Site in the Spotlight: A Displaced Church and an Erased History

by Dominique Harrington

Before beginning my fellowship, I sat down and researched sites of black history in Indianapolis in order to prepare for the community engagement aspect of the project.  However, despite the size and rich history of the city, I only found three sites: The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Crispus Attucks High School, and Indiana Avenue & The Madame C.J. Walker Theater  (I will be visiting each of them over the duration of this summer).

Bethel AME Church
Bethel AME Church
Crispus Attucks High School
Crispus Attucks High School
Madame CJ Walker Theater
Madame CJ Walker Theater

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Protecting Its Values: Impact of “Lost Cause Ideology” in Virginia

by Joshua Kim

June 5, 2017. Today, I voted on a poll hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in regards to whether or not the monuments on Monument Avenue  — that honor several key Confederate figures — should be taken down.

This debate has fired up again, recently, after the removal of similar Confederate statues in New Orleans, the question being: Does dismantling these statues erase parts of our history?

Heritage not hate.

The phrase above is popular phrase used to defend the Confederate flag. With it, supporters make the claim that to wave the Confederate flag is to celebrate their forefathers and mothers, their ancestors who lost their lives fighting for their beliefs and pride. This depicts the South in a glorious fashion; as a center of sweet tea and honeysuckles, butter biscuits and warm sunbathes on big green lawns.

What this imagery lacks; however, is the stark reality that the South, specifically, Richmond, Virginia, was one of the leading slave markets of its time.

More so, what this depiction fails to tell us is the active offensive maneuvers Virginia politicians, businessmen, and everyday citizens made in order to create a racial hierarchy that continues to disenfranchise black people today.

“Before the rubble had been cleared from the devastated business district of the capital city, Richmond’s press began to campaign against voting rights for its freed black citizens” (Campbell, Richmond’s Unhealed History, 131).

A key figure in this campaign was Edward A. Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner. Pollard is most famous for his book, The Lost Cause (1866), which created a narrative of the South that focused on its intellectual superiority and cultural influence and encouraged the South to retain its pride:

“(The South’s) well-known superiourity in civilization…has been recognized…by the intelligent everywhere; for it is the South that in the past produced four-fifths of the political literature of America, and presented in its public men that list of American names best known in the Christian world. That superiourity the war has not conquered or lowered; and the South will do right to claim and cherish it” (Campbell, quoting Pollard, 131-132).

This ideology resurged during the 1890s.

According to Campbell, “Monuments in Richmond show the power of Confederate themes in that time. The first…the Lee Monument, was unveiled on May 29, 1890. The ceremony began with a procession of 15,000 Confederate veterans leading a crowd which eventually totaled more than 100,000…” (Campbell, 136).

Immediately following the war, Richmond made it a political priority to reinstate dominance over its black population, and part of that process was the creation of these statues celebrating and commemorating Confederate war-time heroes.

But this is not just about statues, but actual laws that were put in place to limit black citizens from moving up the social ladder.

For example, on January 15, 1866, an extreme vagrancy law was passed which made unemployment illegal.

This was later prohibited nine days later by General Alfred Terry; however, its effects were still in place. Campbell notes that during this time “…white employers had already made agreements not to hire freedmen at normal wages, thus forcing wages to be depressed and providing an opportunity for the enforcement of the vagrancy statute” (Campbell, 132).

By denying black workers living wages, white employers were able to maintain economic dominance and establish a pseudo-slavery:

“The ultimate effect of the statue will be to reduce the freedmen to a condition of servitude worse than that from which they have been emancipated a condition which will be slavery in all but its name” (Campbell, 132).

In addition to economic oppression, white people also made it extremely difficult for black citizens to vote/gain power in office. They did this through poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, etc. Yet, despite these tactics, from 1867-1868, black people made up the majority of Richmond’s registered voters (Campbell, 134).

To combat this, the city government began to create segregated neighborhoods through “urban renewal:”

“From the very beginning, urban renewal focused on ‘blighted Negro housing.’ By this was meant the black neighborhoods of town. …Beginning with the establishment of the housing authority, white Richmond tore down Jackson Ward block by block… Over the next thirty-five years, in the name of urban renewal, the city council pursued a plan that destroyed or invaded every major black neighborhood in the city.” (Campbell, 152-153).

These residents were often relocated to projects, or they were forced into white neighborhoods. Then, the whites that had been “displaced” were sold housing in new suburbs in other counties, thus, effectively segregating white and black citizens.

White Richmond created a system in which black citizens suffered economic, social, and geographic oppression for the last century. We see the effects of it today when we look at how our community is still segregated by race, how black people are disproportionately in poverty compared to whites, and how we still have statues of Confederate leaders in our city.

When we discuss these monuments and the sentiments placed on them, let us not forget those who were most deeply affected by these men — black people.

Everyday those statues stand as a reminder of the deep rooted hatred and oppression white Richmond citizens have against our black population. They are reminders that, although at face value our city has grown, deep down, we are still the capital of the Confederate south.

Heritage is hate.

Joshua Hasulchan Kim is from Colonial Heights, Virginia. He is a sophomore at the University of Richmond who is double majoring in Journalism and French. Joshua is involved in various clubs on campus: He is the co-president of Block Crew dance crew, the opinions editor for the Collegian newspaper, and is the Co-Director of Operations for the Multicultural Lounge Building Committee. Joshua joined the project as part of the Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387) and is currently expanding this research with the support of an A&S Summer Research Fellowship.

Monumental Research

By Karissa Lim

Though I had ventured into Philadelphia countless times before, I had no idea where I was going. I walked up and down 19th Street, trying to find Logan Square Park and the two war memorials I wanted to see. Logan Square Park is located in Center City Philadelphia; it is a circular park surrounded by various historic sites such as the Franklin Institute and Central Library. One of Philadelphia’s major roads, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, turns into a roundabout with Logan Square Park at its center. Flags from different countries line the sides of the parkway. Figuring that the park was a well-known site, I asked a police officer for help; however, he sent me in the wrong direction. After a moment of panic, I looked at my phone and realized my mistake. Once I turned around and walked a few blocks, the crowds thinned out and I finally found the park. My next challenge was to find two memorials: the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. I walked around the large, circular fountain in the park, desperately searching for these two monuments. A few homeless people were laid out on park benches and a small group teens were walking around the fountain. Finally, in the distance, I spotted the white stone of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. With cars whizzing past on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I began running towards it and hoped that I would not get hit.

Blog1.Photo5_Lim_052917
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial with a view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway

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Bringing Suppressed Voices to the Light

By Benjamin Pomerantz

Preface: Part of this blog will focus on the active racism created and perpetuated by southern white politicians, and part will suggest that even more voices need to be heard in these stories.

Upon reading Benjamin Campbell’s Richmond’s Unhealed History, what stood out most to me was the blatant racism that white Richmonders systematically implemented within the city’s laws. Often times, when we think about racism, it deals with circumnavigating language and actions that might be offensive to those of a certain race. This more “commonplace” type of racism is extremely important to have discussions about, because for many people, their race is a major part of their identity. At the same time, however, there exists a more overt type of racism in the US: institutionalized racism. As evidenced in Campbell’s work, racism isn’t just something that exists and permeates our American society; rather, it is something that people actively create, perpetuate, and legitimize within our institutions.

In response to the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States, many powerful white people in Richmond and in greater Virginia sought to suppress Black opportunities and freedoms. For example, in 1866, the Virginia General Assembly proposed a law that “essentially made unemployment a crime” (Campbell 132). That, combined with the fact that a large number of white business owners had already agreed not to hire Black workers, essentially implemented an overtly racist system of mass incarceration. As put by General Alfred Terry, a former Union general who took over the occupation of Richmond after the Civil War and later overturned this bill, “The ultimate effect of the statute will be to reduce the freedmen to a condition of servitude worse than that from which they have been emancipated” (Campbell 132). During Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902, lawmakers met with the purpose of “discrimination…within the letter of the law, and not in violation of the law” (Campbell, 139), in order to perpetuate the legal oppression of black people. Similarly, J. Fulmer Bright, the mayor of Richmond from 1924-1940, ran (and was elected) on a platform that used the slogan “No Negroes on the city payrolls–city jobs for hard working white men” (Campbell 148). Under Bright’s leadership, according to Campbell, the only government employees hired by the city of Richmond were “black teachers in black schools” (148).

Clearly institutionalized racism has been an active component of Richmond’s history, and the blame placed on the white leadership responsible for this racism should not subside. Now, while placing blame where it is due is a responsibility of historians, it is also important to note that many stories of the post-war South do not provide sufficient information about the lives of those who were affected by the racist laws that were passed. The examples that Campbell gives about racist policies in the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia are important to the region’s racial history, but they leave out key voices–Black people who were affected by those laws and their acts of resistance in spite of those laws. Even though those who perpetuated racism should be held accountable, the fact that the white-focused history of racism is the only one that is told does not seem right. The lives and stories of Black Richmonders need to be a part of the city’s history, because who’s to say that stories of white racism are more important than stories of Black oppression? Because of that question, I am excited to work with Untold RVA in order to bring to light the self-determined history of Richmond’s Black communities.

Benjamin Pomerantz is a rising junior majoring in American Studies and minoring in both Rhetoric & Communication Studies and History. This is his first time working with the Race and Racism Project, and he is very happy to be able to join the team for this summer as an A&S Summer Research Fellow.

Prolonged Consequences of Segregational Structures in Richmond’s Urban Planning

by Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart 

Segregation, discrimination; these are words that describe a problem that seems long resolved in the privileged American mind. But is it really the case? Unfortunately, the city of Richmond attests that racial prejudice still persists nowadays, due to a failure to address its segregated foundation. In fact, according to Benjamin Campbell in his book Richmond’s Unhealed History, “the troubles that still afflict the culture of metropolitan Richmond have their roots in problems long denied, changes not attempted, prophecy unheeded, injustice unacknowledged.” (p. 150)

Urban planning in Richmond is just one of the many examples of how the segregational policies of the early 20th Century have prolonged consequences that extend to present times. As Campbell contends, in 1929 the city passed an ordinance that required that persons whom the state prohibited from marrying could not live next to each other. Essentially, segregation of neighborhoods was established between black and white individuals. This law had two main consequences. First, it determined housing quality, namely, housing for Richmond black residents was described as “disgraceful, inhuman, pestilential and in a civic sense entirely too costly to be tolerated by the people of this city”(Campbell, 143). Second, it led to redlining by all major Richmond banks. In the 1930s, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) under the direction of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rated American neighborhoods for their creditworthiness, using race as one of the major criteria to delineate between neighborhoods. Therefore, as Campbell highlights, every single African-American neighborhood was given the lowest rating and was redlined for mortgages.

Some people may argue that these segregational and discriminatory practices have no relevance nowadays, especially since urban renovation took place between 1955 and 1972. However, we must ask ourselves, who carried out these policies? As Campbell suggests, Richmond’s urban renewal project was in charge of white individuals “with little participation or input from the African- American community” (p. 159). More importantly, with the fragmentation of metropolitan cities into non-related segments, these policies continued to perpetuate segregational systems in Richmond. Nowadays, as a consequence of this urban renewal, we can observe a marked distinction between urban and suburban neighborhoods, which is mainly determined by the racial and class differences. Furthermore, as studies from the Richmond Urban Institute have demonstrated, great disparities in mortgage activity between black and white neighborhoods have persisted even after the discriminatory policies were reversed in the Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.

However distant words such as racial discrimination, inequality of opportunities and favoritism may seem to privileged Americans nowadays, it must be understood that these practices are still present in our society. It may not seem evident to some, but the truth is that remnants of a segregational foundation deeply affect Richmond’s spatial, social and economic structure. Thanks to the city’s fragmenting planning based on former racial and social characteristics, the interactions that take place are primarily homogeneous and its opportunities continue to be inherently unequal.

Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She is a rising sophomore at the University of Richmond who is planning to major in Economics and minor in Mathematics. Elizabeth is a Boatwright and Oliver Hill Scholar, who is part of the University Dancers Company on campus. This is Elizabeth’s first experience as an A&S Summer Fellow, however, she is excited to discover more about the University of Richmond’s history and about the city itself through Untold RVA and her collaboration with Free Egunfemi.      

A Very Important Letter to the Editor

This week on Expanding the Ivory Tower, we reflect on a letter to the editor of The Collegian published in 1976. The author of the letter, Wanda Starke, and then-president of the Student Organization for Black Awareness (SOBA) wrote in to critique white members of the university community for failing to participate in SOBA’s celebration of Black History Week. This episode considers what happens when people from marginalized groups get to speak to their own experiences.

Freedom, not Equality

By Vishwesh Mehta

The city of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and one of the largest hubs of slave ownership and trade in the pre-Civil era war, has a history of racial oppression and injustice. Even though the end of slavery was a positive step for African Americans, the conclusion of the Civil War seemed to open up a Pandora’s box of oppression. The government granted freedom to slaves, but equal status was a concept which was a long way off. Even though free men and women were no longer physically shackled by slave owners, they were trying to free themselves of the shackles of oppressive policies formulated by the dominant white population comprised of their previous oppressors.

In the mid twentieth century, people of color started creating a better life in the Richmond area adjusting to segregationist policies. There were parts of Richmond where people of color were concentrated because of social oppression, strict real estate rules, and a conscious effort to prevent them from entering white neighborhoods. Then came urban renewal projects for the city of Richmond, still suffering from the aftermath of a very expensive Civil War. Urban renewal projects uprooted a suspicious amount of African American neighborhoods. Even if the white population was affected, they were treated much better when it came to relocating and providing compensation. The construction of the I-95 interstate through Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, a predominantly African American neighborhood in the city, would lead to the destruction of over 1000 homes and improper compensation for relocation. The expressway destroyed pedestrian pathways and acted as a barrier right in the middle of Jackson Ward.

Even though there were laws in place to protect the rights of former slaves, they were far from comprehensive. There were several loopholes which were exploited by the local government in order to prevent African Americans from gaining equal status to the white man. A perfect example, according to Benjamin Campbell, of such exploitation is the voting laws of the state. Immediately after the Civil War, before these loopholes were exploited, there was a brief period where there a majority of African Americans were elected to political offices because of the boom in the population of African Americans. This triggered a systematic effort by white lawmakers in Virginia to reduce the impact of African American voters. A pre-voting test was created. A poll tax was levied on the residents of Richmond with the motive of discouraging the poor members (mostly people of color) of society from exercising their political rights. These moves, among many others like gerrymandering,  specifically aimed at curbing the rights of African Americans. Even though slavery was abolished, oppression was not.

Even though we have come a long way from previous acts of racism, we still have a long way to go when it comes to providing an equal platform for racial minorities. The prison system, higher dropout rate of minorities from high schools and colleges, and the celebration of the Confederacy through flags, statues, and monuments are all indicative of the fact that it is still not a level playing field. The symbolism of Confederate monuments is disturbing and a period of the country’s history that should not be celebrated. There have been several protests in order to remove the statues of Confederates from Monument Avenue in Richmond. The first step towards the goal of true equality is to acknowledge the shameful past and start a conversation about the issues of race from the past and present.

Vishwesh Mehta is from Mumbai, India. He is a rising senior at the University of Richmond who is majoring in Rhetoric and Communication Studies. Vishwesh is involved in various clubs on campus. He is the community outreach director of the South Asian Student Association. Vishwesh was a part of the Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387) on the Race and Racism Project. He is currently a Social Media and PR intern for the project.

 

Race & Redlining in Richmond

By Maryam Tahseen

Even though the city of Richmond freed itself from the shackles of slavery towards the end of the 19th century, the structures of systematic racism continue to discriminate against and marginalize the black community of the city. With the increasing black population of the city posing a threat to the mostly white City Council and General Assembly members in the late 19th and early 20th century, strategies such as the construction of Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike were used to displace and disburse residents from the majority black residential areas. The Turnpike cut a one block wide and an eighteen blocks long trench through Jackson Ward which was a majority black neighborhood.[1] These frequent displacements of black people and lack of financial support by the government meant that most of these people settled in either less-developed or impoverished areas of the city in the 20th century. To this day, the effects of these racially segregated zones are evident between the neighborhoods of East End and West End. While the East End suffers from issues such as food deserts and poorly-maintained schools, West End is home to some of the wealthiest communities in the Richmond area. Moreover, the ordinance by Henry W. Woody in the early 20th century to prohibit persons who could not marry each other from living next to each other led to a paucity of racial integration in the residential areas and its effects can still be seen today.

The gentrification of predominantly black neighborhoods in the city of Richmond is a poignant reminder of the city’s dark history. According to Rosa Coleman, president of the Greater Fulton Hill Civic association, her neighborhood in Fulton was completely bulldozed and its residents dispersed. While growing up, she remembers that her neighborhood in Fulton rarely had any electricity or indoor plumbing which again indicates the deplorable conditions of the black neighborhoods when compared to the white neighborhoods of the city. [2] Another black neighborhood in Richmond which has gone through gentrification is Church Hill. Through gentrification, the South of the neighborhood flourished while the longtime residents were pushed towards the north. As new businesses and restaurants continue to open in the South of Church Hill, the divide between the predominantly black North and white South becomes more and more obvious.

In the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century, the annexation of counties near Richmond was carried out in a way to specifically reduce the black voting strength in the majority black wards by splitting the newly annexed populations evenly throughout the wards. [3] Moreover, laws disqualifying voters who had committed a petty larceny further contributed to the muffling of black political voice in the city. Their lack of representation in the city politics and governance meant that policies to displace and destroy their neighborhoods got easily passed in the assembly. By using such ordinances and laws, the majority white councils of the city of Richmond were able to silence the voice of black communities for over a century until 1968 when a black person was elected to the general assembly.

Although not as obvious, the structures of racism are still evident in various institutions of the city. According to Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, black borrowers continue to become the victims of “redlining.” Based on their recent research on mortgage data, 13.7% of white borrowers had their loan applications denied while 34.6% of black applicants had their loan applications rejected. [4] The neighborhoods impacted by redlining today are the same that were historically excluded for lending.

Since most of the black residents in Richmond were former slaves, they not only belonged to low-socioeconomic backgrounds, but also had limited reading and writing abilities. Before integration in the educational institutions, most of the black schools were overcrowded, under-funded, and had low teacher pays. On the other hand, most of the schools with the highest educational standards were located in some of the wealthiest and “white-est” localities of the city. Even after integration, most of these schools were unavailable to black children because of the distance of these schools from their neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of public transportation available to these schools. The election of anti-integration governors such as Godwin further complicated the racial integration of classrooms. The lack of funding of majority black public schools magnified the economic boundaries between the black and the white neighborhoods in the region. The black community in Richmond still seems to be stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty because of the low educational standards of public schools in black neighborhoods. In 2012, United States’ official poverty rate was 15% while the city of Richmond had a 25.3% rate of poverty. A further breakdown of this statistic shows that the poverty rate amongst the white community in Richmond was 5% while the black population suffered from 30% rate of poverty. [5] The poorly funded schools in black neighborhoods over the course of the last few years means that employment opportunities are not as available to the black population in the city of Richmond. The unemployment rate was 14.1% for blacks as compared to 5.1% for whites.

Even though it has been years since the abolition of slavery, the scars of structural racism can still be seen throughout the city of Richmond.

 

Maryam Tahseen is a rising Junior majoring in Accounting with a concentration in Finance and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan. As an international student, she is very excited to uncover the lives of international students along with underrepresented minorities through this project. 

 

[1] Benjamin Campbell. Richmond’s Unhealed History, Selections, Brandylane Publishers, 2012, 155.

[2] Brian McNeill, “Social Work Students Explore Richmond’S Struggles With Race, Injustice”, News.Vcu.Edu, 2017, https://news.vcu.edu/community/Social_work_students_explore_Richmonds_struggles_with_race_injustice.

[3] Benjamin Campbell. Richmond’s Unhealed History, Selections, Brandylane Publishers, 2012, 136.

[4] Ned Oliver, Times-Dispatch, “Study Links Richmond Mortgage Denials To Race”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2017, http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/study-links-richmond-mortgage-denials-to-race/article_84d2e614-823a-5902-83df-a14ae649eb61.html.

[5] Julian Hayter, City Profile Of Richmond (Richmond: University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2015), http://thrivingcities.com/sites/default/files/City-Profile-Richmond.pdf.

From Slavery to Jim Crow: Richmond Past & Present

By Jennifer Munnings

From slavery to Jim Crow, to separate but equal, laws in Richmond were constructed to marginalize and oppress black people while lifting up white people. The Confederacy lost the war against the continuation of slavery, but refused to let its racist ideals die so easily. The construction of institutions and laws created in the 20th century that targeted the black community had lasting effects and shaped Virginia and the city of Richmond.

Even with wins like the Supreme Court case Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 that declared that segregated public schools were a violation of the Constitution, the integration process was met with extreme resistance. Some schools closed down rather than allow black people to attend. In 1919, black public schools were overcrowded, underfunded, and the teachers were underpaid, which was to be expected when the government did not see a need to educate black people, believing that they were incapable of understanding the information regardless, and that they were destined to be laborers. Education being inaccessible to black people was an effective method in keeping black people in subordinate positions to white people.

Additionally, as a means of maintaining the racial hierarchy, Virginia schools refused to allow black people to be principals in black schools, creating problems of positive representation. White schools taught false histories, raising generations of students to believe that the people of Virginia were against slavery for the most part, when in fact they were headquarters for it. This notion was perpetuated by a book 10th graders had to read in the 1920s called “Slavery and Secession” by Beverly Bland Munford and social studies textbooks for fourth graders in 1965.  Virginia’s General Assembly controlled the rhetoric surrounding slavery, and generations of students were trained to believe a carefully constructed narrative surrounding its history that puts white southerners on a pedestal and completely ignores the humanity of black people.

Another method of control that Virginia used was residential segregation and in turn economic independence. The Federal Housing Administration used race as a basis of grading residential areas. As a result, all black communities received D ratings and were denied mortgages. Although this was legally reversed in 1977, Virginia continued this practice, and bank reviews show the disparity between mortgages given to white versus black people. As a result, black people were denied equal access to housing, this limited their ability to be independent of white people. Richmond gentrified black communities after 1964, destroying homes, and replacing them with public housing complexes and repaying the black people they displaced with a few hundred dollars and nothing else. Additionally, the construction of the I-95 turnpike which destroyed at least 1,000 homes in the historically black neighborhood Jackson Ward, highlights Richmond’s absolute disregard for black lives. The Richmond Times Dispatch said that the highway would improve the look of the city, meaning that the black people living in Jackson Ward were tainting it, and bringing down the attractiveness of the city.

With limited economic opportunities, and lack of support from the government, it is obvious that black people were pushed out of Richmond at every opportunity. The General Assembly sent free black people to Liberia in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, instead of providing black people with graduate schools, they created out-of-state scholarships. An independent, educated, and economically stable black person was something to be feared because they challenged the hierarchy and the legitimacy of white supremacy. Virginia’s government did all it could to challenge black people in achieving that status.

Richmond suffered greatly from 1955 to the 1970s. In Richmond’s Unhealed History Benjamin Campbell writes, “[Richmond’s] infrastructure was decaying, its bonding capacity was exhausted, and there was no new land for development or expansion.” In an attempt to rectify this, the city continued to implement laws that encouraged segregation and discrimination. This time however, the city was met with resistance, but white supremacist powers were stronger. Urban renewal projects are great examples of racism in Richmond as they highlight the power structures. The I-95 highway was placed strategically to involve white people more with the community and to destroy the historically black neighborhood. Richmond’s tumultuous history with racism is evident in its social structure, architecture, and governing bodies.

Jennifer Munnings is a rising sophomore, intending to major in Sociology with a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Jennifer is new to the Race and Racism Project, joining in Summer 2017 as a summer fellow. 

Highways of Meaning

by Cory Schutter

It’s difficult to wrap my head around Richmond’s provenance. I don’t want to repeat what has already been said. So many individuals have put pen to paper or voice to air and expressed the history of Richmond. They’ve challenged what we know, forever altering the way we have driven down streets and tried to manufacture a city of meaning.

This city comes to life through the pages of Dr. Benjamin Campbell’s Richmond’s Unhealed History. I’ve been reading selections from the book in the process of indexing self-determination narratives in Richmond with Untold RVA. The metanarrative of Richmond’s Unhealed History presents me with a new way to interpret this city. I can no longer look at these streets with a macro perspective, I have to consider the stories I don’t know.

I want to ask questions all along bustling Cary Street, and ask strangers if they’ve heard of Lott Cary, the self-made missionary and physician (Campbell 2011). I want to drive to the corner of 15th and Broad and see where insurrectionists were hanged on the gallows. I want to hear these whispered stories – but I don’t know if such silences can be broken.

This summer, I’ll be reading against the grain: looking for omitted narratives, coloring outside the lines, creating vocabulary to describe worlds that we haven’t discussed. But I struggle to find a word that describes Richmond – my tongue wants to use the word paradox, but I know this is too flimsy to describe a city with such a multifaceted history. Perhaps palimpsest would be a better descriptor, but my heart finds this too analytical and inaccessible. I want a word with a visceral connection that evokes blood and memories and conspiracy.

I want to know more about Cerelia Johnson (2011). Her story is one of resistance. Cerelia served as an elevator operator in City Hall and brought information to her pastor about the city planning to destroy her neighborhood. I have so many questions about Cerelia – I want to know her story of challenging power. I want to know if she’s still alive. I want to know if she has a nickname, what inspired her, and if she continued her resistance. I want to put a face to her name. I want her story to be celebrated – she is more than just a line of words on a page.

How can I describe a city that served as a panopticon for black bodies? How was it that the same fluid soil that gave life to Maggie Walker’s business empire was the same soil turned to mud by bulldozers gashing a highway through the heart of Jackson Ward?

I want to know the stories of power. When male city planners in the 1950’s sliced open the veins of Richmond to create the I-95 highway, did they know that they would destroy the city’s soul? In what ways can I symbolize the fingerprints they left on a city older than them – the way they constrained infinity with sketches of concrete ribbons?

The interactions and improvisations upon Richmond’s body have forever changed the way I view this city. Is there any way to emancipate the city that I have begun to know, to liberate it  from the dominant narratives that have constrained its being? I believe the stories that I’ve heard are more than locally situated nostalgic musings on the past – they have the ability to rupture understanding. How can you build a highway of knowledge on top of a highway of death?

I want a word that makes your eyes water, and you don’t know if its because of the smoke and mirrors or the pride in your heart. I want to describe Richmond with a word that smells like the rain that poured down on Brother General Gabriel’s revolution, with a word that describes the silence of parking lots and superhighways that cover slave yards.

I want to know how these questions of civic identity can be complicated, and I know that my work with Untold RVA will unpack these questions. I look forward to being confronted with more questions, more stories, and a more personal understanding of this city. This summer will be a search for more questions, and a process of learning to be content with some of those questions going unanswered. Because, when I read Richmond, my hunger for answers is often met with the silence of the historical record.

This city is not a conclusion in search for a cause, or a question that has to be answered. This city is self-determined, by gross injustices and glorious reawakenings. It is a city of constrained narratives that asks for liberation.

And so I can only describe this city with its name: Richmond.

Cory Schutter is a rising junior at University of Richmond, a double major in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He is a Bonner Scholar, a Center for Civic Engagement Ambassador, and a Student Coordinator at UR Downtown.

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