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.

Richmond Story: The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

In the 19th century, theater was the primary public entertainment for all socioeconomic classes, from the gentry to the enslaved. To meet the high demand and keep fresh faces and talent in rotation, traveling theater companies roamed the country, stopping for months-long stints in cities before moving on to the next place. Thus embedded in a city for a season, the actors and actresses became temporary citizens and minor celebrities among the population. 

In August of 1811, the Placide and Green Company, from South Carolina, arrived for a season in Richmond.  Among them was an English actress named Eliza Poe. At the Richmond Theater at Broad and 12th Streets, the company performed different plays several nights a week. Wealthier Richmonders paid a dollar to sit in front of the stage, or in suspended boxes above the crowd.  Less well-to-do attendees, including the enslaved, could sit in the balcony for 25 cents. A typical night’s entertainment could last five hours, with two full-length plays separated by short skits. 

The Richmond Theater seated 500, though the December holiday season strained its capacity.  On December 26, with the General Assembly in session, the evening’s performance had drawn 600 spectators to the 3-storey brick theater.  In a town of only 10,000, that was 6% of the population. State legislators and even the Virginia Governor George W. Smith came. The second play that night was a “pantomime”—a musical slapstick production—called The Bleeding Nun. For this, 80 children were also in attendance for the performance that would quickly become the deadliest urban disaster in American history at the time.

538.01, The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on the night of the 26th December 1811, Drawn February 25, 1812, The Valentine

After the end of the first act of The Bleeding Nun, a crew member accidentally raised an onstage chandelier that had not been snuffed out.  The flames caught on 34 suspended hemp backgrounds, painted with oil. Within a few minutes, the roof of the theater was engulfed in flames.

The poorly designed theater had few exits. The discount seats in the balcony and the stage had separate doors, but those on the floor and in the boxes could find no easy way out. The fire spread so fast and became so hot so quickly that witnesses claimed people died in their seats, overcome by shock. The wealthier patrons in the upper boxes packed the only small staircase, which collapsed. Historians estimate that the temperature inside rose to 1,000 degrees.  In the chaos, trapped on the second and third storeys, burning people threw themselves out of the windows.

Despite acts of heroism by both the enslaved and the elite, rescue was utterly impossible for many of those trapped.  The entire building burned to the ground too quickly.  Seventy-two people died in the Richmond Theater that night—including 54 women and girls. 

Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved man who personally rescued 12 women from the upper windows, returned to the scene the next morning: “There lay, piled together, one mass of half-burned bodies—the bodies of all classes and conditions of people—the young and the old, the bond and the free, the rich and the poor, the great and the small, were all lying there together.”

Governor Smith was only identifiable by a stock buckle.

A stunned city went into mourning as news of the horrific disaster spread around the world.  With so many of the dead burned beyond recognition, the victims were all entombed together on the spot, over which Monumental Church was soon built as a memorial. Richmond officials prohibited any plays, balls or assemblies for four months in respect for the dead. With their contract thus cut short, the shocked, embarrasse, and traumatized Placide and Green company quickly cleared out of town.

They did, however, leave one person behind. Just a few weeks before the fire, one of company’s star players, Eliza Poe, had died of an illness in a boarding house here.  he left behind a three-year-old boy named Edgar.  A prominent local family, the Allans, adopted him and made him a wealthy Richmonder overnight. Many believed this to be a fortunate turn for the impoverished orphan, though perhaps Richmonders could never quite shake his association with so much death and destruction.  Perhaps that shadow followed him all of his life.

Richmond Story: Jewish Family Services

As we close in on the fourth night of Hanukkah, we wanted to explore the history of the Jewish faith here in Richmond and one of the premiere service organizations that grew out of this community.

When Virginia was first established as a colony, all residents were required to support the Anglican Church. But with the 1786 passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Richmond became a potential home for people of other faiths. Just four years later, by 1790, nearly 100 Jews had settled here, making Richmond the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States. Members of this community built Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, the city’s first and the nation’s sixth synagogue. In the 1830s, new Jewish immigrants from Germany and Bavaria began arriving in Richmond. They initially worshipped at Beth Shalome, but preferred to follow the Ashkenazic rite, as opposed to the Sephardic tradition. In 1841, they founded Richmond’s second Jewish congregation, Beth Ahabah—in English, “House of Love.”

V.86.96.05a, Jewish Family Services brochure, 1984, The Valentine

Congregation Beth Ahabah hired Rabbi Max Michelbacher and began to fundraise for a synagogue, which they built in 1848, at 11th and Marshall Streets. A year later, the women of the congregation founded a volunteer organization to help those Richmonders in need, regardless of religion. They called it the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association.

 The mission of the LHBA was simple: to provide help where help was needed. To accomplish this, the versatile group often shifted focus to meet the demands of the evolving city. During the Civil War, the women tended wounded soldiers, sometimes converting their own homes to hospitals. After the war, they assisted widows and orphans. Under the leadership of President Zipporah Cohen in the early-20th century, they rose to meet the material needs of the Great Depression, in addition to battling issues like alcoholism in the Roaring 20s. The organization’s range could be surprising. In the 1950s, LHBA became a formal social services agency, changed its name to Jewish Family Services (JFS), and opened an adoption center. In 1969, they founded a counselling program in the Fan neighborhood for disillusioned and homeless youth. 

 Though the JFS provided services in a largely Christian city and regardless of the faith of those in need, they did not lose sight of the plight facing Jewish communities across the globe.  As world events displaced Jews on the other side of the Atlantic—most notably in 1890 from Eastern Europe, in 1938 from Nazi Germany and 1989 from the U.S.S.R.— JFS focused its efforts toward helping refuges from those eras escape persecution and resettle in Richmond. They recruited sponsors to assist new immigrants, taught them English, found them homes and helped introduce them to a completely new culture in America.

 Jewish Family Services is still in operation today. As the American population ages, the group now offers extensive elder care services, in addition to adoption and family counselling. As Richmond history marches on, however, don’t be surprised to see this enduring organization once again rise to meet new needs in our community.

Richmond Story: the Battle of Bloody Run

With Veteran’s Day and Native American Heritage Day not far behind us, it seems proper to recognize a colonial battle that took place in Richmond 364 years ago in the Church Hill area. This conflict shed a light on the ever-evolving and increasingly complicated relationship between colonists and native peoples, which resulted in a tragic battle and a speech before the General Assembly by Pamunkey Chief Cockacoeske.

In 1656, the Westo tribe from the Lake Erie region settled at the falls of the James River. In a region already crowded with fragile and ever-changing alliances between tribes and settlers, friction began almost immediately. The General Assembly charged Colonel Edward Hill of Shirley Plantation with peacefully removing the newcomers: “they shall first endeavour to remoove the said new come Indians without makeing warr if it may be, only in a case of their own defence.” Invoking the 1646 peace treaty that ended the Third Anglo-Powhatan War, the Assembly asked 100 men from the Pamunkey tribe to assist Hill. Pamunkey Chief Totopotomy complied with the request.

V.58.61.11, Detail from Ellyson’s Map of Richmond, 1856, The Valentine

Colonel Hill flouted the General Assembly’s instructions and ordered the Pamunkey soldiers to immediately attack the Westos. The ensuing battle was so intense that witnesses claimed a nearby creek ran red. Hill ordered his colonial soldiers to retreat, completely abandoning his native allies. Nearly all the Pamunkeys were killed, including Totopotomy. Upon his death, his wife, Cockacoeske, became chief of the Pamunkeys. She never forgot the battle or the colonists’ broken promises.

The creek at the site of the conflict was renamed Bloody Run. It flows south between what is now North 30th and 31st Streets, around Chimborazo Park, before joining Gillies Creek. The ravine between Chimborazo Hill and Libby Hill marks its old path. In the 1880s, like most creeks in city limits, it was buried and eventually incorporated into Richmond’s combined sewer system.

V.79.120.1476.02, Valley of Bloody Run, Taken From Libby Terrace, October 1955, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

Twenty years later, in 1676, when the colonists asked for Pamunkey defense amid rising tensions with other tribes, she delivered a speech before the General Assembly, reminding them of their betrayal during the Battle of Bloody Run. She sent only twelve men. Just weeks later, Nathaniel Bacon declared himself a general in a new government. In rebellion against the governor, he marched his small army to the Pamunkey settlement on the Rappahannock River. There, he attacked the settlers’ closest ally among all the Virginia tribes. Pamunkey veterans who had fought alongside the colonists for thirty years found themselves yet again fighting against them.

The difference between history and lore often lies in the lack of nuance. When events are simplified, the true messiness of history can be lost. American Indian history has suffered from such reductive treatment. Two simple yet contradictory versions of colonist/native relations have long been accepted: either the groups are sharing a friendly Thanksgiving feast or they are at war with each other. In reality, as we can see above, the history is much more complicated.

Richmond Story: The Battle of Bloody Run

With Veteran’s Day and Native American Heritage Day not far behind us, it seems proper to recognize a colonial battle that took place in Richmond 364 years ago in the Church Hill area that directly involved veterans from the Pamunkey Tribe. This conflict sheds a light on the ever-evolving and increasingly complicated relationship between colonists and native peoples, which resulted in a tragic battle and a speech before the General Assembly by Pamunkey Chief Cockacoeske.

In 1656, the Westo tribe from the Lake Erie region settled at the falls of the James River. In a region already crowded with fragile and ever-changing alliances between tribes and settlers, friction began almost immediately. The General Assembly charged Colonel Edward Hill of Shirley Plantation with peacefully removing the newcomers: “they shall first endeavour to remoove the said new come Indians without makeing warr if it may be, only in a case of their own defence.” Invoking the 1646 peace treaty that ended the Third Anglo-Powhatan War, the Assembly asked 100 men from the Pamunkey tribe to assist Hill. Pamunkey Chief Totopotomy complied with the request.

Colonel Hill flouted the General Assembly’s instructions and ordered the Pamunkey soldiers to immediately attack the Westos. The ensuing battle was so intense that witnesses claimed a nearby creek ran red. Hill ordered his colonial soldiers to retreat, completely abandoning his native allies. Nearly all the Pamunkeys were killed, including Totopotomy. Upon his death, his wife, Cockacoeske, became chief of the Pamunkeys. She never forgot the battle or the colonists’ broken promises.

The creek at the site of the conflict was renamed Bloody Run. It flows south between what is now North 30th and 31st Streets, around Chimborazo Park, before joining Gillies Creek. The ravine between Chimborazo Hill and Libby Hill marks its old path. In the 1880s, like most creeks in city limits, it was buried and eventually incorporated into Richmond’s combined sewer system.

V.79.120.1476.02, Valley of Bloody Run, Taken From Libby Terrace, October 1955, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine

Twenty years later, in 1676, when the colonists asked for Pamunkey defense amid rising tensions with other tribes, she delivered a speech before the General Assembly, reminding them of their betrayal during the Battle of Bloody Run. She sent only twelve men. Just weeks later, Nathaniel Bacon declared himself a general in a new government that would forcefully deal with all Indians. In rebellion against the governor, he marched his small army to the Pamunkey settlement on the Rappahannock River. There, he attacked the settlers’ closest ally among all the Virginia tribes. Pamunkey veterans who had fought alongside the colonists for thirty years found themselves yet again fighting against them.

The difference between history and lore often lies in the lack of nuance. When events are simplified, the true messiness of history can be lost. American Indian history has suffered from such reductive treatment. Two simple yet contradictory versions of colonist/native relations have long been accepted: either the groups are sharing a friendly Thanksgiving feast or they are at war with each other. In reality, as we can see above, the history is much more complicated.

Richmond Story: Black Troops at New Market Heights

Did you know that when fleeing Confederates set fire to Richmond’s warehouse district and evacuated the capital in 1865, the U.S. Colored Troops were some of the first Union soldiers to arrive? They entered a burning Richmond and are responsible for helping to extinguish the wind-spread fires that threatened to destroy the entire city.

But as usual, there’s more to explore. Only a few days after Veterans Day, join us as we take a look at this fascinating Richmond Story.

More than 180,000 Black troops served in the Civil War—comprising 10% of the Union’s forces. In and around Richmond, Black Union soldiers distinguished themselves in battle and service. They fought for what white Americans received at birth: the right to be called Americans.

In September of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant sent Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James to attack Confederate defenses east of Richmond. If successful, the campaign would make the capture of the Confederate capital possible. Of the 20,000 Union troops under Butler’s command, 3,000 were U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).

V.45.28.287c, The Federal Army Entering Richmond, VA. April 3, 1865, Hibbs Collection, The Valentine

President Lincoln had authorized the use of Black soldiers nearly two years before. But, despite many acts of heroism in previous battles, white commanders remained skeptical of their capabilities. The Union did not grant Black troops commanding roles or commissions—as such, they could not give orders. Thus, USCT officers were always white. General Butler, however, believed that Black troops could fight just as well as whites. And he wanted to prove it, so he ordered that a USCT division lead one of the battles. On the morning of September 29, 1864, the Black troops—some of them native Virginians—charged the Confederate earthworks at New Market Heights, just eleven miles outside of Richmond. The fighting was brutal. And though the division suffered 800 casualties in just one hour, their endurance and bravery compelled them through the enemy line to victory.

Butler had been more than right. Given the opportunity to prove their patriotism, heroism and skill, the USCTs did not disappoint. In fact, several of them did take on commanding positions during the battle after their white officers had been killed. Their performance amidst the chaos of the Battle of New Market Heights impressed the Union superior officers, who awarded fourteen Medals of Honor to the USCTs. Among the recipients were these native Virginians:

  • First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty, born in Richmond, who “Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”
  • Private James Gardiner, from Gloucester, who “Rushed in advance of his brigade, shot a rebel officer who was on the parapet rallying his men, and then ran him through with his bayonet.”
  • Corporal Miles James, from the Virginia Beach area, who “Having had his arm mutilated, making immediate amputation necessary, he loaded and discharged his piece with one hand and urged his men forward; this within 30 yards of the enemy’s works.”
  • Private Charles Veal, from Portsmouth, who “Seized the national colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down close to the enemy’s works, and bore them through the remainder of the battle.”
  • 1st Sergeant Edward Ratcliff, from Yorktown, who “Commanded and gallantly led his company after the commanding officer had been killed; was the first enlisted man to enter the enemy’s works.”

V.86.153.745, Fort Harrison, Circa 1955, Richmond Chamber of Commerce Collection, The Valentine

Only sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded to Black troops during the entirety of the Civil War. Of those sixteen, fourteen of those medals were awarded to the USCTs at New Market Heights.

The Black troops who so bravely fought to penetrate Richmond’s defenses were subsequently garrisoned at nearby Fort Harrison, also captured during Butler’s campaign. The fort, now a unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park, lay just eight miles from Richmond.

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 they 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 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.

Tenth Season of Controversy/History Returns to Address 2020’s Impact

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 23, 2020

Contact:
Eric Steigleder
Director of Communications
esteigleder@thevalentine.org

Tenth Season of Controversy/History Returns to Address 2020’s Impact

RICHMOND – The Valentine’s popular conversation series will return virtually on Tuesday, October 6, co-hosted by Valentine Director Bill Martin and Coffee with Strangers host Kelli Lemon. The free, five-event series will focus on the evolving impacts of 2020, a year full of unexpected challenges and uncomfortable conversations, all amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic and massive social change.

“The Richmond community that entered 2020 is not the same community we find ourselves a part of today,” Valentine Director Martin said. “2020 has truly been a year of historic change, and it only makes sense to use our conversation series Controversy/History to examine those changes, how they have impacted the people of the Richmond Region and what we can do as a community to move forward together.”

Each virtual event will include an exciting lineup of guest speakers discussing contemporary issues and how 2020 has either upended or reinforced Richmond’s history, followed by questions from the audience and action steps for those inspired to get involved.

Here is a complete list of dates and topics:

October 6, 2020, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
2020 and Voting

November 3, 2020, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
2020 and Mental Health

December 1, 2020, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
2020 and Business

January 5, 2021, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
2021 and Education

February 2, 2021, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
2021 and Activism

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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. https://thevalentine.org/