The Harlem of the South

Posted February 9th, 2012 at 10:24 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

In the years immediately following the American Civil War of the 1860s, thousands of African Americans, including both former southern slaves and northern soldiers, moved into a lively neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the defeated Confederate States.  The neighborhood became known as Jackson Ward locally, and to blacks across the American East as the “Harlem of the South.”

It’s the perfect neighborhood to examine during the nation’s annual February observance of Black History Month.

"Bojangles" Robinson struts his stuff in Jackson Ward.  (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

Richmond is sometimes called the “Monument City” because of its boulevard of memorials to Confederate generals and admirals, as well as world-famous African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe.  And in a grittier part of town not far from the Virginia State Capitol stands another, far less somber statue.  High on a pedestal, a concrete figure saucily waves a bowler hat above his head as he dances up a short flight of stairs.

This monument honors Jackson Ward’s most famous son — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — the pioneer tap dancer and occasional singer who dazzled vaudeville and movie audiences in the 1920s and ’30s.

During the first half of the 20th century — when restrictive rules called “Jim Crow laws” consigned whites and blacks to separate restaurants, bus seats, public toilets, and even drinking fountains — Robinson and other black celebrities often frequented night spots on the street that locals called “the Deuce.”

A building at the corner of Second and Jackson Streets today.  (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

A building at the corner of Second and Jackson Streets today. (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

This was Second Street, the heart of the action in Jackson Ward.

Through the eras of ragtime, jazz, swing, and be-bop, trumpeter Louis [pron: LEW-is] Armstrong, piano master Duke Ellington, and singer Cab Calloway unwound with jam sessions in Jackson Ward after performing at the whites-only Mosque Theater downtown.  Black athletes such as boxing champion Joe Louis and baseball star Willie Mays stayed at the ward’s Slaughter’s Hotel.

On the Deuce, a fellow named Tom Mitchell was a regular customer at the Hippodrome and Globe “picture theaters,” as folks called those movie houses, and at the Armstrong Athletic Club, which was both a gymnasium and a bar.

The old Hippodrome.  (Courtesy, Walker Row Partnership, Inc.)

The old Hippodrome. (Courtesy, Walker Row Partnership, Inc.)

“Nobody called it that, though,” Tom told me one day when I visited Richmond, where my middle daughter lives and works.  “Everybody called it ‘Tat Turner’s Place.’ There’d be doctors and lawyers, and at the end of the bar was the free trade — reserved for special friends and police.  And as you know, the police have ears. And that was one of the main ears that they had on Second Street.”

During World War Two and the Korean War in the 1940s and ’50s, Jackson Ward swelled with black soldiers on leave from nearby Fort Lee.  Clubs and restaurants such as the Golden Gate — Richmond’s largest dining room open to blacks — stayed open all night.

A porch, porch-sitters, in Jackson Ward in 1979.  (Library of Congress)

A porch, porch-sitters, in Jackson Ward in 1979. (Library of Congress)

Memorabilia from Jackson Ward’s vibrant days are preserved at Richmond’s Black Museum and Cultural Center, housed in one of the neighborhood’s old mansions.  Carolyn Brown, now retired, was a historian at the Center.  She calls Jackson Ward a “city within a city,” where blacks formed what they called “benevolent societies” to look after one another.

The white insurance companies, most of them, would not insure black people.  So they formed their own little societies.  They saved money in these societies. And when someone became ill, there would be money that could be used for purchasing medication and what not.  When someone died, there would be money for that person’s burial.

Jackson Ward is often acknowledged as the “birthplace of black entrepreneurship.” In addition to benevolent societies, blacks formed their own banks and savings institutions, and other African-Americans prospered in medicine, law, and similar professions.

“There were banks in Richmond that would simply not accept money from African Americans,” Carolyn Brown told me.  “So they used, as they had a way of saying, ‘Miss Maggie’s Bank.’  This was because of devotion to her, because she was a person who did everything that she could to uplift people in the community.”

"Miss Maggie" as a young woman.  (National Park Service)

Ah, yes. “Miss Maggie” Walker, the daughter of a former slave, who in 1903 became the first woman of any race to found and become president of an American bank.  Three of its branches still operate. Maggie Walker also founded a newspaper and a department store called “Saint Luke’s Emporium.”

Walker was the matron of the “cradle of black capitalism,” as the Washington Post put it in a profile story earlier this month.   At her home, now a National Historic Site, visitors were intrigued by one of Walker’s granddaughter’s dolls.  It was, Post reporter Ellen Perlman wrote, “a ‘Tu-In-One’ doll’ . . .

. . . a Siamese-twin-like doll with a head on either end, instead of feet.  It becomes a white doll with a bonnet or a black doll with her hair tied up in a red cloth, depending upon which head the dress covers.

These could possibly have dated to the days of southern slavery, which did not end until the Union victory in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  I can imagine children of both races playing with such a doll, with the “massa’s” child speaking with the slave child, depending upon which way one flipped a wrist.

Women in the accounting office of Maggie Walker's Independent Order of St. Luke's.  (National Park Service)

Women in the accounting office of Maggie Walker's Independent Order of St. Luke's. (National Park Service)

Maggie Walker went out of her way to hire black women at her bank and other businesses.  “It meant that these women could escape the drudgery of working at one of the three main occupations available to black women [in Richmond] at the time: laundress, domestic servant, or tobacco factory worker,” National Park Service ranger Ben Anderson told the Post.

Visitors begin their tours by watching a short videotape in which an actress portrays Maggie Walker.

“All of these good things — the newspaper, the bank, the emporium, were possible because we put our hands, brains, and might together and made jobs for ourselves,” the character says, presumably quoting Walker.  “There is no reason why any man, woman, or child should stand by idly waiting with folded arms, saying there is nothing else I can do. With education and determination, you can do anything.”

The matron of "the cradle of black capitalism."  (National Park Service)

Maggie Walker’s bank was one of more than 100 black-owned businesses in Jackson Ward, and most of them thrived, because of a loyal local clientele and patronage of African American visitors from across the nation.

Jackson Ward resident John Mitchell ran for the governorship of Virginia in 1921 at a time when many former slaves were still alive and living in the decidedly segregationist city.  He ran on what was known as a “Lily Black” ticket, mocking what he called the usual “Lily White” team.  Mitchell even led a boycott of the streetcars in Richmond.  But despite the strident words, he and Walker worked amicably with the city’s mayor and Virginia’s governor to support universal voting laws and good schools — good by segregationist standards — in Jackson Ward.

Ironically, the civil-rights movement and desegregation of public accommodations in the 1960s, which gave a lift to Richmond’s black community as a whole, devastated Jackson Ward.  As white-owned businesses and entertainment venues opened to blacks, Jackson Ward banks, shops, and theaters lost customers.  Many closed. The city razed dozens of homes for a highway and a new convention center, and creeping blight in Jackson Ward became a stampede.

Some of the row houses in Jackson Ward today.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Some of the row houses in Jackson Ward today. (Wikipedia Commons)

Today, Jackson Ward is a quiet, slowly improving neighborhood but is still an ungentrified collection of brick row houses, corner stores, hair parlors, carry-out stands selling fried fish and pork chops and beer, churches on many corners, community outreach centers, and a few remaining mansions with ornate but rusted ironwork.

The Globe and the Golden Gate and Tat Turner’s Place are gone.

But the Hippodrome Theater has been extensively renovated and reopened as a lively entertainment venue for dancing, stage plays and movies, and mixing and mingling by the Virginia capital’s over-30 crowd that doesn’t care for loud music and the noisy bar scene.

At the “Hipp,” as locals call it, and at the Black History Center, the Maggie O. Walker Home, and at the jaunty statue of Bojangles Robinson, you can still get a taste of the glory days of the Harlem of the South.


The new, and quite hip, "Hipp." (Courtesy, Walker Row Partnership, Inc.)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Drudgery. Hard and menial work — the kind that goes on and on. If you know the story of Cinderella, scrubbing floors for her nasty stepmother, you’re picturing drudgery.

Gentrified. Upgraded to a class befitting the local “gentry”. The term is usually applied to neighborhoods that have changed, with prosperous people moving in and displacing poorer residents.

Saucily. Boldly, in a lively, perky way.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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