Justice Spottswood William Robinson III designed this eclectic house himself in 1957. (Photo by Maggie Pope)
What: Frederick Douglass Court
Where: Brook and Overbrook roads and Dubois Avenue on Richmond’s North Side
Why it matters: At a time when Richmond’s neighborhoods were segregated, Maggie Walker’s University Realty Co. developed an area near Virginia Union University as a suburban haven for middle-class blacks.
The term “suburb” may conjure wide brick ranchers sprouting carports and manicured lawns. But in early 20th-century Richmond, streetcars still roamed the city, and their electric traction motors conquered the barrier ridges and muddy ravines that stymied growth. The first suburbs sprouted up outside the city center with enticing come-ons issued in newspaper ads that proclaimed the benefits of cleaner air, “granolithic sidewalks,” the proximity of schools and city services.
Most of the time we think of these neighborhoods as white enclaves. In 1911 Richmond adopted Baltimore’s statute that prohibited African-Americans from living or owning property or conducting business in what were judged as majority-white communities. Despite the schism of the city by race and commerce, the black community developed a middle and upper class. Many successful African-Americans lived in Jackson Ward, but by the 1920s population, money and the streetcars brought blacks of means into newer accommodations.
Frederick Douglass Court, bounded by Brook and Overbrook roads and Dubois Avenue, was one such community. The University Realty Co., founded in 1919 by entrepreneur and banker Maggie Walker and her associates, purchased lands adjacent to Virginia Union University to build a new community for middle-class blacks.
“I think you can say that this is analogous to what happened further west with the land around the University of Richmond,” says historian and “Built by Blacks” author Selden Richardson.
“Frederick Douglass Court carried a certain cachet at that time among those blacks who felt they were sophisticated and fashionable,” he says. “This is the second generation after Reconstruction.” Taking in the streets and residences one gets a “Woodland Heights vibe,” Richardson says, referring to the South Side streetcar suburb. Early residents would have included VUU teachers and staff members.
Three of the original homes in Frederick Douglass Court on Dubois Avenue (Photo by Maggie Pope)
The developers offered several models of homes. There was model No. 1, a stucco-sided Four Square with features such as a built-in refrigerator, ironing board, gas range, hot-water heater and pine floors. Examples stand at 1213 to 1217 Overbrook Road.
Model No. 2, such as 1210 Overbrook Road (which Richardson believes may have been the neighborhood’s model home) is a six-room, two-story frame and stucco house. It had the same amenities as No. 1, plus a slate roof, sun parlor, hot-water heater and hardwood flooring in some rooms.
Model No. 3, a bit more down-market, didn’t include central heat or the other perks. The renovated houses at 1234 and 1236 Overbrook are examples of this plan.
A 1927 guide to black housing in Virginia sniffed at the cost of the model and spec houses as being 15 percent above their actual worth. The writer explained, however, that there was “nothing to prevent a Negro from building his own home in this section at any cost not less than $1,500.”
The observer proved somewhat correct in the assessment. Maggie Walker never built on a spacious Brook Road parcel. She seems, Richardson says, to have preferred the liveliness of Jackson Ward and monitoring life on the street from her commodious front porch.
In 1957, an eclectic house arose with cantilevered porch supports and an array of grilles above the windows to regulate sunlight. This was the work of Justice Spottswood William Robinson III (1916-1998), who grew up at 1255 Dubois.
After his 1936 VUU graduation, Robinson went on to Howard University (where he later became dean of the law school) and became a renowned legal scholar. As a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Education Fund he practiced alongside Oliver Hill and Thurgood Marshall. Robinson argued one of the five cases that formed a part of the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. He was appointed in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson to the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., and then moved to the U.S. Court of Appeals there, becoming chief judge before his 1989 retirement.
Robinson was also an ardent woodworker — he designed his house himself. And in this way, Frederick Douglass Court lived up to the early expectations of Maggie Walker and her colleagues. An African-American family who did well in the wider world, returned home to build a house illustrating that success.