Illustration by Shawn Yu
These periods of Richmond’s history reflect the region’s spirit of tenacity and progress. That’s not to say that Richmond hasn’t stumbled, slid and fallen along the way. We endure and push onward.
Sept. 19, 1733: Byrd Builds Richmond
Richmond’s reluctant founder, William Byrd II, in 1704 inherited from his father 179,000 Virginia
acres. His profitable enterprises included trading tobacco, hides and slaves. In 1727, by behest of the Virginia legislature, Byrd reluctantly ceded 50 acres to establish a town at the roaring falls of the James River. Byrd didn’t want competing businesses to arise. After inspecting his lands in September 1733, the dutiful diarist wrote that he and Major William Mayo laid out the foundation of two “large cities” one, near “Shaco’s” [Shockoe], called Richmond, the other at the point of the Appomattox River to be named Petersburg. Byrd’s Westover Plantation is open to the public on nearby Route 5.
March 23, 1775: “Give Me Liberty—"
Hanover County’s delegate to the Second Virginia Convention, self-trained lawyer Patrick Henry essentially proposed treason by his forceful urging to prepare Virginia’s militia for an oncoming conflict with Great Britain. The meeting place, later named St. John’s Episcopal Church, was able to hold the 120 delegates, among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Henry’s dramatic oration took about 15 minutes but the exact content isn’t known because Henry didn’t speak from notes and nobody took minutes at the illegal convention.
The “Liberty Or Death” speech was reconstructed from two eyewitnesses some 40 years later by biographer William Wirt. The resolution passed by perhaps less than five votes. Henry became Virginia’s first elected governor, serving five terms and was instrumental in the formation of the Constitution. Re-enactments of the event occur at St. John’s on Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Photo by Steve Hedberg
Aug. 30, 1800: Gabriel’s Aborted Uprising
Gabriel, a 24-year-old, fully literate blacksmith slave loaned out by his owner, organized an uprising of 1,000 slaves to converge on Richmond. Both Revolutionary War rhetoric and the uprising in Haiti inspired Gabriel. A sudden storm and the revelation to authorities by a couple of anxious participants thwarted the action. Gabriel fled to Norfolk where subterfuge led to his
capture. Gabriel, his two brothers and 23 alleged participants were hanged at 15th and Franklin streets. Markers at Young’s Spring near Upham Creek in Henrico County and along U.S. Route 301 near Doswell in Hanover County mark gathering points. On Broad Street downtown, a marker about Gabriel and his execution exists. Former Gov. Tim Kaine pardoned Gabriel in 2007.
December 1835: Poe the Editor
Thomas Willis White made contributing writer Edgar Allan Poe editor of the monthly Southern Literary Messenger. During his stormy tenure that ended with the January 1837 issue, Poe contributed rafts of reviews, news items and stories.
He raised the bar on literary criticism and furthered the short story form. The Messenger was his first professional writing job and undertaken while supporting his cousin-wife and her mother. The publication’s subscriptions ballooned from 3,500 copies to perhaps 5,000. Poe’s name never appeared on the masthead although his responsibilities included seeking submissions and handling the magazine’s correspondence. Poe’s resentment over low pay and his alcoholic slide caused White to let him go. White remained generally friendly towards the writer, who remained a contributor until his 1849 death. The Messenger building’s bricks form the wall around the garden behind the Edgar Allan Poe Museum at 1914 E. Main St.
April 4, 1865: President Lincoln Visits Civil War-Torn Richmond
On the late morning after Richmond burned in the Evacuation Fire, acrid smoke drifted above the wharves of the riverfront and near the Tredegar Iron Works. After his steamship was blocked by obstacles, President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, on his 12th birthday, were rowed toward present-day Bottom’s Up pizza restaurant in Shockoe Bottom. Reporter Charles Coffin first spotted Lincoln and became an informal guide for the president, who wanted to be led to the former Confederate White House.
Lincoln sat in Jefferson Davis’ study and asked the Irish housekeeper for a glass of water. He later toured parts of the stricken city with the city’s military commander Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, to whom he advised treatment of the defeated Confederates: “Let’em up easy.” The president entered and left Richmond unharmed. His assassination occurred 10 days later in Washington, D.C.
July 28, 1903: A Trailblazer from Humble Beginnings
Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) became one of Richmond’s most prominent business people and civic leaders.
She signed the charter forming the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank, making her the first African-American woman to administrate a financial institution. Walker, a wife and mother, also took on greater roles in the flailing Independent Order of St. Luke fraternal organization and studied accounting and business practices at night. When she became St. Luke’s Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, the organization had 3,400 members, without funds or staff. Walker changed all that; the membership was 100,000 by 1924. The National Park Service maintains Walker’s house at 110 1/2 E. Leigh St. as a museum. Concepts for a monument honoring her life and legacy are currently under discussion.
June 11, 1928: A New Start for Art
During the 1930s, native Richmonder Theresa Pollak (1899-2002) founded both the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the University of Richmond arts programs. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries)
By letter, Dr. Henry H. Hibbs notified Theresa Pollak (1899-2002) of her appointment as instructor of drawing, painting and composition at the Richmond Division of the College of William and Mary. Pollak’s teaching and advocacy evolved into the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. That first class was to be held with five students — she started with 20. Today, VCUArts is recognized as a leading public arts school and has some 3,000 enrolled students in 16 disciplines. VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, an exclamation mark to Pollak’s vision, is under construction and scheduled to open in 2017.
Sept. 6, 1960: First Steps Toward Education for All
At 8:45 a.m., 13-year-old Gloria Jean Mead and her neighbor Carol Irene Swann, 12, surrounded by reporters, entered Richmond history and the eighth grade at North Side’s Chandler Junior High School.
They were the first African-Americans to attend classes there — “the first crack in Richmond’s armor of school segregation had been made,” wrote Robert A. Pratt in his “The Color of Their Skin.” Their presence in the majority white school was part of Virginia’s effort to combat the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. The state adopted a policy of containment and used a General Assembly-formed Pupil Placement Board to pick and choose African-American students to attend white schools. Carol Swann-Daniels adapted her memories through the Virginia Opera and Richmond Public Schools into a music drama, “Songs of Freedom.”
Jan. 14, 1990: A Native Son Steps into American History
The bright, clear morning was blisteringly cold. The temperature in Capitol Square was frigid enough that the man of the hour chose to condense his remarks to the estimated 30,000 spectators — the most ever gathered there. His speech took just 15 minutes. Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves and raised only a few blocks east of the Virginia Capitol in impoverished conditions on Church Hill’s 28th Street, officially became the state’s governor. He was the first African-American governor in the history of the United States. He also served one controversial term as the city’s first elected mayor-at-large in 50 years.
He continues to weigh in on events and lately has pushed for a slavery museum in Richmond.