Janine Bell would drive from her home in North Carolina to Washington, never compelled to exit I-95 in Richmond as she marked her progress by the Roman numerals on the Main Street Station clock tower.
She didn't realize that the Victorian-era train station lay in the heart of what once was one of the nation's busiest markets in the buying and selling of Black men, women and children. Or that she was passing the site of an African Burial Ground concealed beneath the pavement of a parking lot.
But ultimately, Bell came to see Richmond as more than a mile marker. She made this city her home and launched a nonprofit that would change the way many people viewed its fraught history.
“And I believe in so doing, spirit sent me here," she said. "Which is why I say I accepted an assignment.”
In 2020, Bell marks the 30th anniversary of her assignment – the Elegba Folklore Society – which uses artistic expression to illuminate the stories that connect Richmond to Africa. Elegba, among the Yoruba, is the Orisa, or intercessor, “who opens the roads to bring clarity out of confusion," Bell noted.
The emergence of the Elegba Folklore Society as a fixture in Richmond coincided with the growing diversity of the city's arts and cultural offerings. And today, amid America's ongoing racial reckoning, Elegba stands out as a cultural bridge transitioning Richmond from a city that barely acknowledged its African identity and heritage to a place that celebrates it.
"Sometimes we talk about a Southern malaise," Bell said, "but there’s a different sense of awareness that’s happening right now."
Elegba has raised awareness through dance, art, historical interpretation and annual events that would become cultural staples: its Juneteenth freedom celebration, the Down Home Family Reunion and the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival.
The nonprofit, whose cultural center at First and Broad streets downtown brims with African jewelry, clothing, art and music, made an immediate impression on Shawn Utsey upon his arrival in Richmond in 2004 to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"When I first saw Elegba Folklore Society, it gave me a sense that, 'OK, this place might not be so bad after all,' " he recalled.
Now chair of African American studies at VCU, Utsey eventually taught his Introduction to African American Studies classes at Elegba.
Bell, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., found history boring as a student, but it seemed to come alive in Richmond. She initially pursued a career in urban planning, but she said part of her "assignment" was "to evolve personally and professionally at ground zero in terms of the nation's evolution."
Elegba started with African dance classes. But a pivotal moment for Bell was a 1993 international conference on race that was hosted by Richmond-based Hope in the Cities, now known as Initiatives of Change.
That conference featured a Unity Walk through the seldom-acknowledged chapters of Richmond history, including the Richmond Slave Trail. Elegba was called upon to artistically illuminate the story of the enslaved as they were marched along the south bank of the James River.
Actor J. Ron Fleming, a longtime collaborator of Bell's, recalled initially being uncomfortable doing those early tours on the trail, presenting material to predominantly white audiences.
“Now, I'm not only comfortable, I feel like we’re necessary, providing sustenance that is really needed," Fleming said.
Bell stresses that the history of African Americans did not start on the south bank of the James, or with the arrival of the first Africans at Point Comfort in Hampton Roads.
“Because if we only tell our story starting at those places, we start with us being on our knees. We start with us being choked up and muzzled," she said. "So the Elegba Folklore Society has prided itself on building that cultural bridge across the water to the heart of the world, the Motherland, the continent of Africa."
IN HER WORDS: JANINE BELL
founder / artistic director, Elegba Folklore Society
Hometown: Greensboro, N.C.
Family: one daughter, one granddaughter
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
Wow, wow, wow. I would spend April 3, 1865, with a member of the USCT – the United States Colored Troops – as the 3,000 men make their way into Richmond, de facto ending the Civil War and the American enslavement of African people.
I would walk as closely as I could alongside the proud ranks. I would assist them in opening the locks on the holding pens in Shockoe Bottom, crying and shouting with the people who were suddenly no longer contained. I would raise my voice in the call “Hip Hip Huzzah!” upon reaching the Capitol grounds. I would hug the mothers seeing their sons in the numbers after they had been long since sold away.
I would be proud to witness this indelible turning point in our history – a time that serves us well to remember today.
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.
The Elegba Folklore Society has not been grant-rich. Though sometimes the organization has benefited from philanthropy’s nod, too often it has been perceived as "not enough" for many of the systemic reasons the world is alerted to, again, now.
The lesson is perseverance – persistence, self-determination and love – to serve families and communities challenged for the very same systemic reasons.
This is the society’s 30th year, and people have called our mission-driven work life-changing. An uphill walk daily – what would the result be, however, if we just stopped because funding was denied? No, we keep going creatively, purposefully and consistently.
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value.
So many. House guests say I live in a museum.
Among the collections, I will choose the furnishings in our dining room that belonged to my maternal grandparents. I was born into the pieces – the dining table covered with ancestral lace; the buffet replete with memorial what-nots; and the china closet, a beautiful creation of wood and curved glass that houses relic and contemporary housewares.
Who is your role model?
My mind’s eye sparkles as I contemplate this question. I feel encouraged and laser-focused when I think of the many whose words and works are models for me; the many whose boldness, art, intellect and souls have influenced my character and my fortitude.
There are writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, who tapped into the core of humanity to release laments, sharp truths, edicts and sermons.
Katherine Dunham danced and documented the African Diaspora, doing her part to create a place within the realm of American dance for these cultural expressions and techniques.
Dr. Murry N. DePillars, the first African American dean of VCU’s renowned School of the Arts, painted vivid cultural realities and provided guidance that helped me develop my own.
Nigeria’s Babatunde Olatunji came to America riding Sango’s thunderbolt, bringing complex rhythms and time that connected African American musical trends with the Motherland, that informed a major segment of American music and that informed me.
As I call their names here in a form of ancestral veneration, I feel buoyed by the stories of their lives and determined as I walk beside the long shadow cast by their light.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
I love, love, love the beach. I could be a "beach bum" – a good one who feeds the water and the sand with my spirit and who gratefully receives their gifts therein. A child of the sun, I can think, pray, dream, repeat in a wonderment and oneness with nature.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
I would choose interior design. I would enjoy helping a house to speak the spirit of its occupants so that, as home, there is a poetic energy flow to support comfort, discovery, expectation, protection, refuge, elevation and, of course, extended identity.
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you.
The birth of my granddaughter, Yaa-Nailah, was no “small moment,” but it naturally has had a lasting impact.
Evolution is an inherent connector of generations and traits. In that moment of my daughter Imani's blossoming, I could feel our ancestors pouring down, through and into this miracle of life, fertilizing our family line. Celestial stuff rooted itself and continued its growth anew into a future that I may influence but that will be hers to have.
Share a personal reflection on how the pandemic has affected you.
This is the most surreal time through which I – and most – have ever lived. Did we not learn from the Spanish flu of 1918? This is a wicked repeat of history – including "Red Summers" paralleling, in opposition, the global social justice revolution.
If the coronavirus was a rite of spring 2020, her pollination process has created deadly dust that has obscured while crippling America's very foundations, revealing silhouettes of sadness, self-examination, determination and outrage.
In its midst, the pandemic has made me more alert about everything. I am grateful that my family is well and that we have laughed until we cried on some days. I am amazed by first responders of all types, and I am angry about how systemic racism created social determinants of health where every inequity preys upon Black and brown people – again.