Black History Month 2021 Gallery Guide

We are excited to provide all Valentine visitors with this gallery guide (both at our front desk and for download HERE) that highlights a selection of the objects, images and stories on display across our galleries that help tell the diverse history of Richmond’s Black community.

This Black History Month Gallery Guide focuses on objects in our lobby, our permanent exhibition and across the museum. Yet it’s important to remember that even as we celebrate, we must work to tell these stories all year long. Confronting our uncomfortable past both as an institution and across our region is central to our mission.

We hope you will use the 2021 Black History Month Gallery Guide as a jumping off point; one that will inspire you to further explore the Valentine and other area cultural institutions to learn even more about the history and contributions of Richmond’s Black community.

Richmond Story: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Black History is Richmond history. From Richmond’s founding in 1737 to the present day, Black Richmonders not only built this city with their hands, but  also indelibly shaped its politics, religion, entertainment, businesses and institutions. As we get closer to Black History Month, the next few posts will highlight Black Richmonders who have done just that. In some cases, their influence has spread beyond Richmond. In others, the impact comes not an from individual, but a collective of everyday people. Of course, while it’s impossible to adequately represent the breadth of Black influence, but we will endeavor to tell fascinating, complicated and important stories about Black Richmonders.  The first of these subjects was an entertainment giant who gained worldwide fame on the big screen, though he started out as a little boy shelling peas for two cents a basket at the 17th Street Market.

Birthplace of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, 915 N. 3rd Street, Circa 1950, V.79.120.1094.01, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

Luther Robinson was born in 1878 in a small wooden house on 3rd Street in Jackson Ward. Orphaned early in his childhood, he was raised by his grandmother, a formerly enslaved woman. Black Richmonders had few educational opportunities, and Luther had to blaze his own path early on. At the age of five, he began dancing for pennies on the sidewalk. By seven, he had snagged his first role as a dancer in a traveling show. These early years elude a hard historical record, as the origins of cultural giants often do. Some accounts show him running away to D.C. at the age of nine to dance full time, while others place him in Richmond dancing in local beer gardens at that age. No matter the specifics, we do know that by the time he was a teenager, Luther had changed his name to Bill and was established in Black vaudeville circuits around D.C. Among his friends, he had also earned a nickname— Bojangles—for his contentious attitude. This nickname and its future contradictions would perfectly encapsulate his blockbuster career that has been called both groundbreaking and retrograde, both defiant and subservient.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s dance career unfolded at a peculiar time in this nation’s history—the forces of segregation were rising at the same time as the appeal of Black entertainment. Popular, everyday entertainment began to threaten the “color line.” For this, many laws and industry norms dictated what Black performers could do, for whom they could perform, where they could perform and with whom they could perform. Blackface was still popular and even expected of Black artists. The “two-colored” vaudeville rule prevented Black performers from appearing alone onstage. Because of these restrictions, from 1902 until 1914, Robinson was required to have an onstage partner. He also danced almost exclusively in Black theaters for Black audiences. But, during this time, he pioneered a new form of tap-dancing. His style was elegant, quick and mesmerizing to behold.

Into the 20th century, white audiences grew less content to watch white performers going through the motions in front of more skilled Black background dancers.  So the astonishingly talented Robinson and his partner, George W. Cooper, attracted notice. They soon became so popular that the duo began to flout the rules of segregation. They performed in white-only venues in addition to Black venues. By World War I, Robinson went solo. In 1918, he became one of the few Black performers to headline a show at the prestigious Palace Theater, in New York. At that show, he introduced his new “stair dance,” in which he danced up and down a staircase not only with dizzying ease and skill, but also producing different rhythms and tones on each step. It was a masterpiece of showmanship that would make him world famous, which you can watch here.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Jack Dabney, and Jesse Owens, 1936, V.99.61.15, The Valentine

In the 1930s, As Robinson broke down barriers of segregation with sheer talent, he found himself breaking out of the vaudeville world and into the stages of Broadway and Hollywood. But more complicated barriers arose in tandem with his stardom. In these worlds, he was limited to the roles written for him by white writers.  Unsurprisingly, they were nearly always stereotypical. His most famous and frequent role was that of a cheerful, enslaved butler dancing alongside Shirley Temple. The pair made four movies together.

With fame, Robinson’s nickname ‘Bojangles’ took on an ironic meaning. Initially derived from the term ‘jangler”—an argumentative, angry person—white fans began to associate his nickname with the smiling, docile roles written for him. The nickname itself then became a stereotype of Black servility, even though Robinson was famous among his friends for his temper, his gambling and for carrying a gold-plated pistol.

In defiance of both interpretations of his nickname, however, Robinson was not complacent when it came to race relations, nor was he hard-hearted. Though he made millions over the course of his career, he gave away vast amounts to Black charities in Harlem, where he lived.  In one year alone, he performed in four hundred benefits. He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He even co-founded a Negro League baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. Visiting Richmond in 1931, he joined Maggie Walker’s Independent Order of St. Luke. While here in 1933, he witnessed Black children attempting a dangerous intersection in Jackson Ward in order to get to school. He contacted the city and paid all costs to install a set of traffic lights at the intersection—the first traffic light “North of Broad.” For this act of charity, Richmond would later get its first monument to a Black citizen, in 1973, in Robinson’s honor at that intersection. But after a lifetime of charitable acts just like that one, Robinson died penniless in 1949, at the age of 71.

Ceremony at Bill Bojangles Robinson Monument, 6/24/1986, V.91.04.1032, Richmond Newspapers, Inc., The Valentine

Robinson died a decade before the first modern civil rights movement in this country. He never saw a lunch counter sit-in. That is important to keep in mind when discussing his legacy. He may have performed in stereotypical roles, but his mere presence in mainstream movies in the 1930s was a revolution in itself. He bucked plenty of trends that threatened to limit his career: he never performed in blackface, he performed solo, he performed with white performers and before white audiences before any of these things were considered acceptable. But what does it mean that most Americans remember him as a smiling, antebellum butler? One can imagine that it was a very skillful, difficult way of moving ahead—an optical illusion—through hostile territory.


Ps- The “stairs dance” is as amazing as it sounds and worth watching:

Results from “Lost Cause” Studio Project Survey Reveal a Richmond Eager to Confront its Past

January 19, 2021

Contact: Eric Steigleder
Director of Communications

Results from “Lost Cause” Studio Project Survey Reveal a Richmond Eager to Confront its Past

RICHMOND — Today the Valentine released the results of a community survey, conducted in October and November of 2020.

The survey asked Richmond region residents to share their knowledge about and ongoing impact of the Lost Cause myth, their desire to learn about this complex history and how a transformed Valentine Studio (the location on the museum’s campus where sculptor Edward Valentine created many Lost Cause works) can address community needs. More than 1,000 participants, representing a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds, completed the survey.

A diverse team of historians, activists, local leaders, Valentine family members and community members developed the survey. The Valentine also held focus groups to gain a deeper understanding of the variety of opinions about the Lost Cause, the role of cultural institutions in sharing this history and the potential installation of the damaged, paint-covered Jefferson Davis statue, until recently displayed on Monument Avenue, in the space. The results of the survey and the focus groups will inform and guide the project development.

Results included:

A majority of respondents stated that they would like to see the Valentine use the reinterpreted studio to explore the history of power and policies in Jim Crow Richmond, the art and artistic processes that created Lost Cause sculptures and the history of racial oppression in Richmond.

Additionally, 65% of respondents from the Richmond region agreed that museums should acquire the monuments from Monument Avenue and display them with context. For the Valentine specifically, this reinforced our request to the City of Richmond to acquire and display the graffiti-covered Jefferson Davis statue on his back as he fell.

Additionally, focus group participants, moderated by project partner Josh Epperson, felt that using the studio to explore Lost Cause history and connect it to the present would be a valuable use of the space. Focus group participants also affirmed the Valentine’s commitment to continuing its high level of community engagement, which they expected to be critical to the success of the reimagined studio.

You can find additional survey results HERE.

“Based on the survey feedback we received from our fellow Richmonders, we are confident that this is the best next step for this space and for this institution,” said Director Bill Martin. “We look forward to providing a location where Richmonders can learn about the Lost Cause, consider Richmond and the Valentine’s early role in disseminating the damaging Lost Cause myth and ultimately gain a deeper, more nuanced, more empathetic understanding of the region we call home.”

The Valentine will continue to solicit and address community questions, comments or concerns as the Studio Project develops.


About the Valentine
The Valentine has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century. Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine is a place for residents and tourists to discover the diverse stories that tell the broader history of this important region.

Richmond Story: the Gibson Girl

There’s a good chance you’re reading this right now in sweatpants. If you feel any shame in the frumpiness that has defined 2020, you’ll likely feel better after considering other eras in fashion history that were not so comfy. One punishing fashion in particular—the Gibson Girl look—has its roots in Richmond history.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, writers and culture-makers in America began to sell the idea of a “New Woman.” Post-Victorian, white, liberated, talented, educated, athletic, opinionated, politically-active, superior and stunningly beautiful, this new American woman infiltrated newspapers, magazines and advertising. She was the exact opposite of the pure and immobilized Southern Belle. She hiked, painted, played tennis, wrote serious poetry, played the violin, could hail a taxi and crack dry jokes. 

The New Woman trend did help to make real ambitious women acceptable and even fashionable in mainstream society. But what made the image so popular was not simply her superhero talents, but the fact that she could do this all effortlessly, while laced into a corset, balancing a top-heavy hairstyle and dragging a long skirt. At least the corseted, cinched-up Southern Belle wasn’t expected to climb mountains! Ironically, though she had shed bustles and hoopskirts, the liberated New Woman was still tightly bound to a very narrow visual ideal of beauty.   

Warning: there will be more ironic turns before this post is through.

Illustration from Everyday People, Charles Dana Gibson, 1904, V.72.109, The Valentine

The symbol of this ideal came to be called the Gibson Girl, named after Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator from Massachusetts who is credited with creating her image in the early 1890s. Gibson’s illustrated women were wasp-waisted, with a big, flounced hairstyle that implied a hasty solution amid a flurry of activities. She often appeared bored and superior to her suitors and her surroundings, even the mountains she scaled. And all this—from her disdain to her sporting records—the Gibson Girl doled out with absolute grace.

 In what some scholars call the first American fashion craze, real women began to model themselves on the Gibson look, which in turn became a satirical cartoon of their ambitions. The floppy hair, the bored expression, and the impossible waist dominated American fashion for decades, until World War I.  But what real woman could possibly embody all that the fictional Gibson Girl represented?  Could a woman of such beauty, talent, brains, artistry, ambition, fitness, and grace possibly exist?

In another twist of irony and fate, Charles Dana Gibson himself found one. Her name was Irene Langhorne. She was from Richmond. And he married her.

Irene Langhorne was born in 1873, in Danville. Like many families in post-war Virginia, her family struggled financially. But Irene’s father eventually struck success in the railroad industry and he moved his family to Richmond. Here, Irene received the best private education available to girls at the time.

Irene Langhorne, Late 19th Century, P.71.47.61, The Valentine

With her poise, beauty and charm, she became popular among Virginia’s illustrious social circles. Of course, she dressed and cinched herself in the popular Gibson style. Then, Irene’s fame crossed state lines. In 1893, she was invited to lead the grand march at the Patriarch’s Ball in New York City—one of the most prestigious social events in the country at the time. She was the first Southern woman to do so. A year later, in 1894, she was seated next to Charles Dana Gibson at a dinner in New York. He had already gained notoriety with his Gibson Girl illustrations and now found himself sitting next to a woman who so closely resembled his fantasy. They were married in 1895 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond.

The newly-wedded Gibsons moved to New York City, where Charles continued to draw with his wife as his main model. The woman who had fashioned herself after the style developed by her husband’s hand had now become a real life model for his future drawings. As for Irene, she dedicated herself to progressive politics—a fitting vocation for a New Woman. At first, she was simply acting out the ideal. As she admitted in late interviews, she first got into politics “for fun.” But she soon developed a true passion fighting for government aid for the underserved, especially children, and for politics. She helped to found Big Sisters, campaigned for women’s suffrage, built an orphanage, and chaired the Eastern Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee. During the first World War, she worked with the Red Cross and was appointed by New York City’s mayor to chair the Committee on Local Defense. 

By the 1920s, the Gibson Girl look had been overtaken by the flapper craze—a loose style defined by its lack of corsets. Though critics labeled it a silly party-girl fashion, it was quite plainly a style that allowed more comfortable movement through the world. But Irene Langhorne Gibson and other successful women proved that the New Woman had outgrown the male fantasy as a mere fashion trend. She and others ensured that new generations of New Women were here to stay, no matter how they dressed—even if they wore sweatpants.