The Valentine Launches Walking Tours Throughout Richmond

April 12, 2022

Meredith Mason, APR
Director of Public Relations & Marketing

The Valentine Launches Walking Tours Throughout Richmond

RICHMOND – This weekend, The Valentine will begin its 2022 walking tour season, which explores neighborhoods and historic sites across Richmond. Each tour reveals little-known stories throughout history that shaped Richmond today. In addition to offering popular traditional tours and the groundbreaking augmented reality tour of Monument Avenue which first launched last summer, The Valentine will debut several new experiences.

The inaugural tour will begin at The Valentine on Saturday, April 16 at 10:00 a.m., with a complimentary breakfast served at 9:00 a.m. The tour will explore the museum’s own historic Court End neighborhood. One of the oldest Richmond neighborhoods, Court End is full of diverse stories of early Richmonders and surviving architectural gems nestled among the ever-evolving city center.

Tours are scheduled for Saturdays, Sundays and Thursdays between April 16 and October 29. The walking tours offered this year include:

  • Origin Stories: Court End
  • Murals of Jackson Ward
  • Highlights of Hollywood Cemetery
  • History of Church Hill
  • Figures of Freedom (Shockoe Bottom & Downtown)
  • Monument Avenue: Origins and Reverberations Augmented Reality
  • Ballot Battle: Richmond Suffrage (Downtown)
  • Barton Heights: Northside
  • Shockoe Hill Cemetery

Valentine Members also receive access to Director’s Tours of Church Hill, Shockoe Hill Cemetery and Northside led by Director Bill Martin.

“We’re telling some fascinating and meaningful stories that most Richmonders haven’t heard before,” said Martin. “It’s important to us to tell these stories in the places they happened. This year, we expanded our tours to include Barton Heights and Shockoe Hill Cemetery – two historically significant sites that have not seen the love and recognition they deserve.”

The full tour schedule can be found at Tours are $20 for adults, $10 for Valentine Members and free for children under 18. Private groups and self-guided tours are also available through The Valentine’s website.


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.

2022 Richmond History Makers Announced

February 9, 2022

Meredith Mason, APR
Director of Public Relations & Marketing

2022 Richmond History Makers Announced

Today, The Valentine and the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond announced the 2022 Richmond History Makers honorees. This year marks the 17th annual Richmond History Makers & Community Update, where trailblazers from the Richmond community are recognized in six different categories.

The public is invited to watch the livestream of the Richmond History Makers celebration, sponsored by Dominion Energy, on Tuesday, March 8 from 5:00 – 6:00 p.m.  Registration is required.

“Each year, we’re proud to celebrate Richmonders who give so much to our community, but this year is exceptional, as all our honorees made significant contributions during a difficult time,” said Bill Martin, director of The Valentine. “The pandemic and the ongoing movement for racial justice have exposed critical issues in the Richmond area, and this resolute group of people decided to help their neighbors rather than be crushed by the challenges facing our society. They are worth celebrating for improving people’s lives and creating a stronger Richmond for generations to come.”

The 2022 honorees are:

Advancing Our Quality of Life (two honorees):
JXN Project
Francis Thompson – Art Program Manager, JLL and Community Volunteer

Championing Social Justice:
Sheba Williams – Founder and Executive Director, Nolef Turns and Community Volunteer

Creating Quality Educational Opportunities:
Jocelyn Marencik – Founder and Project Manager, Got Tec Richmond

Demonstrating Innovative Economic Solutions:
Innovate Fulton, Inc.

Improving Regional Transportation:
Senior Connections

Promoting Community Health:
Rudene Haynes – Co-Founder, “Facts and Faith Fridays”

More information on Richmond History Makers is available here:

Past Richmond History Makers honorees are available here:


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.


The Valentine Begins Renovations, Will Remain Open

February 4, 2022

Meredith Mason, APR
Director of Public Relations & Marketing

The Valentine Begins Renovations, Will Remain Open

RICHMOND – This month, the Valentine will begin to pack and move most of its archives and objects not on display to allow for construction to start later this year on new collection storage, staff workrooms and access spaces within the museum. Throughout the renovation process, the Valentine will remain open, including tours, exhibitions, gift shop, facility rentals and ongoing events and programs.

The move is part of the Valentine Moment Campaign, a multi-year effort to strengthen the museum’s understanding and presentation of Richmond’s significant history through renewed investment in the care of the museum’s significant assets. The project will impact researcher access to the Valentine’s collection.

The Valentine Moment Campaign is a strategic plan to review the more than one million objects acquired over the museum’s 123-year history and to remove those materials unrelated to the Valentine’s mission. The remaining objects will be housed in updated storage within the museum building, with improved staff work spaces and reading room for public research. The goal of this $16-million campaign is to ensure that every Richmonder can find themselves in the Valentine’s collection, exhibitions and programs. With dramatically refined holdings, the Valentine will be able to actively fill collecting gaps and tell a more inclusive narrative about our community.

“No other city is better equipped than Richmond to explore the complex stories of marginalized communities that are too often ignored or misrepresented,” said Bill Martin, director of the Valentine. “We hope this ambitious campaign will be a model for other institutions and better serve our beloved Richmond by being honest about our complicated racial history. Our team is committed to a bold, innovative approach to our work that reflects the diversity of the community.”

Collections access by museum staff on behalf of researchers will be significantly limited beginning February 28. Researchers should expect periods of time when only existing digital copies of materials or limited parts of the museum’s stored archival collection will be accessible. The museum’s stored objects will be completely inaccessible for the duration of the multi-year renovation. To ensure comprehensive access to the collection, research requests should be submitted before February 28 to In-person, onsite research appointments will continue to be suspended until after the renovation is complete.


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.

The Valentine Museum and Reclaiming the Monument Receive Historic Grant

December 29, 2021

Bill Martin
Director of the Valentine

The Valentine Museum and Reclaiming the Monument Receive Historic Grant

RICHMOND – The Valentine Museum and Reclaiming the Monument are the recipients of a $670,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Monuments Project. The Monuments Project is an unprecedented $250 million commitment by the Mellon Foundation to transform the nation’s commemorative landscape by supporting public projects that more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories.

The Valentine has collaborated with Reclaiming the Monument founders and artists Dustin Klein (Technical Director) and Alex Criqui (Creative Director) to support the “Recontextualizing Richmond” public art project. This project, which will take place in 2022, will focus on the creation of a series of temporary light-based artworks addressing issues of historical, racial, and social justice in Richmond, Virginia and the surrounding capital region.

“The Richmond story is America’s story. This project will bring new stories to light and encourage us to take a fresh look at our City’s history,” said Bill Martin, Director of the Valentine Museum. “We are excited to support the work of Reclaiming the Monument over the coming year. Richmond’s history has national significance and this grant from the Mellon Foundation recognizes the important opportunity we have to elevate it.”

Both organizations look forward to bringing visuals, conversations, and dialogue to the Richmond community, using primary source materials from the Valentine’s collection and other historical resources. For the Valentine, this is a unique opportunity to gather community feedback and support future projects at the museum.

The light installations, are intended to raise awareness about the neglected histories in our community as it continues to grapple with the complicated legacies of our past and how its telling has been used to shape and influence our present and future.

The collaborative nature of the project will create greater dialogue between grassroots organizations, artists, historical institutions, and the general public that will lay a foundation for how public art involving historical memory can be created in a way which is inclusive and community driven.

“It is our hope that by providing an opportunity for our community to engage with a more complete telling of our history through the power of public art that we will be able to help our city heal and move towards a future rooted in peace, justice, and equality,” said Alex Criqui, Creative Director for Reclaiming the Monument.

Recontextualizing Richmond will also produce educational resources that will be accessible to educators and students.

Additional information and details related to Reclaiming the Monument installations will be made available in early 2022. The Valentine and Reclaiming the Monument are committed to ensuring a safe and engaging event series for the Richmond community.


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.

Reclaiming the Monument is a Richmond, Virginia based grassroots public art project founded by artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui. Their work arose out of the city of Richmond’s racial justice movement in the summer of 2020 by taking a key role in community efforts to recontextualize and address the city’s long standing Confederate monuments through works of light based collaborative protest art. Reclaiming the Monument’s work has been widely featured in media and publications around the globe, notably appearing on the cover of National Geographic’s first ever “Year in Pictures” issue, and being called one of the “Most Influential Works of American Protest Art Since World War II” by the New York Times.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.

Richmond Story: Bingo!

Patients at the Virginia Home Play Bingo, July 9, 1968, FIC.033234, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine. Photo: H. Lee Gupton.

With the defeat of a new Richmond casino at the ballot box, a look at gambling’s recent history here seems pertinent. For much of the 20th century, Virginia has had some of the strictest anti-gambling laws in the country. A long tradition of horse racing and dice and card-playing among the state’s illustrious white citizens had destroyed the wealth of a number of colonial families, including that of William Byrd III, son of our city’s founder. A notorious gambler, Byrd sold off his vast estate in 1767 and still could not cover his gambling debts, which he had racked up by the age of 30.

By the 1890s, gambling was deemed so detrimental to all classes of society that the General Assembly could no longer countenance it, no matter how traditional. They banned race track betting in 1894, then tightened the law just a year later. Over the next several decades, with support from Protestant churches, our state government essentially banned all forms of gambling. It was not until 1973 that our legislators decided to loosen restrictions. They did so narrowly, allowing only certified non-profits to host Bingo games. The logic behind the new law was that if Virginians were going to gamble, the profits could at least go to good causes.

Bingo was hugely popular in the United States in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression. Movie houses and fairs held jackpot games, while families began to play non-gambling versions of the game at home. The basic premise gave each player a large card, gridded with numbers. A non-player then drew numbers randomly from a hat, or even a fancy lotto ball machine. If that number appeared on a player’s card, they covered that number with a chip. A player won—calling Bingo!—when they achieved a row of five straight chips. Other versions of the game also rewarded other configurations, like chipping all four corners. The appeal of the game was its simplicity. It could be played by all ages, in very large crowds. The crowd-friendly game also created big jackpots for little pay-in.

According to the 1973 law, only federally recognized non-profits could run a game, with volunteers who were members of the non-profit. The price of cards and jackpot amounts were capped, as well as player age and profit percentages. Soon, churches, synagogues, civic organizations, and athletic clubs had set up tables in their basements and multi-purpose rooms to host Bingo. The public came in droves. The average Bingo player in 1975 lost $10 per night. Smaller games presented a larger chance of winning smaller jackpots, but a large game could pay out as much as $1500.

By 1977, Richmonders were spending over $1 million a year on Bingo. The game had grown so huge that the original law, which charged local governments with enforcement, failed to address a large number of problems. City and county governments scrambled to regulate Bingo. Richmond City Council unanimously passed a 6% admission tax—the same charged at movie theaters—in order to fund regulation in the city. Charities were required to file annual reports of their profits and payouts with auditors. Then a special commission was appointed to investigate complaints and enforce building, fire, and safety codes at the packed Bingo halls.

The metro Richmond area saw 150 organized Bingo games every week in 1978. That year, non-profits raised around $6 million with Bingo proceeds alone. The largest Bingo game in town was the annual Cystic Fibrosis fundraiser, which filled the Richmond Arena with 1700 players, who raised $32,000 for the cause. In fact, Bingo had grown so huge in the Richmond area in just five years that these non-profits did not have space for the growing crowds of players. The groups tried to buy new buildings or build larger annexes. But the law stipulated that Bingo proceeds could only be used for charitable expenses. Virginia’s attorney general was forced to clarify that non-profits could not buy real estate with their Bingo profits. So, the groups began to rent space for their Bingo games.

For-rent Bingo halls began to pop up all over Richmond. Places like “Crazy Jack’s” on Parham Road provided space and all the (sometimes expensive) equipment for a large Bingo game. But with expansion into the rental market came abuses. Some groups paid more in rent than in charitable activities. In 1979, the General Assembly passed more laws regulating Bingo, requiring fair-market rents and limiting buildings to 2 games a week. The rental halls were prohibited from keeping a percentage of Bingo profits.

By the early 1980s, Temple Beth-El, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, the Civitan Club, St. Paul’s School, the Christian Workers Council, the Tuckahoe Moose, the Ginter Park Junior Women’s Club, the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League, the Richmond Speleological Society, the Jewish Community Center, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church all hosted Bingo games. Across the state, civic clubs, animal shelters, fire department, little leagues, and school districts all used on Bingo profits to keep their organizations running. Generally, for $2 a player received three cards at a Bingo game. They could also buy Instant Bingo cards, much like scratch tickets, for 25 cents each. The low stakes made the game seem less like gambling and more like fundraising—until players began to buy and play 30 cards at once!

Proponents of non-profit gaming argued that it was much more lucrative than selling candy and magazines door to door, or outright begging for funds. Fire stations and schools could raise money for new equipment without draining tax coffers. And, unlike casino gambling, someone in the crowd always wins at Bingo. Despite the long odds of winning, this is true. Richmond non-profits only profited 25-40% in any given game, with the majority of cash going to the jackpot, and the winner. Also, unlike casino gambling, there’s no way for the house to cheat. Everyone watches the caller pull the numbers. Of course, that does not mean that the players did not cheat. They certainly did, by removing numbers from their cards or stamping them over with new numbers.

Like more traditional gambling, Richmonders played Bingo for many reasons. Some treated it like simple entertainment or charitable giving, while others played for income. Elderly people played to get out of the house and socialize. Others, inevitably, played because they’d become addicted. The slightest hiccup in a game could bring out the worst in a Bingo crowd. A snowstorm cancellation or a botched call often led to unruly confrontations. Security guards patrolled many Bingo halls to keep the peace. In 1976, three years after non-profit Bingo became the first legal form of gambling in the state, Gamblers Anonymous sought to open a chapter in Richmond—the first in the state.

Non-profit Bingo is still big in Richmond, though it is waning now that Virginia allows two other forms of gambling. The Virginia State Lottery was sanctioned in 1988. Horse track betting became legal in 1989. For some, charitable Bingo has seemed like a near-perfect solution to fundraising. But as profits exploded, charities spent a lot of those profits on expanding their Bingo operations. Local and state lawmakers tried to find a balance. In 1994, Henrico County banned Instant Bingo cards. But state caps on winnings were eventually raised, as well as the cap on the number of games allowed per week. The flow of more money inevitably attracted criminal activity. In Henrico County, a man nicknamed “The Bingo King” skimmed $700,000 from local charities in the 1990s. In 1996, due to rampant abuse like this, the state appointed a commission to regulate Bingo.

The percentage of profits required to be spent on charitable activities was also lowered to just 10%. But into the 21st century, many charities struggled still to meet those requirements. Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent local “softball mom” was corrupted by Bingo games meant to raise money for her child’s team. Critics of Bingo also pointed out the irony of charities helping poor residents with 10% of the profits gleaned from the poor Bingo players in their basements.

Anti-gambling arguments carry paternalistic overtones, especially when the majority of gamblers are from low-income homes. As a Times-Dispatch reporter noted while covering Bingo games in 1975, the majority of the players were Black women of little economic means. But, if we look at what was happening in the Black community at the time, the “personal choice” angle gets complicated. In 1973, when Bingo was legalized, the destruction of the Fulton neighborhood was well underway. There, 850 homes, churches, and businesses were razed in the name of “urban renewal.” The overwhelming majority of those properties were Black-owned. The same is true of the several square blocks downtown that were cleared to make way for the Coliseum in 1971. In 1975, 700 houses in Randolph, Sydney, and Oregon Hill were being razed as well to make way for the Downtown Expressway. Again, the destruction disproportionately targeted Black homes and businesses. It is hard to imagine that while this willful destruction of Black wealth and opportunity perfectly coincided with the rise of Bingo, not a few players were simply desperate and trapped in an impossible situation. It’s not hard to imagine that the thousands of displaced Black residents found that personal choice had little to do with their circumstances, or felt better that the money they lost was going to a “good cause.” With both the law and public opinion intent on the destruction of these Black communities, many Bingo players no doubt felt that the only resource still available to them was a bit of luck.

Valentine Museum Hosts Events Exploring Richmond’s Voices and Values


November 1, 2021 


Cory Schutter 

Public Relations & Marketing Assistant 

Valentine Museum Hosts Events Exploring Richmond’s Voices and Values

RICHMOND, VA — Join the Valentine Museum for two free events that delve into the voices and values represented in Richmond’s public artworks. On Thursday, November 11, from 6–8 p.m., the Valentine will host a virtual panel discussion highlighting the community’s artistic responses to the social justice protests and monument removals of 2020. On Saturday, November 13, from 1–3 p.m., the Valentine will open the Edward Valentine Sculpture Studio for the first time since March 2020 and ask for feedback on the museum’s process to reinterpret the Studio of Richmond’s Lost Cause artist Edward Valentine.  

“Insights from the public are critical to ensuring that the future exhibit and programming represents the voices and values of the Richmond community,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin. 

The virtual panel on Thursday, November 11 is free and open to the public; however, registration is required. Attendees are encouraged to share their perspectives about how Richmond’s public art and monuments represent our community values. Panelists include: 

  • Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, producers of “How The Monuments Came Down”  
  • Free Egunfemi Bangura, founder of Untold RVA and co-organizer of the George Floyd Memorial Hologram Project 
  • Alex Criqui and Dustin Klein, light-based installation artists of Reclaiming the Monument 
  • Sesha Moon of the JXN Project and coordinator of Illuminating Legacies 
  • Nigel Richardson with the Afrikana Independent Film Festival and coordinator for Her Flowers 
  • Sam Schwartzkopf with the City of Richmond and coordinator of the Freedom Constellation banners now mounted on City Hall.  

On Saturday, November 13, the Valentine will open the studio of Edward Valentine, creator of the Jefferson Davis statue that was pulled down from Monument Avenue last year. The Studio has been closed to the public since March 2020 and is being opened to the public for this event only. Guests may drop in during the event and provide feedback on the themes and ideas that are being considered for inclusion in the final redesign of the space. Responses will inform the initial concept designs for the new exhibition, which is slated to open in 2023. Light refreshments will be provided.  Parking is available at the Valentine and nearby. 

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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 History Makers & Community Update Opens Nominations for the 17th Year


October 12, 2021 


Cory Schutter 

Public Relations & Marketing Assistant 

Richmond History Makers & Community Update Opens Nominations for the 17th Year 

RICHMOND — Nominations are now open for the 2022 Richmond History Makers & Community Update. The program honors individuals and organizations making substantive and lasting contributions to the Greater Richmond region. 

This year, The Valentine will partner with the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond to highlight the work of six honorees and provide an update on the projects and programs making a difference across the region. The six honorees will be recognized at community celebrations on March 8, 2022. 

“The Community Foundation is grateful to have this opportunity to recognize the changemakers in our region,” said Scott Blackwell, Chief Community Engagement Officer with the Community Foundation. “This program shines a light on the best of the best – leaders who collaborate, who consider the needs of our neighborhoods and who place social and economic equity at the forefront of what they do.” 

Richmond History Makers is in its 17th year of recognizing local trailblazers. Long-time supporters Dominion Energy and Leadership Metro Richmond are returning as the title sponsor and collaborating partner, respectively. 

Nominations for the 2022 Richmond History Makers & Community Update will be accepted through October 29, 2021. To learn more about the program, view past honorees and to nominate a Richmond history maker in your community, visit  

Additional information and details of the celebration on March 8 will be available in early 2022. The Valentine is committed to ensuring a safe and engaging event for our honorees, guests and the public. 


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. 

About the Community Foundation 

The Community Foundation is a leading partner and advocate for philanthropy and service in the Richmond region. Founded in 1968, the Community Foundation has built a strong legacy of helping people and institutions give back with passion and purpose. 

About Leadership Metro Richmond 

Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR) is the region’s community leadership development and engagement organization. Over 2,000 diverse leaders have participated in LMR’s 10-month leadership development program, Leadership Quest. LMR provides leaders with an environment for high-performing conversations, broadens their knowledge and perspectives about the region, and inspires them to serve first then lead. 


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Controversy/History Series

Richmond Story: Camp Merriewood-Harrison

Many local organizations provided camp experiences to Richmond children over the decades, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA and YWCA, Weinstein Jewish Community Center, among others. This post focuses on a brief history of one specific local children’s camp – Camp Merriewood-Harrison.


As summer winds down and families fill parks for respite amidst the latest COVID surge, let’s be thankful for both the availability of vaccines and greenspace to keep us safe and sane in these trying times.  Fresh air has long been a reliable remedy for what ails us.  

For more than two centuries – before zoning, sewage treatment, widespread vaccines, water treatment, pollution regulation, and building codes – Richmond’s residents had suffered routine disease outbreaks.  From typhoid to polio, our crowded, dirty, and unregulated urban center was a hotbed of health risks, especially for children.  One of the biggest threats to Richmond children from the 18th to the early 20th century was tuberculosis.

Tenement in Richmond, 1907, V.81.99.04, Richmond Health Department Typhoid Photograph Collection, The Valentine

Tenement in Richmond, 1907, V.81.99.04, Richmond Health Department Typhoid Photograph Collection, The Valentine

In the 19th century, tuberculosis was responsible for approximately 25% of deaths in this country, and in Europe. Before the vaccine, the best defense against “the white plague” was a healthy constitution and fresh air, in short supply for many impoverished Richmond children. In response, the Richmond Tuberculosis Association and the Instructive Visiting Nurse Association opened a summer camp in 1925, for white, at-risk city children.  The camp inhabited 15 acres in Chesterfield County and was completely supported by donations.  Initially called the Merriewood-Harrison Nutrition Camp, the camp accepted children singled out by school nurses and welfare agencies as being particularly vulnerable for tuberculosis infection.  Local churches, women’s clubs, and civic groups would then financially sponsor the children chosen to attend. In the camp’s first summer, 80 boys and girls spent a few weeks under a strict regimen of meals, naps, weigh-ins, and outdoor play.  Each child slept in an open-sided pavilion, consumed two quarts of milk per day, and generally had a fantastic time in the woods.  Many had only ever played in Richmond alleys and streets.  After their first summer, the camp nurses reported an average weight gain of nine and a half pounds per child.  After a child returned home, the camp provided in-home health education and monitoring for at least one year.

The introduction of the first tuberculosis vaccine in the late 1920s did not immediately diminish the threat of the disease.  Poverty, vaccine hesitancy, lack of access, limited efficacy, and asymptomatic infections kept the disease an ongoing problem in the United States for decades.  By the summer of 1948, Camp Merriewood-Harrison was still busy attending to 180 at-risk children, chosen from more than 300 applicants.  The three separate groups of 60 children, who stayed for four weeks at a time, now had a swimming pool.

Camp Merriewood-Harrison Fundraising Flyer 1962 X.2021.02.151 The Valentine

Camp Merriewood-Harrison Fundraising Flyer, 1962, X.2021.02.151, The Valentine

Into the 1950s, the threat of tuberculosis began to wane and prompted a shift in the camp’s mission from tuberculosis, which was associated with poverty, to general health and supervision for poor, urban—and still white—children.  As divorce rates climbed in the 1960s, the camp also focused their efforts on children from “broken homes.” Diet and health remained important, but the mental and physical benefits of outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, archery, camping, and swimming moved to the forefront.  One 1964 camp employee claimed to have worked with children who had never before seen a tree, which is most likely an exaggeration but not too far off from the truth.

Camp Merriewood-Harrison closed in the late 1960s without a clear reason for the decision.  Fundraising had always been an uphill battle, and even more so without a specific deadly disease to combat.  Also, at that time, with the crumbling of segregation, many institutions quietly closed rather than integrate.  No matter the reason for the closure, the lessons of the camp remained with Richmonders who believed in the power of nature to heal, both physically and mentally.  Around the time Merriewood-Harrison closed, the Kiwanis (a former sponsor of the camp) opened its own outdoor summer camp for disadvantaged youth, Camp Kiwanis. Keeping with contemporary social movements at the time, Camp Kiwanis was integrated and allowed for social interaction among children who may not otherwise cross paths.

Camp Merriewood-Harrison advocated a regimen of fresh air, good nutrition, and meaningful play to combat a debilitating infectious bacterial disease plaguing Richmond’s youth. Camp Kiwanis, on the other hand, activated nature’s most dynamic superpower – creating community to confront Richmond’s untreated social ills.

Richmond and the Olympic Torch, 1996

As the Summer Games kick off in Tokyo, let’s turn our attention to Richmond’s own Olympic history. Are you surprised that Richmond has an Olympic history? It does! In 1996, the Olympic torch passed through and even spent the night here, on its way to Atlanta. If that doesn’t seem very noteworthy, let us illuminate the significance of the event.

First, the choice of Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games was controversial. To be blunt, many considered Atlanta to be a second-tier city unworthy of the prestigious event. Compounding that, Atlanta (like other southern cities) had not overcome its reputation as an epicenter for injustice: slavery, followed by segregation, followed by racial violence during the Civil Rights Movement. That long history, which included the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War, was hard for many Americans to forget. For detractors, Atlanta did not represent the “American ideals” that should be presented to the world. For supporters of the Atlanta Games, however, the Olympics offered the perfect opportunity to showcase a new and reformed American South, which they believe had overcome this painful history. No doubt, this historic rehabilitation was on the minds of many Southerners, not just Georgians. So when the Olympic torch arrived in Richmond on June 21, 1996, citizens rallied in support, enthusiasm, and optimism.

The “Mother Torch” had left Athens, Greece, on April 27, aboard a Delta flight to Los Angeles. They were granted special permission for the airborne flame, which burned inside a brass lantern, inside a bronze canister, while affixed to the wall of the plane. From Los Angeles, the Olympic flame began its 15,000-mile, 84-day journey to Atlanta. The fire was carried by hand by 10,000 torch bearers, who made their individual half-mile journeys to light the next torch in line.  Some walked, some ran, others rode bikes or wheelchairs or motorcycles. Every night, the Mother Flame stayed in a hotel room with two police officers: one slept, while the other kept watch to make sure the flame never went out.

The actual torches—17,700 of them—weighed three pounds and were outfitted with dual burners that could withstand rain and 45mph winds. The lit torches were further protected by a motorcade of Georgia State Troopers, Olympic Committee vehicles, and many sponsor cars, including a fleet of Coca-Cola trucks and trailers, stocked to sell to thirsty spectators along the epic journey across the country. This was, after all, the first Olympics to rely almost exclusively on corporate sponsors. The Georgia State Troopers rode in $33,000 BMWs that were painted like the $18,000 Crown Victorias they normally drove.

The torch entered Richmond via Monument Avenue on the night of June 21. Around 9:45pm, it passed one of the major symbols of our “reformed” southern city: the Arthur Ashe, Jr. Monument, which was to be unveiled in just a couple weeks.

In all, 24 locals moved the torch through Richmond. Thousands lined the dark streets to watch the procession. At 10:30pm, Judy Henry, a cancer survivor and mother of five relayed the torch to Tredegar, where approximately 15,000 spectators cheered her on as she lit the cauldron and kicked off a gala. Among the flags of 100 nations, live music, food carts and living gold-painted statues, the party went on late into the night and turned out to be much larger than anyone expected.

The Torch Is Coming! The Torch Is Coming!, 1996 Handbill, V.96.75.01, The Valentine.

Newspaper accounts and interviews about the Olympic event here alluded to optimism, unity and joy. Kids freely confessed to reporters that they had skipped school to follow the torch, others that they had skipped work. Clearly, Richmonders glimpsed hope in the Olympic torch’s brief stay here. But by 10am the next morning, it had moved on to Petersburg.

On July 19, the flame arrived in Atlanta. There, Muhammad Ali received the final torch and lit the cauldron to open the 1996 Summer Games. Thus, the city devastated by fire in 1864 hoped for rebirth through a different kind of fire. The Reformed South was now in full public view. And Ali, near the end of the games, was given a replacement gold medal for the boxing gold he had won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Decades earlier, Ali claimed to have thrown his original medal in the Ohio River, after being refused service at a Louisville restaurant. Though some doubted the story, the medal had definitely been lost and it seemed fitting for him to reclaim his lost gold in the Reformed South.

But now we need to backtrack back to Richmond, to the glorious few hours when the Olympic torch illuminated our streets and so many felt inspired. This would be a poor history indeed if we stuck to the pre-approved parade route down Monument Avenue. Because in 1996, when the torch came through, Richmond was in a terrible state. Not since the Civil War had our city been so devastated. For twenty years, the population had been plummeting, mainly due to white flight in response to desegregation and busing. By 1990, Richmond had lost over 50,000 residents. It is likely that the majority of those 15,000 spectators who welcomed the Olympic flame at Tredegar did not live in Richmond at all.

As tax dollars, jobs, businesses and middle-class families fled to the suburbs, the city’s population then dwindled even more, for the loss of these things. Decades of racist housing policies added fuel to the fire. It was a death spiral of factors that mostly left only those who could not leave: mainly poor Black Richmonders, with little public support and even fewer opportunities to help themselves in the empty city. The poverty and desperation became the substrate from which a crack epidemic exploded. The homicide rate reached triple digits in 1988. In 1994, 160 people were murdered here. The crack epidemic ravaged our neighborhoods and though it bore a striking resemblance to today’s opioid epidemic, there were two main differences: the victims of crack were largely Black; and the crisis was considered one of crime, not public health. With that, there was little help for addiction, mostly just jail. The desperation and criminality created its own death spiral, and it was not uncommon to hear automatic gunfire on the residential streets of Church Hill.

“Blacks Mobilizing Against Crime” on Venable Street, November 18, 1989, Don Pennell, V.91.04.700, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine.

So that is the city through which the Olympic torch passed in the summer of 1996. People no doubt felt afraid as they crowded along Richmond streets at night to see the historic flame, as they walked back to their cars late after the gala ended. When they spoke vaguely of “bad news” and “recent events,” they were actually speaking of the rampant crime. Despite the belief of many in a Reformed South and despite hopes that the Atlanta games might spark that belief into reality, Richmond’s problems were still very much rooted in racial injustice and would only get worse. The next year, 1997, Richmond would have the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Clearly, the problem could not be solved with mere symbolism—not a torch or a monument. And though meaningful progress has come, and the idea of a Reformed Richmond does seem more tangible today, there is still so much more to do. That lesson on the limits of symbolism still applies.