Richmond’s Women Mayors

With the current widespread Coronavirus upheaval, editorials have begun to note the efficient government responses and low casualty rates in countries run by women. Is it cause or coincidence? What would our local, national and global realities look like right now if women ran things? What would Richmond be like under a woman with executive power? As usual, history is a useful place to turn to explore these questions.

Virginia has never elected a woman governor or sent a woman to the Senate. The city of Richmond, however, has had two women mayors.

Delegate Eleanor P. Sheppard (1968-1977) working at desk on her last day in the Virginia House of Delegates in the Virginia State Capitol, March 5, 1977, V.85.37.2417, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

The first, Eleanor Parker Sheppard, held the office from 1962 to 1964. As the first woman on city council as well—elected in 1954—she transitioned into the mayoral role with confidence. As the city dealt with desegregation, Sheppard pursued a bold, progressive agenda of public works. She sought to expand healthcare and children’s services while also helping to bulldoze the way for I-95. But public works do not always work for everyone. An advocate of “urban renewal,” Sheppard supported the demolition of the Fulton neighborhood, which permanently displaced many Black Richmonders. Sheppard was popular and not long after her term as mayor expired, she moved on to a decade-long career in the House of Delegates.

Richmond Mayor Geline B. Williams with recent Haverford College graduate Kyle Danish, August 5, 1988, Lindy Keast Rodman, V.91.04.894, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

Richmond’s second woman mayor served from 1988 to 1990. Geline B. Williams also took office during heightened racial tensions. But her priorities and approach proved to be very different from Sheppard’s. A conservative, Williams had represented the overwhelmingly white First District as a City Council member. Many believed that the recent annexation of Chesterfield (in Williams’ district) was a bald attempt to drown out the voting power of Richmond’s Black residents. Tensions increased when Williams became the first white mayor since 1977. Critics and Black council members argued that political power in a predominantly black city had been handed back to white suburbanites. City Council meetings turned ugly. Amidst all the controversy, Williams served quietly. Her mere victory turned out to be her most controversial action. Critics accused her of being an invisible mayor, while her supporters called her gentle. Her political goals tended toward traffic safety, leaf collection, lowering taxes and maintaining a tight budget. She retired from political life shortly after her term was up.

The political legacies of these two women, as complicated as they are, actually do very little to reveal what executive power wielded by a woman looks like in Richmond. That’s because both Sheppard and Williams served as mayor at a time—between 1948 and 2004—when Richmond adopted a Council-Manager government.  In that system, City Council and their appointed City Manager held executive authority and Council also appointed the mayor. That meant that the position of mayor was largely ceremonial. In fact, both women arguably held more power as council members.

It seems that for a variety of reasons, history has not given us the inspiring lesson we had hoped for. But here at the Valentine, we believe it is our role to use the past to inform the present and shape the future. And this fuller, more nuanced history of women serving as Richmond’s Mayor can perhaps help to inform and enliven the next generation of leaders across the city.

The Covenanters

In the midst of the pandemic in the absence of school, Richmond parents are struggling to both educate and entertain their children. While this problem may feel new, at one point in Richmond’s history, a vast, structureless day was common.

The first free public school opened here in 1870. But attendance was far from mandatory. And for many children who worked in factories to help support their families, cost was far from the main obstacle to education. Until the early 20th century, many Richmond children lucky enough to escape factory work spent much of their days outside and on their own. This was especially true of boys, who enjoyed more freedom than girls. With little oversight, it was not uncommon for many of these children to trespass, steal, throw rocks and terrorize animals.

Roving boys even formed gangs that warred with each other. In response, a local woman named Katherine Hawes founded a group in 1896 to harness all of this energy for the common good. After meeting with the founder of the Boy Scouts in England, she decided to bring the principles of that organization to America. The Covenanters Movement, as it came to be called, was the first of its kind in this country. Hawes organized the group through the Second Presbyterian Church here in Richmond.

Covenanter parading during J.E.B. Stuart monument unveiling, May 30, 1907, Bolling, Storrs, Grant Photograph Collection. PHC0005/V.82.32.03. The Valentine

Semi-military, semi-artistic, semi-community service oriented, the Covenanters drilled, marched and went camping. They learned wood-carving, leatherwork and took music lessons. With an orchestra and a fife and drum corps, they gave concerts and marched in parades. They also engaged in community service projects, like distributing holiday baskets to the poor. Their headquarters, at 6th and Main Streets, featured a library and bowling alley.

Undeniably successful and popular, the Covenanters movement spread far beyond Richmond. The Second Presbyterian Church established 119 companies as far south as Brazil. However, the group was obviously limited to cities and towns with a Second Presbyterian Church. So when the Boy Scouts came to America in 1916, the Covenanters were quickly overshadowed and outnumbered.

Moral Quarantine

The act of quarantine has, of course, been used throughout Richmond’s history to stop the spread of viral contagion.  But the quarantine concept has also been used here to halt what many believed to be moral contagion as well.

In the early 19th century, Magdalen Societies began to appear in cities all over America, the first being founded in Philadelphia in 1800.  These charities sought out “fallen women,” like sex workers, to rehabilitate into moral rectitude. Magdalen members believed that once these women were quarantined from the people and associations of their sinful lives, they could be reformed. This moral quarantine came in the form of housing, meals and a strict schedule, which often included prayer and training in handicrafts. In 1874, the Magdalen Association of Richmond opened such a home on Spring Street, in Oregon Hill, in the 1819 Parsons House. Their stated mission was to provide “shelter and reformation for fallen women.” Within ten years, the mission of the home had narrowed somewhat, as a refuge for unwed mothers.

Spring Street Home, Early 20th century, V.46.38.269, The Valentine

By 1881, the Spring Street Home took in around twenty women per year, seeing them through their pregnancies, childbirth and adjustment to motherhood. At a time when the stigma of single motherhood was so great that a family’s social standing could be ruined by a pregnancy, maternity homes put a curious twist in the concept of the moral quarantine. Many argue that the main goal of maternity homes in general was to hide the women from “good society”, rather than to save them from the bad. Either way, the Spring Street Home sat on extensive grounds in Oregon Hill, and even had a view of the river.

In 1932, it moved to a 100-acre parcel in the West End and was renamed Brookfield. The new facility had dorm rooms, living rooms, a recreation room, nurseries, delivery rooms, a chapel and a library. The entrance to Brookfield bore a stone carved motto: They Shall Obtain Mercy. Fees were charged to those who could pay. By this time, the home served mostly teenagers and was the oldest of its kind south of Baltimore. In 1968, the home moved again, to a smaller facility on the north side. Five years later, they integrated to serve African Americans. But societal changes, including birth control innovations, legal access to abortion and changing social attitudes about single motherhood made Brookfield increasingly irrelevant. In 2011, it closed for good.  The west end location was demolished in 1968 for development, but the original 1819 building in Oregon Hill still stands.

Mint Juleps & John Dabney

Now that Virginians can order cocktails for take out and delivery, consider supporting your favorite bartender by ordering our most historic cocktail: the mint julep. Through tense times, mint juleps have broken seemingly impossible barriers and won over Richmond’s fiercest critics.

When Charles Dickens came to visit in 1842, his published impressions scandalized Richmonders. He criticized the squalid conditions in the factories and streets, the immorality of slavery and the willful blindness of the wealthy to the misery all around them. He did, however, praise our mint juleps. Beloved by visitors and citizens, the mint julep represented the genteel southern class in the light they wished to be seen. Even a staunch abolitionist like Dickens could not deny its charm. And our most famous mint julep, made by a local bartender named John Dabney, touched the lips of visiting politicians and royalty during this city’s darkest era. In fact, his recipe became a tool of Richmond diplomacy.

John Dabney, Late-19th century, V.99.61.07, Gift of Mrs. Lillian Dabney

John Dabney was born into enslavement in Hanover County around 1824. Owned by Cora Williamson DeJarnette, Dabney was rented out to a relative named William Williamson, who owned a restaurant in Richmond.  Williamson arranged for Dabney to be trained by chefs. He soon became well-known locally for his terrapin stew and his canvasback duck, but what really impressed people were his mint juleps.  As an enslaved bartender, Dabney was allowed to keep a portion of his earnings. With those earnings and fueled by his rising fame, he bought his wife’s freedom in the late 1850s. Still enslaved himself, he kept bar at a number of fashionable restaurants during the Civil War. He had been saving to purchase his own freedom when the war ended.

As a free man, he continued to keep bar around the city. By 1868, he’d saved enough to purchase his freedom from Williamson—which he did, even though he was already free. After 41 years of bondage, Dabney found himself in a position very few freedmen did: he was so beloved by the powerful class that any Richmond bank would loan him money. With his culinary skills and sterling reputation, he opened his own successful restaurant here in the early 1870s.  His son later wrote that his father’s “reputation and business standing rendered him almost immune to segregation, ostracism or racial prejudice.”

Another Kind of Microscopic Menace

Viruses aren’t the only microscopic menaces that have shaped Richmond history.

Few people know that this city lies atop one of the most diverse diatom deposits in the world.  Diatoms are single-cellular aquatic plants that have been fossilized—quite beautifully—within their silica walls.  The diatoms pictured are leftover from the era 5 million years ago, when Richmond lay under a shallow sea.

Our diatom deposits first gained attention through the efforts of the Richmond Microscopical Society, founded in 1880 by local microscope hobbyists. They had been aware of diatoms in the soil here, although it was not until the C&O Railroad attempted to dig a tunnel downtown in the 1890s that the sheer diversity of Richmond’s diatoms became clear.

Slide of diatoms taken by Thomas Christian, 1885, X.61.35.10, The Valentine 

Thomas Christian, one of the founding members of the society, lived near the project dig beneath 8th Street. He and his daughter would venture into the construction zone every evening to take samples of the day’s excavated earth.  He spent much of his time arranging different species of diatoms into beautiful and elaborate slides, such as the one pictured above.

Soon, his findings attracted the attention of the Smithsonian and the world.  The futile digging of the 8th Street tunnel soon became a national joke, as the slippery earth repeatedly caved in. Diatomaceous earth—earth rich in diatoms—is very unstable. Eventually, the railroad had to abandon the project, though the lessons of Richmond’s diatom-rich soil were quickly forgotten, with tragic results. When C&O attempted to repair the Church Hill Tunnel in 1925, the famous cave-in that entombed a work engine and at least three workers was due to the diatom-rich clay.

 

Hygiene and Richmond’s Public Baths

Historically speaking, good hygiene is a relatively new concept for Richmonders.

At a time when washing our hands is our best bet at defeating a pandemic, let’s remember that for most of this city’s history, for many of its citizens, such a simple act was not easy. Until 1950, a large number of homes in the Richmond area did not have the luxury of indoor plumbing.  Of course, lack of access to clean water for both drinking and washing has been the source of many outbreaks here: from cholera to polio.

Branch Public Baths exterior, 709 W. Main Street, Early-20th century Cook Collection, The Valentine

But in 1909, a local banker and philanthropist named John P. Branch drastically improved public health when he opened the city’s first public bath. He built the facility, then deeded it to the city, with the stipulation that the city reserve $3,000 a year to operate it.  The city knew a good deal when it saw one and accepted. A brick building that still stands at 1801 East Broad Street, Branch Public Bath #1 used coal-fired boilers to provide hot water for showers and tubs on the second floor.

These grew so popular that, four years later, Branch built the more beautiful Branch Bath #2 at 709 West Main Street.  At each, any white Richmonder (like so many other amenities in the city, the public baths were segregated) could pay 10 cents to receive a bar of soap and a sterilized towel.

Branch Public Baths interior, 709 W. Main Street, Early-20th century Cook Collection, The Valentine

Admission for children was 3 cents. Men were allowed 20 minutes in the showers, women 30 minutes, though these rules were obviously, largely unenforceable. At the peak of their popularity in the 1920s, public baths served over 80,000 Richmonders a year.  Winter was the most popular bath season.  During the spring and summer months, many still preferred to bathe in creeks and lakes.

The Branch baths remained in operation until 1950, when patronage plummeted following the rise of indoor plumbing.

As public health officials continue to remind us to wash our hands, this history is a fascinating exploration of how basic hygiene was once a thriving business in Richmond.

Black History Month 2020 Gallery Guide

For the second year in a row, we are providing Valentine visitors with these gallery guides (both at our front desk and for download HERE) that highlight just a portion of the objects, images and stories on display that help to tell the history of Richmond’s Black community.

This Black History Month Gallery Guide focuses on objects in our lobby, our permanent exhibition, as well as content you can discover in our two newest exhibitions. Yet even as we celebrate February as Black History Month, it is crucial that we tell these stories and share these histories all the time, with diverse audiences and in a variety of contexts. Confronting our uncomfortable past and honoring individuals and organizations deserving of celebration is an endeavor we are committed to year round.

We hope you will use this guide as a jumping off point to discover, celebrate and reflect on some of the stories throughout the museum, both tragic and triumphant, of Richmond’s Black community.

Valentine Intern Spotlight: Susan Shibut

Susan Shibut, the Valentine’s new PR & Marketing Intern, writes about her dedication to sharing Richmond’s complicated history

Hello! My name is Susan Shibut and I am excited to get started in my new position as the Public Relations and Marketing intern here at the Valentine. I’m a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University where I am studying communications with a history minor. In my time here in Richmond I have fallen in love with this city and couldn’t be happier with this opportunity to learn about it and engage with the community.

In my search for an internship the Valentine stood out as an institution with an inspiring mission. There are plenty of opportunities where I could’ve gotten people coffee and written fluffy blogs, but this would be a chance for me to be a part of challenging a narrative and making an impact. I wanted experience that would teach me something, not just look shiny on a resume.

It is so important to always explain history in an accurate and nuanced way, and that’s something Virginia and Richmond specifically have struggled with and often failed at. Virginia’s state-issued history textbook “Virginia: History, Government, Geography,” unabashedly supported the “Lost Cause” myth from 1957 until phased out in the 1970s. The textbook claimed enslaved people, sometimes referred to as “servants,” were happy, content and didn’t work hard because they didn’t fear losing their jobs. That textbook is estimated to have reached more than a million students, so it’s not surprising that the inaccuracies it perpetuated still pop up in education and public discourse today.

Poor interpretation of history has had lasting effects on Richmond, reflected in everything from the statues on Monument Avenue to the zoning of our school system. I hope that with my work at the Valentine I can help take personal and professional initiative to challenge historical failures and build a better, less editorialized interpretation that is accessible to anyone who wants to learn. As I get closer to graduating I am focused on learning how to convey accurate stories, sometimes only armed with sources that don’t necessarily stand up to appropriate standards of truth and integrity. The complicated, painful nature of Richmond’s history and the nation’s history can make this difficult and uncomfortable—and that’s a discomfort that I’ve felt personally, not just in academic or professional writing but in conversations with friends and family. The water has been seriously muddied by years of revisionism, avoidance and myth-making. I want to be a part of making something better, more truthful, and more inclusive than what we’ve seen in the past.

Our vision statement says it best—we are using the past to inform the present and shape the future. I believe that looking back will push us to look forward. I love this city, and it’s a privilege to join the Valentine in trying to make it better.

Susan is the PR & Marketing Intern at the Valentine in Richmond.

“Where in the World is the Valentine?” Part 6: Don’t Trust Google

Don’t trust Google.

We know what you’ve been thinking all summer:

“I really need to get down to the Valentine. There’s that ‘controversial’ Monument Avenue exhibition on display and I read that article in Style Weekly about the Cook Photograph Collection. There’s even that exhibition with the working Costume and Textiles Lab!”

But you’ve been putting it off because of the ongoing construction. Please make plans to visit and just enjoy the adventure.

But keep in mind: it’s getting a little weird. There have been alarming reports of shape-shifting buildings and disappearing streets. The old Richmond Eye and Ear Hospital disappeared one week and the new VCU Children’s Hospital started appearing the next. Remember the Virginia Treatment Center for Children? It’s gone and a new VCU Adult Outpatient building is already replacing it. And then there are the streets. Well, sometimes there are streets. Other times, just a lot of parking cones, yellow tape and dust.

But despite all these changes to the neighborhood, the one thing that we are sure of is that the Valentine and our exciting exhibitions and programs aren’t going anywhere.

So just a piece of advice: ignore Google Maps. Instead, go ahead and get lost in this great neighborhood, enjoy the evolving Court End area, take in all the VCUHealth developments and discover a new stories about our city.

In this blog series, we’ve touched on a few: the Egyptian Building, Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond and more. But those stories just scratch the surface.

Eventually, you’ll find us and you’ll get a medal (and a good dose of Richmond Stories) for all your efforts. See you soon!

Our friend Beau Cribbs finally found his way to the Valentine and received his medal!

Four: A Constitution Day Reflection

Most standard biographies of Doctor James McClurg (1747-1823) begin with his accomplished medical career, friendship with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and mention his participation in the American Revolution as a physician. Some detail his attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, noting that he left without signing the final document. This brief biography will start with a number: Four.

The Doctor James McClurg Bedchamber in the Wickham House at the Valentine.

That is the number of enslaved people that McClurg owned toward the end of his life. The 1820 census detailed that James McClurg held four in bondage while residing with his son-in-law and daughter, John and Elizabeth Wickham. One young man was aged between 14 and 25. The other three were women over 45 years old. Whether they worked and lived on the Wickham’s property or elsewhere is not known. They might have been hired out to other families, not benefiting from the money they made for McClurg. The young man might have been his forced to wash, dress, and feed the elderly McClurg, possibly even sleeping in his room each night (notice the pallet on the floor at the foot of the bed in the photo above).

So it is clear that James McClurg did not leave the Constitutional Convention in late July 1787 because he opposed slavery. He and the other Virginians at the summer-long meeting in Philadelphia supported preserving the domestic slave trade. Instead, they worked to ensure that an enslaved individual would count as only 3/5 of a free person in order to determine representation in Congress. So why did he leave? After months of working on the document, McClurg disagreed with the length of the President’s term (he thought it should be for life), and he believed the federal government should be able to veto state laws. He and James Madison exchanged letters about these issues. Madison sent him a copy of the Constitution in October 1787. We do not know how the four enslaved people he owned felt about any of these issues. Nor do we know how they learned of the newly-created United States of America. Their letters, stories, and opinions do not survive.

McClurg was a Federalist, meaning an advocate for a strong central government that would oversee the then-13 states. He and the other delegates created a document that provided structure and simultaneously crafted a process to amend it. After ratifying the initial Constitution in 1788, the states set about changing it immediately, adding ten amendments largely based on the proposals of Virginia’s George Mason. But the Bill of Rights (ratified on December 15, 1791), as revolutionary as it was, still did not apply to McClurg’s enslaved man and women. They could not enjoy freedom of speech or assembly. They certainly were not allowed to petition the government to redress their grievances.

V.92.52, Dr. James McClurg, Painted by Cephas Thompson, Circa 1810, The Valentine

Thirty-eight delegates* signed the final draft of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. It would be 74 years before the 13th Amendment abolished American slavery in 1865. Three years later, the 14th Amendment provided citizenship and equal protection for those persons born or naturalized in the United States. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave the vote to men, no matter their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” If you’re counting, that’s over 83 years before one of the four enslaved members of James McClurg’s household significantly benefited from the ideals of the new nation. And the three women? Unless they were wealthy and educated, the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, did not benefit many African-American women in Richmond. They were turned away by poll taxes, vague “understanding clauses,” and other restrictive measures provided in Virginia’s 1902 Constitution. It is not until federal laws, enacted during the 1960s, along with the 1964 ratification of the 24th amendment (outlawing poll taxes) that McClurg’s four enslaved likely would have achieved full-citizenship. 177 years and 5 amendments later, “We the People” finally included African-Americans and women (as well as Native Americans and persons of color).

As we observe Constitution Day today, we can honor the living, breathing document that James McClurg and his colleagues created and expected to be altered while also acknowledging the harsh reality of James McClurg’s endorsement of and participation in the slave trade. We can celebrate the revolutionary ideas contained in the Constitution while also celebrating the descendants of the four who sought freedom and worked hard to finally put into practice the ideals enshrined in this founding document. Hopefully, today, we can seek to enjoy the “blessings of liberty” while renewing our efforts to create “a more perfect Union.”

*George Read signed for an absent John Dickinson. 39 signatures were added by 38 men. Three Virginians signed the Constitution: George Washington, John Blair, and James Madison.