Richmond’s Other Heroes

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Like Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn and Tulsa’s Greenwood district, Jackson Ward became a thriving center for black entrepreneurship around the turn of the century. Before the Civil War, because many enslaved blacks were allowed to live where they chose, slave and free blacks maintained close contact with one another, attending the same churches and living in the same quarters of the city. This helped create so intensely cohesive a community that Richmond’s blacks were perhaps better prepared than any others in the South to face emancipation. Two months after the war’s end, a group of African-American citizens sent a petition to President Johnson protesting a city ordinance requiring blacks to carry travel passes. “None of our people are in the almshouse,” the petition declared, “and when we were slaves the aged and infirm . . . were turned away from the homes of hard masters . . . our benevolent societies supported [us] . . . and comparatively few of us have found it necessary to ask for government rations, which have been so bountifully bestowed upon the unrepentant Rebels of Richmond.”

By the early 1920s blacks had managed to parlay their benevolent organizations and secret societies into insurance companies and grocery stores, barbershops and hotels. Jackson Ward had the first black-owned bank, the True Reformers’ Bank of Richmond, and the first bank founded by a woman, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. During the 1930s and 1940s locals proudly referred to Jackson Ward as the Harlem of the South because the theaters on Second Street—the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare—attracted artists like Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, Lena Home, and Nat (“King”) Cole.

In more ways than one, modern-day Jackson Ward resembles modern-day Harlem—a neighborhood that has fallen on hard times but is determined to reclaim its past. On a drive through the district, I saw run-down nineteenth-century townhouses interspersed with beautifully restored ones. One of these renovated buildings holds the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The Museum’s permanent exhibition, “Second Street: Business and Entertainment in Jackson Ward, 1900-1965,” presents the area’s history through photographs, newspaper clippings, and artifacts.

From there it’s a short walk to the Maggie Lena Walker Home, a museum run by the National Park Service. Walker, born in 1867 to an ex-slave and a Northern white newspaperman, was the first woman bank president in the United States. Like most black children in post-Civil War Richmond, she endured extreme poverty in her early years. Her mother struggled to support the family by taking in laundry, which young Maggie was required to deliver.

After graduating from the Richmond Colored Normal School, she worked as a teacher until her marriage to Armstead Walker, Jr., in 1886. In 1899 she was elected Right Worthy Grand Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, then a fledgling benevolent society. She used her shrewd business sense to help the group recover from financial losses, and in 1903 she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, serving as its first president. Around the same time, she and her husband, a successful contractor, moved into a spacious home on East Leigh Street, then a posh section of Jackson Ward. The house remained in the family until 1979, when it and all its original furnishings were purchased by the National Park Service.

At the site we were greeted by a Park Service ranger, who took us on a tour. The ranger was black and female, and I kept thinking that Maggie Lena Walker would have appreciated that. We walked through the kitchen and into a dining room with beautiful mahogany chairs, an elaborate chandelier, and curio cabinets filled with fine crystal and china. A brown leather chair in the corner of the living room was so impressive that I knew instantly to whom it had belonged. “That was Mrs. Walker’s chair,” the ranger said anyway. “She was frugal and good with money, but she loved to surround herself with nice things.” Jackson Ward has several other sites worth visiting, including Virginia Union University, a black college whose first building had been a jail for runaway slaves, a monument to Bojangles Robinson, who grew up in the neighborhood, and the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was founded by the renowned slave preacher John Jasper.

The Museum and White House of the Confederacy, in the Court End section of Richmond, was once the home of Jefferson Davis. In 1991 the museum mounted an exhibition chronicling the lives of the South’s enslaved blacks, and many considered it a watershed event. So too was the election, in 1989, of L. Douglas Wilder, a native son, as the first African-American governor in the country since Reconstruction. But if anything reveals the extent to which Richmond is still wrestling with its identity, it is the controversy that erupted three years ago when the city decided to erect a statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. Many whites were outraged, while many blacks, including Ashe’s wife, found the site inappropriate for other reasons.

But the supporters of the Ashe memorial, among them former Governor Wilder, thought the statue would promote racial healing. In 1996, on what would have been Ashe’s fifty-third birthday, his memorial took its place alongside statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Jefferson Davis. “I feel more pride and relevance in being here on Monument Avenue than I have any time in my life, and that says it all,” said Wilder during the unveiling ceremony. “When the ground was broken [for the statue], more than dirt was removed. The shell of our understanding was penetrated.”