday Saturday reflects African American resiliency and transcendent achievement …