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A small group of Richmond teens, part of National Park Service’s Urban Archeology Corps, builds its own monument to Maggie L. Walker. (Photo by: Mark Strandquist)
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A Groundwork friend got them a newspaper box, which they painted orange over spring break and stenciled with Walker’s image and the words: “Not failure, but low aim is a crime,” a point Walker often made. (Photo by: Mark Strandquist)
It is summer and sweltering, and the teenagers who admit they would otherwise be home doing approximately nothing because it is summer and sweltering instead set out to rectify Richmond’s historical landscape.
They number eight, all but one of them African-American, and from the North Side and the East End, though Jocelyn Marie Lee, a South Sider, slips in among them. Lee is leading the mission, along with Justis Thomas-Jackson and Tyasha Casey. They are 17.
Take your water bottles, the adults say, and they leave the air conditioning of the Maggie L. Walker National Historical Site at Second and Leigh streets and round the corner to stand in front of Walker’s house. This is the first stop on their reclamation tour.
The teens are part of National Park Service’s Urban Archeology Corps, and came to the program through Groundwork RVA, an urban conservation nonprofit. As they head into Jackson Ward, they carry with them a lesson from the Richmond program’s lead archaeologist, Courtney Bowles: History elevates some voices at the cost of others. You have the power to speak into that void. Your voices will represent history to the future.
The group gathers before the brick house with the columned front porch where Walker lived from 1905 until her death in 1934. The National Park Service bought it in 1978, during a time it was redefining places of national significance. The home of the first African-American woman in the nation to charter a bank seemed a no-brainer. The house is pristine. “As if she’d just walked out of the room when you walked in,” says Dave Ruth, the park service’s superintendent.
It is something with its 28 rooms and elevator, says Thomas-Jackson. He glances at the small, handmade booklet he carries. Walker’s profile is stamped on the cover. The reason for the elevator, he says, assuming the role of sidewalk guide, was that Walker’s diabetes confined her to a wheelchair later in life. That she was disabled stands out for him, and it could be because it’s the kind of detail that makes human again that which is larger than life. Maggie Walker’s son, he tells the group, mistook his father for an intruder and shot and killed him.
They head toward Marshall Street and the final location of Walker’s famous St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Charles T. Russell, one of the first black architects in Virginia, designed the building, and it was demolished in the 1970s. The youth find only a stone marker and a parking lot. Casey takes over guide duties, holding in her hand a copy of the same booklet Thomas-Jackson has. She reads a passage noting the bank, in one form or another, was the oldest continuously black-owned bank in the country.
It is hot and time is short, so they skip the building that once housed the Independent Order of St. Luke’s, the African-American fraternal organization Walker headed and in whose name she spearheaded the bank, a department store and a newspaper. That building, a National Historic site, sits vacant and worn, perched near the freeway that plowed through Jackson Ward after Walker’s death.
They skip Evergreen Cemetery, where Walker is buried and which is overgrown and often used as a dump, despite the ongoing efforts of volunteers.
Thomas-Jackson, Casey and Lee already had been there and had seen enough.
They turn left onto East Broad Street, heading to their final stop: a storefront that once housed the bank and the Emporium, Walker’s department store run by African-American women for African-American women. It is vacant and rundown. A mural promoting Belle Isle covers the front wall.
The youth didn’t know much about Walker before the Urban Archeology program. They didn’t know she was a former slave’s daughter who became a teacher who became a trailblazer. They didn’t know about the beautiful house. They didn’t know about the parking lot, the overgrown cemetery, the long-ago Emporium, which did not last long, but like the bank, stood as a rallying cry for economic freedom.
“It’s shame that so many people live so close to the Emporium and walk by it and don’t even know what it was and what it represented and how it was to change everything for African-Americans,” Casey says.
“I never knew about it,” Lee says. “And it’s right on Broad Street. That there is no sign or anything? It was just like this story unknown and untold.”
The youth started writing during spring break. They wrote about who Walker was and what she did. They drew a map with the spots they visited and then described those spots. They wrote their own bios at the end, “to ensure that we, the authors of this ‘zine, aren’t invisible.”
These are the small booklets they have been carrying. One hundred copies of the Maggie Lena Walker fanzine. A Groundwork friend got them a newspaper box, which they painted orange over spring break and stenciled with Walker’s image and the words: “Not failure, but low aim is a crime,” a point Walker often made. They put the box in front of the Emporium earlier in the year with an early version of the ‘zine.
The youth surround the box and place stacks of booklets inside. Passersby slow and look and walk on. In the days to come, the teens will begin excavating a Varina site where a freed black community settled. They will tell a new story. For now, they linger, posing for pictures. And in this way they build their own monument in a city of monuments. When the box is emptied, they will fill it again.