Richmond Story: Richmond Forward

From the Revolution to the Civil War to Reconstruction to Civil Rights, various seemingly impossible political situations have played out in Richmond. As you cast your ballot (especially for local races), be thankful you have the right to do so. After all, it was only forty eight years ago that Richmond suspended local elections. In fact, our city went five years without holding local elections at all. It’s a long story…

Before 1977, Richmond City Council members were elected at-large, meaning that in order to win, a candidate had to secure the most votes citywide. This political structure maintained neighborhood segregation and prevented Black districts from electing their own council members. But when the 1960 census revealed that Richmond’s population was 42% Black and would soon become the majority, it became clear that those wishing to maintain white political power had to update their tactics. Soon, various campaigns to maintain white control of the city took shape. The first attempt was a 1961 referendum to consolidate the city with Henrico County. Voters of both races turned it down.

By 1963, the white power structure grew increasingly desperate. The city’s 1948 charter, which banned party affiliation for Council members, turned out to be one of their main obstacles. To work around this, powerful business leaders founded a political action group called Richmond Forward. Technically run by citizens, Richmond Forward behaved exactly like a political party. They picked candidates, funded their campaigns, and promoted them as a unified bloc. During the 1964 election, they presented nine candidates to Richmond voters, who all shared a mission statement, a platform, campaign literature, campaign events, and the deep pockets of Richmond’s business elite. With the exception of former Council member Eleanor Sheppard, the Richmond Forward candidates had nearly no political experience. They largely came from real estate and banking.

Image: X.2020.03.115, Richmond Forward Pamphlet, Circa 1963, The Valentine

Six of the nine Richmond Forward candidates won the at-large election, among them Eleanor Sheppard. In their first act as a majority, they elected two of their own as mayor and vice-mayor. Quickly, Richmond Forward got to work fulfilling their campaign promises to run Richmond in a “businesslike” way. They pledged to make sure that “all city officials take a positive, helpful attitude toward the legitimate needs of business.”

Richmond Forward was careful to never use racist language. They claimed “economic development” to be the goal of annexation and large public works projects. However, Richmond Forward’s critics—including remaining independent council members—noticed that most of Richmond Forward’s members and the owners of the businesses they supported lived outside city limits. Richmond Forward’s stated priorities of building more expressways, parking lots, the Coliseum and even a mall downtown would require the demolition of thousands of mostly Black-owned city homes, all in an effort to make Richmond more accessible to and profitable for white suburbanites.  In the late 1960s, Richmond Forward literally cleared the way for the Downtown Expressway and expansions of I-95 and I-64. The historic Black neighborhood of Navy Hill was wiped off the map to build a connector between the two highways and the Coliseum. A thousand families were displaced, with some finally resettling in public housing.

By 1965, Richmond’s population outpaced predictions, with Black residents making up 52% of the population. That year, Richmond Forward revived efforts to annex parts of Henrico County. When the plan failed again, the group grew even more desperate. During the 1968 election, incumbent Richmond Forward councilman James Wheat, Jr. said blatantly that without annexation, “Richmond will become a permanent black ghetto.” In 1968 and 1969, the group poured its resources into promoting the ultimately successful annexation of 23 square miles of Chesterfield County, which took effect in 1970. Richmond suddenly gained 47,000 more residents, 97% of whom were white. Overnight, the city became 42% Black again.

Image: V.85.37.420, New City Council Members Share a Laugh, March 18, 1977, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

Ironically, the 1970 annexation that was supposed to save Richmond’s white majority backfired. That same year, mandated busing became law. Almost immediately, the 47,000 new citizens of Richmond realized that they would now have to send their children to integrated schools. Thus, many white families fled to Chesterfield, dwindling the slim majority. The annexation also prompted a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down an injunction, prohibiting Richmond from holding local elections until the case was decided.  Richmond went from 1972 until 1977—five years— without local elections. In their eventual decision, the justices found Richmond’s at-large Council elections discriminatory. The city was forced to switch to a ward system, in which separate districts each elect one council member. In 1977, the first first local elections held in five years, Black candidates won a majority on City Council for the first time in the city’s history. The Council then proceeded to elect Henry Marsh III as Richmond’s first Black mayor. Overnight, The majority of Richmonders had finally won majority representation.

Richmond Story: Belle Isle Prison

The fictional, Halloween-inspired terror of zombies and monsters seems quaint in comparison to the very real horrors of war that have unfolded in and around our city. But while we are generally familiar with many of these images, during the Civil War, often soldiers feared prison more than they feared the battlefield. Fifty-six thousand soldiers died in captivity during the four years of conflict. In fact, Richmond was home to one prison in particular that gained a national reputation for its inhumane conditions. While Libby Prison housed captured Union officers, Belle Isle Prison mostly incarcerated common soldiers.

By the summer of 1862, Richmond had become overpopulated with prisoners of war. In response, the Confederate government purchased Belle Isle. The 54-acre island was meant to be a temporary solution, and so no structures were actually built. Three-foot-high earthworks enclosed a 6-acre space. It was all that was needed, as the surrounding rapids served as a good deterrent against escape. Prisoners lived in flimsy pole tents—10 men to a tent—without adequate shelter from rain or cold. Officers and guards did have proper quarters nearby. Two months into operation, a new commandant arrived to oversee operations. His name was Captain Henry Wirz, a doctor with a reputation for strictness who only made things worse.

V.66.26.29, Belle Isle Prison Camp, Circa 1863, The Valentine

Under Wirz, all prisoner privileges were revoked. Within a year, the population of Belle Isle Prison grew to double its capacity. Approximately 7,000 men, still living in tents, suffered through a brutal 1863 winter. In December, a smallpox outbreak added to the misery as an estimated 14 men froze to death each night.

Dysentery, typhoid and pneumonia raged through the prison population. Additionally, as supplies in Richmond deteriorated due to blockades, rations dwindled to starvation portions. Conditions became so bad that the Northern media began using the prison as a propaganda tool against the Confederates.

Of the 20,000 men incarcerated there, almost 1,000 died at Belle Isle, which was only in operation for 18 months. At its most crowded, 10,000 Union soldiers inhabited the 6-acre space—a tenth of the island’s actual size—at one time. In February 1864, the temporary prison finally closed, and its remaining population was transferred to Andersonville, Georgia. Nearly all the transferred men weighed under 100 pounds at the time. Wirz followed them to command the new facility. There, 13,000 Union soldiers would die under his supervision, far more than on any single battlefield during the war. Afterward, Wirz became the only Confederate charged with war crimes during the Civil War and was eventually executed for his cruel treatment of prisoners.

Richmond Story: the Lily White Ticket and the Lily Black Ticket

With our upcoming Controversy/History event on Tuesday, October 6 exploring the impact of 2020 on voting, this week’s Richmond Story blog focuses on another moment in our city’s history where issues of voting, race and power converged in surprising and transformational ways.

In the early-20th century, Virginia’s Republican party was not faring well in state elections. Not only did the progressive party of Lincoln have a hard time courting the votes of resentful Confederates, but they had also lost a key demographic. In the rewritten 1902 state constitution, the conservative Democrats had willfully disenfranchised a large percentage of black male voters. By 1920, with white women enfranchised and so many Blacks unable to vote, the Republicans gained little in courting the Black vote or campaigning on racial progress as they had in the past. For these reasons, the Democratic Party had routinely and successfully attacked the Republicans as “the party of the Negro.” Virginia voters responded to racial fear and racial hypocrisy, both cultivated in offensive, racist political cartoons like the one shown below:

“What the Negro is Good For”, Undated cartoon, FIC.01409, The Valentine

In 1920, state Republican leaders decided that in order to win, they needed to establish a “lily white” image. At their state conventions in 1920 and 1921, the Lily White Republicans barred black voters from attendance. Black delegates were not seated in 1921. Racial justice did not make it onto the platform. In response, 600 Black delegates met in Richmond on September 5, 1921, and nominated their own Republican candidates for state office—all Black.

John Mitchell, Jr., Undated, P.77.08, The Valentine

What came to be called the Lily Black Republican Ticket included two Richmonders. John Mitchell, Jr. headed the ticket as the candidate for governor. Maggie Walker—just a year after gaining the right to vote herself—ran for state superintendent of public instruction. Though they knew they had no chance of winning, the 1921 Lily Black Republicans insisted that they represented the true Republican Party. Mitchell did his best to court Republicans of both races, unlike the official Lily White Republicans. Nevertheless, all of the Lily Black candidates lost. In fact, none of the Lily White Republicans won, either. The Democrats swept the election that year.

Over the course of the next decade, for these and other racist tactics, the few Black voters who were not prevented from voting or disillusioned with their choices began to largely abandon the party of Lincoln.