Enjoli Moon was working at Croaker’s Spot two decades ago when she noticed a vignette portrait of a Black man in the foyer of the restaurant, then at Second and Leigh streets in Jackson Ward.
Who is that? she asked owner Neverett Eggleston III. “And he said, ‘Oh, you know, that’s who Jackson Ward is named after — Giles B. Jackson. He used to be a lawyer around here.’ ”
Giles Beecher Jackson, whose practice was on Second Street, rose from enslavement to become the first African American attorney certified to argue before the Virginia Supreme Court.
A protégé of Booker T. Washington, Jackson was an entrepreneur, newspaper publisher and civil rights activist who in 1907 curated a Black exhibit at the exposition marking the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. His dream was to build a “National Museum for Colored People.”
He died in 1924, but his legacy lives on in the widely held belief, even reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that this historically Black neighborhood bears his name — despite counternarratives that the ward was an homage to former President Andrew Jackson, Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, or even a beer garden.
The truth, like much of Richmond’s history, is complicated, ugly and — if two Richmond-born sisters have their way — potentially redemptive.
Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Pritchett-Moon have created The JXN Project, their endeavor to ensure that America’s moment of racial reckoning and truth telling does not bypass Jackson Ward as the historic but gentrifying neighborhood approaches its 150th anniversary on April 17.
Enjoli Moon is assistant curator of Film and Special Programs with the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University and creative director of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival.
Sesha Pritchett-Moon, who has a doctorate from Old Dominion University, is a strategic planner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and is the curator of @AngryBlackFemale on Instagram.
Jackson Ward was created by Confederate-sympathizing Democrats in 1871 to dilute Black Republican political power by gerrymandering the city’s African American voters into one district.
The JXN Project seeks to recontextualize a place that was created to perpetuate Black oppression, but instead became a hub of African American enterprise and empowerment so noteworthy that it earned the nickname “Harlem of the South” and was listed as a National Historic Landmark District in 1978.
Foremost among the project’s goals is for the city of Richmond to officially name Jackson Ward in honor of Giles Jackson, “so that it’s not just folklore,” Moon said.
As part of that effort, The JXN Project will push for honorary street designations to pay homage to individuals with direct ties to the neighborhood “who better reflect the essence of what Jackson Ward became.”
Among those honored would be William Washington Browne, founder of the nation’s first chartered Black financial institution; Maggie L. Walker, the first Black woman to charter a bank in the U.S.; renowned entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; entrepreneur and hotelier Neverett Eggleston; and Lorna Pinckney, a driving force behind Richmond’s jazz poetry scene before her untimely death in 2017.
The sisters make clear that they’re not attempting the erasure of streets such as Leigh, named for Benjamin Watkins Leigh, a pro-slavery member of the Virginia House of Delegates during the early 1800s.
“If that intersects with the Maggie Walker Way, then you have to talk about the intersecting histories in this city and you are forced to tell the truth,” Moon said.
Their project also calls for the seating of more Black Richmonders on the city’s Commission of Architectural Review. It seeks to correct or contextualize records on the origin of Jackson Ward with historic preservation entities, particularly the National Register of Historic Places.
And with long-term planning and projects in mind, it intends to secure funding for Jackson Ward as part of the state’s $25 million investment in historic justice initiatives — monies now earmarked for Monument Avenue and Shockoe Bottom, once a hub of the domestic trade in human bondage.
The sisters describe Jackson Ward as “the connective tissue” between the subjugation and degradation of Black bodies in Shockoe Bottom and the bronze-and-granite lionization of white supremacy on Monument Avenue.
Jackson Ward embodied African American self-sufficiency and triumph over adversity. But ultimately, the neighborhood fell into decline, weakened by desegregation and buffeted by urban renewal projects such as Gilpin Court, the Richmond Coliseum and the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Perhaps most catastrophic was the 1950s construction of Interstate 95, which ran through the heart of the neighborhood, barely sparing such historic structures as Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church and the St. Luke Building that had been the headquarters of Walker’s business empire.
In recent years, new residential buildings and renovations to Jackson Ward’s housing stock have revitalized the neighborhood and raised property values, but weakened its connections to its African American heritage.
“You wouldn’t have been able to tell the full truth of Richmond without this story,” Moon said.
“It’s not lost on us that we have come into this work at a time when these stories were about to be overlooked, at a time when we think we’re about to tell a fuller story about what it means to be from Richmond and to be Black and from Richmond, historically.”
The JXN Project has received the blessing of Patricia Carter Sluby of Maryland, the great-granddaughter of Giles B. Jackson.
“I applaud their effort, absolutely,” said Sluby, a former patent examiner who is past president of the National Intellectual Property Law Association. As for her great-grandfather, “I would think that he would be elated.”
The sisters say Richmond has an opportunity to be a model for how to unearth hidden histories about who we really are and implement bold actions in response.
The original timetable for their task had been 2019, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown.
“The truth is that in 2019, Richmond wasn’t ready to tell the truth in the way that it now is in 2021,” Pritchett-Moon said. “We needed 2020 to happen.”
Last fall, Pritchett-Moon began researching the origin behind the name of Jackson Ward, using The Times-Dispatch archives, among other sources. She said she hasn’t found a “smoking gun” and that her research continues. But she described the circumstantial evidence as compelling.
Though some sources maintain that then-President Ulysses Grant named Jackson Ward, Pritchett-Moon says primary artifacts show the naming of the ward to be a locally driven decision, with evidence pointing to Stonewall Jackson as the namesake.
Ex-Confederate Democrats had just recaptured control of Richmond politics from Republicans. And she notes that neighboring Manchester, still independent from Richmond, immediately followed suit with a proposal to similarly redistrict Black Republicans into two wards named for Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
As a researcher by trade, “I lean very heavily into facts,” she said. But “this process has shown me the importance of creating a little bit of space and grace between folklore and fact, and how they can actually complement each other.”
In Jackson Ward, fact and folklore have been fellow travelers for so long that they became indistinguishable. But as this anniversary beckons, the sisters say Giles is the Jackson most deserving of the distinction of having a ward of his own.
“It might have been up for debate for the last 150,” Moon said, “but let’s make sure it’s not up for debate in the next 150.”