Map reproduced from the Report of Advisory Committees for the Consolidation of the City of Richmond and Henrico County
The city of Richmond and Henrico County almost staged a Mad Men-era wedding. Except when the reluctant bride and nervous groom arrived at the magistrate's office, they took one look at each other and bolted. Witnesses expressed puzzlement and relief more than disappointment.
The 211-page prenup reads today like a policy wonk's fantasy: "Report of Advisory Committees for the Consolidation of the City of Richmond and Henrico County." The date: July 31, 1961.
John Moeser, a University of Richmond professor and longtime scholar of the often bleak dramedy of Central Virginia and Richmond's wearying planning policies, explains the value of what was lost, and also, why.
"What's tragic is that in the 1960s, race tainted that whole consolidation debate. But at least the discussion was occurring. Serious people weighed the options. We desperately need that discussion today. As a way, frankly, I think, of securing this region's future."
Until 1970, Virginia cities used outright annexation as a tool for arresting their post-World War II decline. But annexation carried a price. A county received compensation for remitting its property for the city's benefit. From the 1940s, as counties became more populous and independent, the attraction of cities waned. Forced annexation engendered ill will, and at the time, Richmond's charter forbade issuing bonds to pay for it. Thus, annexation became the nuclear option.
A 1959 consultant's report extolled the advantages of Richmond-Henrico consolidation, including "simplicity in solving service problems relating to water, sanitation and transportation." No mention of education — then caught up in the segregation issue.
African-Americans of the mid-1960s didn't want their hard-won enfranchisement diluted by more whites. And some whites didn't want blacks possessing greater voting power.
Still, between August 1960 and July 1961, a six-member committee made up of elders from Richmond and Henrico drafted the consolidation proposal. From Henrico, the participants were Garland M. Harwood Jr., lawyer and secretary of the Virginia Democratic Party; former Brookland District supervisor William Cornelius Schermerhorn Jr.; and Wilmer Newcomb "Pete" Stoneman Jr., former county supervisor and agricultural businessman. The Richmond contingent included investment bankers and respected civic leaders Walter W. Craigie Sr. and John S. Davenport III, and David J. Mays, a prominent attorney (with segregationist leanings) specializing in annexation.
Under the proposal, Henrico's four districts became boroughs into which Richmond proper was incorporated. After an interim period of five and a half years, representative reapportionment would occur on the basis of the four Henrico boroughs. The expanded city's council would then drop from 12 members to nine, with the charter calling for at-large elections. "The Crusade for Voters approached the white leadership driving everything at the time," Moeser explains. "The Crusade believed that consolidation would actually make for a healthier city."
But Crusade leaders didn't want their role diminished, so they requested a change in the proposed system of elections from at-large to district or proportional representation.
"But the white oligarchy instead turned its back," Moeser says.
And the Crusade turned to outright opposition.
On Dec. 12, 1961, consolidation went to referendum. Henrico's Tuckahoe, primarily home to upper middle class whites, mostly went for the plan. Still, out of 22,500 votes, 61 percent opposed the idea.
"This demonstrated the effectiveness of the Crusade," Moeser says. "If the city leadership had been more compromising, combined with the Crusade, there might've been more of an effective vote."
In the end, though, Moeser doesn't believe this variation would've reversed votes in Henrico's four districts.
In 1964, an annexation court awarded Richmond with 17 square miles of Henrico for $55 million. Richmond by law couldn't use bonds to fund the annexation. The next year, the city went to the General Assembly for permission to change its charter regarding annexation payments, but in 1966, Henrico officially declared that it no longer sought any union.
Richmond turned to Chesterfield County, which had demurred from the consolidation proceedings. The city's 1970 annexation of 23 square miles of northern Chesterfield exploded in Richmond's face, achieving few of its aims. (For a previous Flashback on the subject, visit richmag.com/annex .)
Later regional cooperation that produced the Diamond, the convention center and the MathScience Innovation Center is now history, buried by fiscal tightening and shifting population. The greatest economic downturn since the Depression hasn't yielded any advance on the front of consolidating services and administration. The present situation has instead deepened the divide between the city and counties.
"It is almost feudal," Moeser says. "The municipalities have become, in their way, city-states. They each have their own ‘army' — police forces. They each have one of everything."
The relationship between Richmond and the counties is reminiscent of the feud between the proud Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare's fair Verona. In the Bard's Romeo and Juliet, the unnecessary deaths of the young lovers prompt the grieving families to lay aside their differences. Lacking such a romantic and compelling event, however, the city and counties remain separated