Illustration by Doug Thompson
Christopher Newport Plants One: May 24, 1607.
Chief Parahunt, a son of paramount Chief Powhatan, didn't want the hairy, smelly English settlers upsetting the rival Monacan tribe west of present-day Richmond. So when Jamestown settlement expedition leader Christopher Newport traveled up the James River and met the indigenous residents of the future Richmond, he rewarded their hospitality by erecting a simple cross that, he explained to his suspicious host, symbolized the union of their people. In fact, Newport meant to declare Virginia for King James I. Then he and his crew returned to the week-old Jamestown. From 1907 to 1983, Newport's act was memorialized by a copper cross capping a pile of James River granite stones at the base of Fourth Street; after a land swap between the city and Ethyl Corp., the marker went to Shockoe Slip behind the Martin Agency. In 2003, it moved to the bottom of 12th Street along the Canal Walk, near the probable site of the original cross.
You Say You Want a Revolution?: Jan. 5, 1781.
Hanover County lawyer Patrick Henry persuaded a hesitant convention of Virginia's best and brightest with the March 23, 1775, "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech at St. John's Church. Richmond burned nearly seven years later. Gen. George Washington informed Gov. Thomas Jefferson that the British were sending troops south. Jefferson, however, considered reports of ships in the Chesapeake Bay as the French coming to assist the cause. On Jan. 2, a messenger told him that the British were coming, with traitor Benedict Arnold leading them. Jefferson scurried to get munitions, documents and his family out of town. Arnold's men hunted Jefferson, and when they came up empty-handed, they torched tobacco barns and other buildings. Jefferson may have watched the burning from a Manchester attic. A censure of Jefferson's alleged dereliction of duty was quashed by the American victory at Yorktown, on Oct. 19, 1781.
Freedom Fighters: Aug. 30, 1800.
Enslaved blacksmith Gabriel, owned by the Prossers of Henrico County, became the leader of an uprising against the masters and their government. Using fish fries and religious gatherings as cover, Prosser and a group of conspirators prepared. Their plans included a march on Richmond with a diversionary fire and breaking open the state prison. The rebels would seize a cache of arms stored at the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol, take Gov. James Monroe hostage and bargain for Virginia's slaves to be freed. A tremendous Gaston-like storm stymied the attack. Nervous collaborators warned officials. Prosser escaped for almost a month before undergoing capture, trial and hanging along with his two brothers and more than 20 others. The site and burial ground is near the present site of the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball park. Prosser's revolt is the subject of a 2012 novel by Richmonder Gigi Amateau, Come August, Come Freedom.
The Night Dixie Burned: April 3-4 1865.
Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Richmond defenses commander Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to torch the city's warehouses in an effort to keep supplies from Union hands. Prominent residents protested, but Confederate commanders didn't see an alternative. Planned demolitions and flames whipped by rising wind built the conflagration. The entire business and shipping district was reduced to ruins. Federal troops entered to fight the fire and to keep order. President Lincoln arrived by rowboat on April 4, with son Tad. They walked the simmering city streets, surrounded by throngs of former slaves.
A Crack in the Wall: Sept. 6, 1960.
At 8:45 a.m., 13-year-old Gloria Jean Mead and her neighbor Carol Irene Swann, 12, surrounded by reporters, entered the eighth grade at North Side's Chandler Junior High School. They were the first African-Americans to attend classes there. Their presence in the majority white school constituted Virginia's effort to combat the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, after earlier efforts to maintain segregation though Massive Resistance were judged unconstitutional. The state adopted a policy of containment and used a General Assembly-formed Pupil Placement Board to select African-American students to attend white schools. In the 1990s, the memories of Carol Swann-Daniels and Gloria Mead Jinadu became part of Songs of Freedom, a musical drama chronicling the civil rights movement that was commissioned by the Virginia Opera