RICHMOND, Va. — This is a city where statues of Confederate leaders once cast long shadows until they were finally removed in 2020 and 2021. Those effigies were callous reminders that Richmond was second only to New Orleans in the slave trade, and the men honored in bronze and placed on pedestals had fought a war to keep people enslaved.
The statues were more than monuments, they were part of a myth known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause sought to romanticize the antebellum with a “Song of the South”-style whitewashing. But as the statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were being erected to honor the past, there were dramatic and forward-looking changes happening in a Richmond neighborhood called Jackson Ward.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Jackson Ward, Richmond’s Black neighborhood, was rapidly evolving into a booming epicenter of commerce and culture. Jackson Ward was Harlem before there was a Harlem. It was Black Wall Street before Tulsa’s Greenwood District. There were Black-owned clubs, hotels, newspapers, banks, shops, and financial institutions. It is called the birthplace of Black capitalism.
But unless you’re from Richmond, there’s a good chance you never learned about the bustling Black neighborhood, or the groundbreaking people who lived there.
“There was a willful suppression of Black history,” said scholar and tour guide Gary Flowers on a brisk walk through Jackson Ward. “In Richmond we have Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank and the first African American woman to serve as a bank president in 1903. I don’t have any problems with Harriett Tubman, but Maggie Walker should be on currency. This is the matriarch of Black finance in America. There should be a statue of her at the Treasury, there should be a postage stamp, and there should be a movie about her.”
That history, once quietly locked away, is now being lifted and celebrated. Like many cities around the country, Richmond is experiencing a racial reckoning, although here that reckoning feels like a renaissance. There are artists, historians, tourism representatives, and cultural institutions working across Richmond to spread the word about the city’s rich Black past. That all begins with the history of Jackson Ward.
Flowers enthusiastically points out (specifically he said, “I want you to print this”) that in its heyday Jackson Ward was home to 300 Black-owned businesses, seven Black-owned insurance companies, five Black banks, and multiple newspapers. The Hippodrome Theater played host to luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Nat King Cole.
The neighborhood fell victim to the same brand of urban renewal that upended many communities of color in the 1950s and 1960s. A highway was built directly through Jackson Ward, displacing thousands. The fabric of the community further unraveled and more homes and businesses were lost as boulevards were broadened, the Richmond Coliseum was built, and housing developments overtook homes.
Now, Richmonders such as sisters Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon, are helping to piece that history back together and celebrate it. In late 2020, the Moon sisters (Enjoli is the founder of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, while Sesha is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the National Institute of Standards and Technology) founded the JXN Project. It began as simple research into trivia about the neighborhood, and quickly grew into a deep dive of Jackson Ward’s halcyon days. Their research resulted in the formation of the JXN Project, along with a citywide celebration of the neighborhood’s 150th anniversary in 2021.
“When we think about the Black American dream, it starts from here, and we mean that quite literally. But these are things that we never knew,” said Sesha Moon. “We went to an elementary school named after a Confederate soldier in Richmond, and I just learned that two years ago. I mean, my degrees are in Black studies. I had no clue because the narratives are very one-dimensional.”
Enjoli and Sesha Moon, and many others here, are quickly working to remedy the decades-old one-dimensional narrative. No one is trying to take an eraser to Richmond’s Confederate past. But residents are no longer interested in being defined by it. The Moon sisters aren’t particularly interested in the monuments that are being removed. They’re more intent on educating people about Richmond’s Black heroes.
In their research, they found that Jackson Ward was most likely named for Stonewall Jackson. It was a disappointment, but not shocking given the city’s history. The Moon sisters couldn’t change the origin of the name, but they could use the 150th anniversary of the neighborhood to honor another Jackson: Giles Beecher Jackson. He was the first African American to practice law before the Supreme Court of Virginia. He also lived and worked in Jackson Ward.
Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society is also looking to educate visitors about the city’s history, but she covers a much more painful chapter.
In addition to running the Folklore Society and programing cultural events, Bell gives tours of the 3-mile Richmond Slave Trail. The Slave Trail is not only one of the most sobering walks in Richmond, it’s also one of the most essential. It begins at Manchester Docks, where ships carrying enslaved Africans arrived, and continues by the auction houses where enslaved people were sold. That’s all leading to the notorious Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and the African Burial Ground.
The Slave Trail, which can also be walked as a self-guided tour, is absolutely heartbreaking. But as Bell pointed out on a recent sunny morning, there is history here that shows fortitude and resilience. She talked about Gabriel’s Rebellion, an 1800 plan by an enslaved man to incite a riot to seize Capitol Square and take Governor James Monroe as a hostage to bargain for freedom for himself and other enslaved residents. The uprising was thwarted by extreme weather. Even though it wasn’t successful, it showed the power of the collective Black population of Richmond.
“There’s a lot about Richmond that tells the story of the United States,” Bell said. “Richmond is often missed in terms of destinations. It’s just beginning to get a better handle on telling its story.”
In addition to tours offered by Flowers and Bell, there are also tours (both guided and self-guided) available from Free Bangura, the founder of Untold RVA. She also sits on the advisory board of BLK RVA, an arm of Richmond’s tourism bureau that promotes Black tourism. She is currently in the process of shifting her tours from talking about racial injustice to African genealogy.
“I got tired of people weeping. I wanted to see people smiling,” she said of her shift in direction. “I wanted to see people leave and be like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so energized.’ That’s hard to get when you’re talking about things from the perspective of the torment and torture.”
We’ll get back to history in a moment, but it’s important to interject that Richmond has more than history. Jackson Ward has a burgeoning restaurant scene led by popular eateries such as Mama J’s Kitchen, Southern Kitchen, and Soul Taco. There’s also a tiny restaurant called Cheddar Jackson that has perfected the grilled cheese sandwich. Outside of Jackson Ward is the hipster enclave of Carytown, which is loaded with indie boutiques, restaurants, and bars. In Scott’s Addition, a former industrial neighborhood, you can’t toss a quarter without hitting a brewery. On the weekend, the neighborhood feels like one big block party.
There are murals splashed across buildings throughout the city as part of Mending Walls RVA, a program that aims to create healing through public art. Richmond is a small city with a surprising amount to offer.
And yes, a big part of that offering is history. The American Civil War Museum offers an even-handed view of the war. Across the street is the Canal Walk, which is one of the most scenic spots to stretch your legs in the city. Back in Jackson Ward, the compact Black History Museum and Cultural Center lets visitors walk through the history of Richmond and learn more about heroes ranging from Maggie Walker to Arthur Ashe.
Finally, there’s the Valentine, the oldest museum in Richmond. The mission of the Valentine is as complicated as Richmond itself. It aims to tell and interpret the story of the city through artifacts and objects (it also has rotating exhibits and offers guided walks throughout the city).
“For a visitor, Richmond’s not a bad place to start a personal journey,” said William Martin, director of the Valentine. “If you come to Richmond, you can go to the White House of the Confederacy. You can go to Jackson Ward and stroll the same streets as Maggie Walker. You can experience these places that played such a pivotal role. I think spaces have a power of their own, and there is definite power here.”
Please note: If you’re interested in tours offered by Gary Flowers (www.walkingtheward.com), Janine Bell at the Elegba Folklore Society (efsinc.org), or Free Bangura at Untold RVA (firstname.lastname@example.org), it’s advisable to book at least two weeks in advance. You can find more information and additional activities at www.visitblkrva.com.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.