Illustration by Richie Pope
Sing, oh muse, of Jackson Ward, Richmond’s historic all-black empire, our very own “Harlem of the South,” brought to life by freedmen and former slaves post-Civil War and tended with care for generations.
Remind us that it was the stomping ground of some of the brightest luminaries of the early 20th century, people born to blaze trails.
Think Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman in the nation to charter a bank. Her vision of entrepreneurial excellence still instructs us from her historic Jackson Ward home on “Quality Row.”
Think John Mitchell, Jr., the outspoken editor of the Richmond Planet, which was founded by former slaves, and defiantly shared critical news on segregation and racial wrongs in Richmond and across the country — news that many other papers wouldn’t publish.
Think Oliver Hill, whose legal acumen contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. And Charles Sidney Gilpin, one of the country’s acclaimed African-American stage actors.
Proclaim the countless celebrities — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, among them — who graced The Hippodrome, acting, singing and conjuring artistic magic right there on the Deuce.
Tell, oh muse, of how in the 1950s, the state cut through the heart of the neighborhood, Interstate 95 slicing its broad chest like a coroner would a cadaver — except, Jackson Ward wasn’t dead. Tell how developers wiped out homes, allowing poverty and crime to move in and tarnish the reputation of the neighborhood for generations.
But don’t lament, dear muse. Instead, belt out melodious stanzas about Jackson Ward’s tenacious spirit. Let us frolic at the annual 2nd Street Festival in the fall, and welcome “Celebrate Jackson Ward: Past, Present and Future,” a music festival debuting May 20-22. Let’s learn from “Black Wall Street,” a new movie about this storied neighborhood by local filmmaker and educator Rebekah Lynn Pierce (see here for details).
New homes and businesses abound, created by transplants who overlook Jackson Ward’s shortcomings because they can sense its potential. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia opened at its new Leigh Street location on May 10, and this fall, the city will at long last erect a monument to Maggie Walker at the apex of the triangle formed by Brook Road and West Broad and North Adams streets. (Tree or no tree, we shall see.)
For its golden history, for the years it flourished and the years it faded, for its revival and for the promising days ahead, we name Jackson Ward Richmonder of the Month.
Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a homecoming. —The Staff