Jefferson Davis Statue: Building a Better Understanding of Richmond’s History

This op-ed originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

By: Bill Martin, Director of the Valentine

The Valentine needs your help this summer. The Jefferson Davis statue from Monument Avenue is temporarily on display within our core exhibit, “This Is Richmond, Virginia,” while on loan from the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA).

The Valentine is committed to telling a complete story of our city, beyond just its well-known role in the Civil War. The Jefferson Davis statue — shown as it was when we last saw it in 2020 — is unique in its ability to explore so many aspects of Richmond history.

There are many voices around the events of 2020, and we need to hear them. Our mission is to collect, preserve and interpret Richmond stories, and that includes your opinions and ideas.

Like the graffiti left on the Berlin Wall after it was pulled down in 1989, this object showcases a crucial Richmond story at multiple points in time. It was erected as a pristine monument in 1907 and came down splattered in pink paint in 2020. Many different groups contributed in different ways to create the statue as it exists now, and the Valentine is committed to bringing together many different perspectives to build a future we all can be proud of.

This is not just about what happens to the statue. It is about how we can use this object and this moment to inform our future. Your responses to this exhibition will be provided to the city of Richmond as it moves forward with its planning for Monument Avenue, and to the BHMVA to inform the future of all Confederate monuments now in its care.

This significant work by Edward Valentine, the museum’s first president, will be shown in its unrestored form for the next six months. The reality is Confederate monuments have been removed, and there are a wide range of opinions about the events of 2020 that we hope to capture. We must use this moment to build a better understanding of history and figure out the best way forward — together.

There are a lot of difficult conversations ahead of us. So why would the Valentine exhibit this work? Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave the statue in storage?

The short answer is: Yes, it would. But we have a responsibility to focus on this particular object because of the Valentine’s own history and our commitment to telling the complete history of our region. As difficult as this is, we must.

The sculpture studio where Edward Valentine created the statue is located in the garden of the Valentine. Jefferson Davis came to this building in 1873 to have his face measured for a bust. Edward Valentine used those measurements three decades later, after Davis’ death, to create the statue for his monument.

Valentine used his clout and artistic skills to promote the Lost Cause — an effort after the Civil War that denied slavery’s central role in the conflict and glorified Confederates like Davis as heroes facing long odds. His legacy is part of our institution, and we must confront it with clear eyes.

Inside the Valentine, we’ve been talking about the prospect of bringing this statue back for a long time. In 2015, following the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., we committed to a series of exhibitions, programs and challenging conversations in our community.

We also committed to moving the Davis statue to the Valentine, should we get the chance. The Monument Avenue Commission even suggested this move.

Since then, we’ve gathered feedback on how to do this right through surveys, focus groups, events and more. One of those surveys showed us that 80% of you would prefer to see the Confederate statues in museums with appropriate context, rather than displayed in public spaces or destroyed. Now that the Davis statue is in our gallery, we need your input as we continue to move forward.

Your response to Valentine’s statue will provide important documentation of this important moment in Richmond history, begin to move these conversations forward and inform the reinstallation of the Edward Valentine Sculpture Studio, and other future programs and exhibitions.

We hope your summer plans will include a visit to the Valentine. The Valentine is committed to your story and the story of Richmond.

To make sure that everyone has an opportunity to weigh in, we now offer free admission every Wednesday for as long as Jefferson Davis is on display. We also are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you are not able to visit, please fill out this survey and send it along to friends. We look forward to the many important conversations to come.

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.

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.


James Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings

In our current climate of fierce partisanship, it is difficult to imagine an America without political parties. Looking back, our nation has nearly always been deeply divided in two, despite the warnings of George Washington himself, who loathed political parties. There was, however, a time our nation’s history when there were no political parties. Or, more accurately, there was but one party because the other party had spectacularly imploded. After the close of the War of 1812, that’s exactly what happened to the Federalist Party. Without their sworn foes to battle, the Democratic-Republicans were given the keys to the nation.

This curious time coincided with the two terms of President James Monroe, a Virginian who won the presidency in a landslide. Monroe, in his 1817 inaugural address, declared that “discord does not belong in our system.” He then claimed that his main goal as president would be to foster “harmony among Americans.” He believed this harmony depended on the extinction of all political parties. Monroe began his term with a goodwill tour of the country, spreading the message of unity and cooperation. Perhaps after decades of ugly partisanship and the War of 1812, for which Monroe had negotiated peace, the nation was simply too tired for more conflict. Whatever the reason, he was a hit nearly everywhere. Even in Boston, the Federalist citadel, he was greeted by thousands of rose-waving children, dressed in white. Once-powerful Federalist leaders who would not have stepped into the same room with Monroe before attended the banquet in his honor. The Columbian Centinel, a staunch Federalist newspaper, ran the headline that would come to define the Monroe Presidency: “Era of Good Feelings.”

James Monroe, undated, Vertical Files, the Valentine.

Of course, it’s easy to feel good once your side has triumphed over all opposition. And even easier to call a system in which your party rules unopposed a “partyless” utopia. Monroe had himself been involved in violent partisanship that nearly brought him and Alexander Hamilton (Federalist Foe #1) to a duel in 1797. But Monroe was a skilled politician—he had been a member of the Continental Congress, our U.S. senator, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, a diplomat, and Governor of Virginia— who could embrace the contradictions and sell them to skeptics. His optimism and kind personality were infectious. He completely ignored any remaining self-identifying “Federalists” and went about an ambitious agenda of national expansion, while checking the ever-looming threats of colonial European powers.

It goes without saying that The Era of Good Feelings was misery for many in America. The acquisition of Florida and settlement in western territories endangered the lives and sovereignty of Indian tribes. Slavery was the foundation of the national economy. Monroe claimed to be an abolitionist, though he owned approximately 250 enslaved people in his lifetime. To be clear, he insisted on gradual emancipation… so gradual that he only freed one person, at the end of his life. But even as conflicts over slavery grew, the Era provided a solution meant to please: the Missouri Compromise. With it, the balance of free and slave states would be preserved in Congress. The law merely staved off the larger issue, which would only fester as the nation expanded its borders. The Missouri Compromise, like Monroe’s personal views on slavery, was a way of having it both ways. At least politically, the good feelings held for those who could cast a ballot. Monroe ran virtually unopposed for reelection, in 1820. He lost only one electoral vote.

President Monroe is most remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, which he delivered in 1823. As America engaged in eternal power struggles with European superpowers and as countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean declared their independence from those same powers, Monroe declared that any further interference from Europe in the Western Hemisphere would be considered a threat to the United States. This demand for national sovereignty was a powerful rebuke of colonialism, though it was also convenient to eliminate those serious competitors in land conquest. Yet again, good feelings are easy once you’ve wiped out the serious competition. The logic of the Monroe Doctrine did not apply to America itself, as it waged the First Seminole War and as westward expansion infringed on the lands of Indigenous nations. 

The Era of Good Feelings ran on the fumes of a conflict-weary populace, eager to have it both ways. Monroe embodied that desire when claiming that one-party rule was partyless rule; when arguing that emancipation should move at a glacial pace; and in criticizing colonialism while adopting its tactics. Having it both ways does feel good because it delays the hard decision-making of good governance. The illusion could not last long and did not endure past Monroe’s second term. The 1824 “partyless” election was an electoral debacle. By the 1828 election, two new parties, the National Republican Party and the Democratic Party, had returned us to the two-party system. Over the next 30 years, the issue of slavery acquired the partisan urgency, passion, and rage that had initially defined the Federalist/Democratic-Republican rift over federal power. Some issues are too big and too important for compromise. By 1856, America was so divided that many feared Civil War.

That year, in a seemingly desperate ploy to heal the splitting nation, the Governor of New York wrote to Virginia’s Governor, Henry Wise. In the letter, he offered to exhume the body of James Monroe (he had died 27 years earlier, in New York City) and repatriate his remains to Virginia on the 100th anniversary of Monroe’s birth. This conciliatory gesture in the face of rising North/South tensions was readily accepted by Governor Wise, who secured funding for the ensuing spectacle: the Era of Good Feelings would be resurrected.

Monroe’s Casket Arrives in Richmond, July 1858, V.45.28.128, Hibbs Collection, The Valentine

On July 2, 1858, Monroe was dug up, his coffin placed into a new coffin, and his body was escorted in a lavish parade to spend the night under guard in New York’s City Hall. The next morning, the steamer Jamestown arrived with a delegation of Virginia dignitaries. The entire party, including New York’s Governor and his 7th Regiment, accompanied the corpse down the eastern seaboard. Monroe rode in the gentlemen’s room on the upper deck, elaborately draped with black and white muslin. The steamer arrived in Richmond in the early morning hours of July 5. Governor Wise, military regiments, and a large, cheering civilian crowd were already at the wharf to greet their Northern neighbors and their beloved Virginia statesman.

James Monroe was reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery on July 5, 1858. Richmonder Albert Lybrock won a contest to design his tomb, which the Dispatch called a “gothic temple,” and which has been recently restored to its original appearance. At the new, open grave, both governors delivered speeches on national unity. Afterwards, the delegations and military attachments from Virginia and New York celebrated aboard the Jamestown. The Era of Dug Up Good Feelings lasted well into the night. It was a great party and the entire affair was deemed a diplomatic success for both the North and the South, even if, in a spooky turn, Alexander Hamilton’s grandson fell overboard and drowned. Even if, in three years, the two sides would be at war. 

Tomb of James Monroe, Painted by Oswald Heinrich, 1858, V.65.16.05, The Valentine.

The Ice Queen in the Sweltering South

As the nation swelters in these early summer months, it seems fitting to explore the city’s history with a small relief we may take for granted: ice. Not until 1856 did regular Richmonders have access to a truly cold drink on a summer day. The luxury was brought to us by David King, an immigrant from Northern Ireland, who opened an office and ice house at 1811 East Cary Street. At his dock on the Kanawha Canal, he began to receive schooners from Maine, loaded with frozen slabs of the Kennebec River.

That’s right—the first commercial ice available in Richmond was shipped all the way from Maine. Twenty-inch slabs sailed hundreds of miles down the seaboard, up the James River, and into the canal. They were then stored in a huge hole in the ground so they would not melt in our summer heat. Ice from the Kennebec River had a reputation for sparkling clarity and cleanliness. Despite this, and despite its obvious allure to a sweaty southern city, ice was not immediately popular here. The cost made it inaccessible for many. Also, palates that had been drinking lukewarm or hot beverages for a lifetime were probably unaccustomed to the switch. Ice was largely used by restaurants, hospitals, and the wealthy in the antebellum era. Drivers delivered the slabs by horse-drawn wagon. King had enough business to keep him afloat until the Civil War, in which he fought on the Confederate side. But he returned from the First Battle of Manassas sick. He was unable to keep up with the increasing demands of the ice business.

Too ill to work, David King left the operation of his ice business to his brother-in-law, John McGowan. King died in 1872, as his family knew he would. He left a widow and seven children. But in 1874, the family received another blow, this one a complete surprise: John McGowan died suddenly, in July, at the height of the ice season. With this, King’s widow, Jane, needed a new person to run her family’s business if she was to keep herself and her seven children fed. But the ice business was tricky and required much foresight and experience. Contracts with Maine suppliers were signed in early winter, without any clue of the next season’s weather. Everyone lived in fear of a mild Maine winter or a sweltering Virginia summer. And the product itself was as volatile as the business. She very quickly decided that the person to run the ice house must be herself.

Jane King, Undated, Cook Collection, The Valentine

Jane King had worked behind the scenes at her husband’s business, mostly as a bookkeeper. She knew the business well, though she also well knew the prejudices she would face. Few male workers, let alone sea captains, would take orders or do business with a woman in the 1870s. On top of that, an economic depression had taken hold in 1874 and her brother had taken out a new mortgage on the canal-front property right before he died.

At the age of 44, Jane King determined that the only way to step into the role of an ice dealer was to do so boldly. She reopened under her name and took out a color ad on the front cover of the 1875 city directory: MRS. JANE KING DEALER IN ICE.

V.50.112.29, Jane King Advertisement, Circa 1880, The Valentine

Soon after Mrs. Jane King took over the ice house, she met a captain on her dock and told him where and how to unload. He refused to do anything a woman told him to do. She then refused to pay him. The stand-off ended quickly in her favor. In another instance, a crew grew so irate at her audacity to be a boss that they poured varnish over the ice they had just delivered. She docked the value from her payment. Predictably, men in the business began calling her the Ice Queen behind her back, as she remained cool and firm and businesslike through these protests. She earned a reputation as a serious businesswoman who would not be cowed. Within two years of taking the helm, the family business was out of the red.

Jane King did more than keep the ice house running. She expanded and thrived, even as ice’s ever-growing popularity brought on competitors. One main rival, Richmond Ice, opened in 1881. They alone received over 100 ice schooners a year and could store 3,000 tons of ice in a mammoth hole on Canal Street. To stay competitive, King innovated and embraced new technologies. With the rise of the railroads, she took full advantage of the tracks alongside the canal and began to ship ice not only around Virginia, but into West Virginia and the Carolinas. To beat competitors’ prices, she began storing her own winter ice from a spring pond on her suburban farm. She called it “country ice” and sold it at a 20% discount. She diversified with a coal and wood yard, to keep business strong in the winter months. An early adopter of the telephone, she was the first woman in the city to have a phone line in her name and the only woman listed in the city’s first telephone directory.

In 1881, King bought 205 N. 19th Street, one of the most illustrious homes in Richmond (still standing and now known as the Pace-King House). Her new home had two indoor bathrooms and running water in all the bedrooms. Living in luxury, she also maintained high standards for her product. If she noticed dirty ice coming off a ship, she let the captain know that he should clean his hold. If a railcar went astray and her ice melted, she made good use of her phone and collected damages from the railroad company. Her reputation for coolness came from the fact that she did not raise her voice in argument, though she did not shy from pursuing wrongs via lawsuits. By 1892, the operation had grown 700% and employed 30 men, and owned 14 ice wagons, seven coal wagons, and 40 horses.

In nearly 40 years, the basic logistics of the ice business changed very little. Sailed in from Maine, unloaded by crews, stored in the ground, and delivered by wagon; the slabs kept food fresh, hospitals running, and Richmonders cool. But a fundamental change did come in 1892, virtually overnight: an artificial ice plant opened here. The whole business model crumbled. Suddenly, ice could be made in vast quantities, onsite and on-demand. Without ice cutters in Maine, without ships, captains or docks, without gargantuan holes in the ground. Without living in fear of the weather. In response, Jane King did not balk. Before anyone else could do it, she contracted the entire output of the factory and stopped shipping from Maine entirely.

No amount of savviness could hold off the machine age. And it would not be long before more artificial ice plants sprang up in Richmond. The traditional ice companies needed to slim down and band together to survive. Only three years after artificial ice came here, in 1895, King and her three main competitors merged. King retired on a very generous stipend.

King’s career no doubt inspired other Richmond women who would pursue their own businesses. She obviously did not rid this city of prejudice. As soon as she knocked down a barrier, it essentially went back up for the next generation. This was the 19th century, after all. But you do not need to change an entire culture to affect change. Her most lasting impact, as evidenced by her nickname, was her behavior in the face of discrimination. She taught women how to succeed despite the culture. After shying away from a fistfight, King’s grandson once recalled her response. “Hold your own,” she scolded him. “Never back down.” It was the reason, after all, for her own success.


Much of the information for this blog post is from a the article “Ice Queen” by Helen Milius, published in the December 1959 issue of The Commonwealth.

Richmond Story: Richmond City Jail

This past year, criminal justice reform has dominated headlines and public debate. Despite widespread public support, much needed change still seems elusive. In the first half of the 20th century in Richmond, criminal justice reform was top in the minds of many citizens and politicians too. A few politicians actually ran for office on prison reform platforms. But, in spite of widespread outrage at a broken system, the change most wanted somehow did not materialize for decades. The reform Richmonders cried out for a hundred years ago, however, was not for racial justice or for less brutality. Curiously, at that time, Richmond had a reputation for outrageous criminal leniency, at least for some folks. In fact, the city jail itself was considered a den of iniquity that aided and abetted crime.  

Richmond City Jail, Circa 1935, X.46.01.75, The Valentine.


 As early as 1856, Marshall Street in Shockoe Bottom has been the site of a jail. But the one built there in 1902, and which stood for 55 years, was considered a municipal embarrassment for pretty much its entire existence. Only eight years after construction the City Sergeant called it antiquated and obsolete. Built to house 300 people, the jail was nearly always overcrowded. It was also poorly planned, poorly constructed, and poorly sited. Built directly beneath the Marshall Street Viaduct, the main bridge that spanned Shockoe Valley at the time, the jail’s hidden location only added to its problems. Passersby on the bridge easily lowered contraband into unscreened cell windows. The window bars were so cheap that prisoners filed through them faster than the city could replace them. Once a prisoner broke out, it was easy to disappear without being seen, often by hopping a train on the nearby C&O tracks. Politicians joked that it was a jail “easier to get out of than to get in.”

Workers Remove Contraband Netting From Marshall Street Viaduct, 1957, V.58.91.11, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine.

When Prohibition took effect in 1920, Richmond City Jail went from being a problem to an outright joke. Unable to accommodate the masses of arrests each night, City Sergeant George Saunders, who ran the prison, adopted a laissez faire attitude to wait the law out.  Rabble-rousers were housed in one boisterous common room. Visitors at all hours, who were not searched, simply brought the interrupted party to the prison. Alcohol flowed freely, prostitutes worked the room, and prisoners largely came and went at will in what was called the “trusty system,” though it is doubtful that Black inmates enjoyed the same freedoms as whites in the segregated jail. Nevertheless, Richmonders began to call the jail “Saunders Chateau.” The permanent party beneath the Marshall Street Viaduct enraged citizens and politicians, though the building remained unchanged until 1934, when an escape turned deadly.

On September 29, 1934, convicted killers Robert Mais and Walter Legenza were on their way to the jail office to speak to their lawyer. They were unhandcuffed and the guards were unarmed.  In the hallway, the prisoners pulled pistols and began to shoot. One officer was killed, two were injured. Once past the guards, Mais and Legenza just walked out of the jail’s front door.  Amazingly, the lock on the entrance could not be opened from outside, but opened freely from the inside. 

The men, undoubtedly, had acquired their pistols from a visitor. Some suspected that Mais’ mother had smuggled them in a can of baked chicken.  No matter the exact method, everyone knew that it had been way too easy. The tragic death of a guard finally prompted some improvements at the city jail, including quality bars on the windows. At some point, the authorities hung nets from the viaduct to prevent contraband drops. But the changes were not nearly enough to make a competent facility. Ten years later, a federal inspector still found wine flowing, inmates leaving for bars, inmates returning from haircuts, and cells with locks that had been broken for years. For some down and outs, the jail had become free housing. About twenty “regulars” spent ten months of the year there. A city alderman was also unimpressed by improvements when he remarked, “You’ve still got just an old jail, under a viaduct, near an incinerator, near a dump and near railroad tracks.” Strangely, the federal inspection did not lead to a new jail, but only an increase in capacity from 300 to 400. The den of iniquity only got bigger.

The notorious Richmond City Jail seemed as permanent as a mountain, as unshakeable as original sin. The building itself came to embody impunity. No one was happy with it, though it persisted despite decades of public outrage, editorials, bad press, failed inspections, new prison proposals, protests, escapes, embarrassments, political speeches and promises. So what finally did it in? What finally moved the mountain? Like so much of our city, it was in the way of the new turnpike. In 1957, the building finally came down to make way for I-95.  

Richmond Story: Belle Bryan Day Nursery

All mothers work. But the title of “working mother” is now associated with contemporary history, tied to women’s employment. But mothers have always worked outside the home, especially mothers from poor households. Here in Richmond, major industries thrived on the exploitation of largely women workforces, both Black and white. Textile mills and some large operations within tobacco factories relied almost exclusively on women, who were paid very low wages to perform brutal jobs. Often, before child labor laws, children worked beside their mothers. If a child was too young to work, many factory-employed mothers left small children under poor supervision—sometimes by older children. Sometimes they had no choice but to leave their children unattended all day.

Female Tobacco Workers, Early 20th Century, Cook Collection 1138, The Valentine

A Richmond woman named Isobel “Belle” Lamont Stewart Bryan was well-aware of the struggles of working mothers. In 1887, Bryan helped to found the Richmond Woman’s Christian Association (later the YWCA), which provided women factory workers with hard-to-find safe, clean and affordable housing.  The RWCA also offered medical care, sewing classes, a library and religious instruction. As the daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Belle Bryan did not have first-hand experience of economic hardship, so her concern for the plight of wage-earning women might seem surprising. She lived on a large estate on the North Side, called Brook Hill, and frequently traveled to Europe. And she undoubtedly had help raising her own six children. Perhaps her activism stemmed from what she witnessed at her father’s tobacco warehouse. Whatever the source, she quickly discerned that safe housing was not enough to help Richmond’s working women. In 1890, as chairman of the RWCA, she founded and chaired a free kindergarten and day nursery in the factory district for white children.


Belle Bryan Day Nursery opened at 6:30 a.m. and accepted babies as young as one month old. As the children arrived, they immediately received a bath and clean clothes. Their days included nourishing meals, nap time, play time, education and even medical exams by a nurse. For all this, mothers paid the small sum of 15 cents per week. And they could proceed to their long, exhausting workday with peace of mind, knowing that their children were safe and fed. The kindergarten was free. Of course, operating costs far exceeded 15 cents per week, per child, so Bryan became a tireless fundraiser. She received grants from City Council and larger charities, solicited churches and organized fundraisers to keep the charity afloat. Fancy dress balls at The Jefferson Hotel made charitable giving to the nursery a highly anticipated fashion event for Richmond’s elite families.

Belle Bryan Day Nursery, Circa 1919, Cook Collection 1207, The Valentine

In 1898, the nursery moved to rented quarters 201 N. 19th Street, where it remained for 45 years. By the 1950s, the nursery moved to a larger rented space downtown and charged on a sliding scale, according to need: from ten cents to two dollars a day. In 1961, the nursery erected its own building at 610 N. 9th Street to accommodate the 75 children in its care.

A rapidly changing downtown, however, began to cut the nursery off from its mission. Urban renewal throughout the 1960s had pushed many poor residents out. “Slum clearance” programs, highway construction and newly constructed superblocks of government buildings and parking lots turned a bustling city center into a white-collar business district. Factories moved to isolated suburban locations. Citing these changes, the Belle Bryan Day Nursery ceased operations in 1971. The progressive charity had been ahead of its time for 80 years and it closed just as Women’s Liberation Movement began to take off and the term “working mother” took on a whole new meaning.

Richmond Story: Smallpox Vaccine

Today, all Virginians 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine! Are you hesitant, skeptical or afraid? Maybe a little vaccine history will put your mind at ease.

The world’s first vaccine was developed to combat smallpox. Highly contagious and one of the deadliest diseases in human history, it killed three out of every ten of its victims. And it was widespread. Smallpox affected all classes—royalty, soldiers, enslaved people—but was particularly devastating to Indigenous people.  In Virginia, smallpox was introduced by Jamestown settlers, and by 1700, the disease had already killed 75% of the Indigenous population, nearly wiping out the once powerful Powhatan Nation.

Regular smallpox outbreaks swept through Richmond from the 18th to the first part of the 20th century. Before 1796, doctors used a crude precursor to inoculation, called variolation, to try to control the spread. With variolation in the United States and Europe, a scab from someone infected with smallpox would be inserted under the skin of a healthy individual. During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington made sure his soldiers were treated with variolation. The procedure, in addition to being disgusting, could backfire. Variolation could lead to a deadly case. But soldiers so feared smallpox that if no medical supervision was available, it was not unheard of to simply lance a scab from an infected comrade and self-variolate.

This was the state of things before 1796, when an English scientist named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed immune from smallpox.  From there, he developed an effective smallpox vaccine from the slightly less disgusting, much less deadly sores of infected cows.

By 1800, Henrico County granted the first license for a smallpox inoculation clinic, at the estate of John Tabb near Richmond. During the 19th century, Richmond offered free vaccinations for its citizens. Doctors would receive dried cow scabs, along with instructions on how to administer them. This 1861 instruction sheet from Virginia’s vaccine agent, Dr. A.E. Peticolas, shows that the early vaccine was not administered by needle, but by rubbing the powdered scabs into a section of skin scratched raw by the doctor. Ouch!

Despite the pain and the ick factor, the vaccine was widely administered. After years of vigorous public health campaigns, smallpox was eliminated from the U.S. in 1949. It was eradicated from the world by 1980. It is the only disease to have been completely eliminated through vaccination, though hopefully not the last.

With modern advances, it is easier than ever to distribute vaccines quickly and on a mass scale. The more people who receive the COVID vaccine, the more chance we have to one day eradicate this new disease. And in 2021, we don’t have to deal with scabs as part of the inoculation process.

A sterile needle and some mRNA doesn’t seem so daunting now, does it?

Richmond Story: Easter Styles

History is change. Traditions, values, awareness, power dynamics, fashion and social norms all change as time passes. This past year, so much history has been made and so many things have changed before our eyes.

On this Easter Sunday, however, there is one thing we can say we hope never changes. And that is the tradition of stepping up and stepping out for Easter. From the time of this city’s founding, Richmonders from varying backgrounds have donned their best on this holiday. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite historic photos of Easter styles on display in Richmond—from Lakeside to Jackson Ward to Southside to Oregon Hill to the Fan.

Easter Greetings from “Kitty”, 1892, FIC.037880, The Valentine


Easter at 100 W. Orange St., 1954, V.79.120.1660, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Mrs. Bowis and Girls on Easter, Circa 1950, V.89.293.86, Tyree Family Collection, The Valentine


Easter Sunday at 1200 St. John St., Corner Coutts St., 1954, V.79.120.1005.01, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Easter, 1955, Terry Hoffman, V.2017.15.14, Hoffmann Family Photograph Collection, The Valentine


Easter Morning at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1956, V.91.42.669, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Easter Sunday at Maymont Park, April 10, 1966, Carl Lynn, V.67.32.26, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine


The Woolard Family on Easter, 1967, V.2015.90.116, The Valentine


Easter on Parade, 1983, V.85.37.3036, Bob Brown, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine


Easter on Parade, 1994, V.2007.61.1755, The Valentine


We hope these archival gems inspire you to shed your pandemic sweatpants, put on your best outfit and (safely) venture outside!