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.