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 their 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 to 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.

Richmond Story: Edgar Allan Poe

As we pass the six-month mark of social distancing, economic disaster and an uncertain future, it seems fitting to use this week’s Richmond story to openly acknowledge these difficulties. Though months of bread baking, home improvements, online happy hours, exercise regimens and other optimistic efforts have sustained many of us, perhaps it is healthy from time to time to indulge in a bit of wallowing. In that, there is no better guide than one of our most famous Richmonders: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was no stranger to loneliness, financial trouble and depression.  He even invented a new literary genre that aimed to inspire dread in its simplest, shortest and purest form.

X.50.01.301, Edgar Allan Poe, 1840s, The Valentine

Poe was born in 1809 to parents who were both travelling actors. When he was just two years old, his mother died of tuberculosis in Richmond, while acting in a local company. Poe’s father, from whom his mother was estranged, died soon after. Poe’s mother was buried at St. John’s Church in Richmond, and a local childless couple, John and Frances Allan, adopted the orphaned toddler. A tobacco merchant, Allan hoped that his adopted son would eventually take over his business. But Poe, from an early age, was determined to be a poet. Allan paid for Poe’s first year at the University of Virginia, but the young poet accumulated gambling debts and seemed aimless. His adoptive father cut him off financially, the first of many times over the course of Poe’s life. Shortly after this blow, Poe’s fiancée, Sarah Elmira Royster of Church Hill, gave into parental pressure and abandoned him to marry a wealthy man.

Poe left Richmond in 1826 heartbroken, though he continued to write. After publishing his first book, he remained unable to support himself and so tried brief stints in the Army, then West Point, from which he was expelled. All the while, John Allan sometimes helped his ward financially, only cutting him off again for misbehavior.

April 12, 1833 letter from E.A. Poe to John Allan, Poe-Allan-Ellis Papers, The Valentine

In 1831 while living in Baltimore, Poe began to attract notice as a writer. But he was still struggling financially and periodically wrote home to Allan for money. These letters, some archived here at the Valentine, went without reply. In 1835, he was offered the job of assistant editor at the Southern Literary Messenger, a new literary magazine based in Richmond. He took it, and so returned to this city. Despite a clear drinking problem that fueled professional clashes, his brilliance stood out. Poe was soon promoted to editor. Under his leadership, the Messenger became successful. He used the journal not only to publish his poems and short stories, but also wrote humorous and often brutal literary criticism. Few authors were spared. Poe left the Messenger and Richmond in 1837, for literary pursuits northward.

In 1839, Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher. In 1845, The Raven was unleashed. As his writing darkened, however, his personal life darkened as well. His relentless criticism of other writers, the death of his wife, his defiant personality and the financial bankruptcy of his own journal in New York left him alienated, unable to publish, destitute, depressed and grieving. He accumulated debts. In 1849, he returned to Richmond to give a reading and lecture on The Raven.  The homecoming provided him the opportunity to change his life when he reunited with the recently widowed and now-wealthy fiancée who had jilted him 23 years before. He seized it. Poe decided to marry his beloved Elmira at last and return to life here. But the move never happened. Just weeks after deciding to turn this new, optimistic page, amidst his arrangements to move back to Richmond, Poe was found unconscious outside of a tavern in Baltimore. He died in a hospital four days later. The previous few months had taken their toll on Poe, so much so that scholars have multiple theories as to how he met his end.

He was only 40 years old, but Poe transformed the alienation and despair that defined his life into a literary legacy that still inspires dread (in a good way) today.

Richmond Story: The Knights of Labor

In 1882 and 1883, a nationwide economic slump led to layoffs across the country. Many of these layoffs became permanent, even as the economy recovered due to industries replacing more and more workers with machinery. Against this mass industrialization, traditional small craft unions found few victories. In Richmond, like in most American cities, small craft unions were nothing new. Organized by trade, however, they were limited in size and thus limited in power. There were only so many quarry workers or so many foundry workers in a single city. Many felt powerless against the mass scale of industrialization.

V.92.68.03, Proposition for Membership in the Order of the Knights of Labor, c. 1885, The Valentine

A new labor model was needed to address the changing economic landscape. That model could be found in the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, it slowly evolved and expanded its mission and leadership so that by 1879, it was poised to harness the rising frustrations of the working class. This union revolutionized the labor movement by inducting members regardless of trade. Anyone could join: iron workers, typographers, cigar makers, granite cutters, mill workers, barbers, builders, textile workers. With sheer numbers, the Knights could match the power of what they called “the great capitalists.”

In April of 1884, the Knights of Labor spread to Richmond. Eleven white workers established “The Eureka Assembly.” At first, they struggled to gain more members. Corporate interests were strong and leaders exploited racial tensions within the working class to maintain power. But by the fall of 1884, Black workers had formed a few of their own assemblies. They could not be official Knights, however, without a charter, which they needed from the local white organizer. By that time, eight white assemblies had been established in the city. Fierce debate between them ensued. Some members were in favor of integrating the union, while some opposed the idea. The organizer, Charles Miller, wrote to the national office outlining the dilemma. Terence Powderly, the General Master Workman of the Knights, and possibly the most famous labor activist in the country at the time, did not reply to the letter. Instead, he came to Richmond.

He arrived in late January of 1885 and stayed for two days. In those two days, he held two meetings. In the first, open only to white members, he discussed the inclusive structure needed to not just address larger local issues, but to apply political pressure and to secure victories for workers. Powderly told the group:

“We organize the colored workers into separate assemblies, working under the same laws and enjoying the same privileges as their white brethren… The politicians have kept the white and black men of the South apart, while crushing both. Our aim shall be to educate both and elevate them by bringing them together.”

V.93.108.02, Tenth Annual Convention of the Knights of Labor, Held at the First Regiment Armory, Richmond. General Master Worksman Powderly Addressing the Convention, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. October 16, 1886, The Valentine

The next evening, he presided over a much larger meeting at the Old First Market Hall, at 17th and Main Streets. This meeting was open to everyone: Black and white, men and women, members and non-members. It was packed. There, he announced this separate but equal structure, quite radical for the time in Richmond. Never before here had Black and white workers belonged to the same union. The enthusiasm of the crowd was so great, Powderly later recalled that “I organized an assembly of colored men at the conclusion of the meeting.” After Powderly’s visit, membership to the Knights of Labor exploded in Richmond. Even the women were inspired to organize for the first time in this city’s history, forming an assembly of white women cigarette makers.

By retaining maximum flexibility for both membership and regional prejudices, the Knights of Labor drew in the numbers needed to fight rising corporate power. Of course, because of this flexibility, many things did not change for Black workers in their segregated assemblies and more serious divisions persisted. But Black and white workers did, for the first time in Richmond, exert political pressure as one. As membership boomed, the Knights held boycotts against offending businesses. One of their first actions as an “integrated” union was to take up the cause of Richmond’s coopers—a trade unique at the time for not being dominated by one race. Forced to compete with free convict labor, Black and white coopers struggled to make a living. In the summer of 1885, the Knights declared a boycott on the Haxall-Crenshaw flour mill in defense of the coopers, which bought convict-made barrels. Right away, they took on one of the biggest and oldest businesses in Richmond. By the end of the year, the Knights won. With that, thousands of white Richmonders were compelled to, and did, join a boycott that benefited poor Black workers—a feat nearly unimaginable in 1880s Richmond.

Richmond Story: The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia

X.2019.16.122, Who Represents Her?, Flyer, circa 1917, The Valentine

On November 27, 1909, a group of prominent white women met in a Richmond home to establish a statewide suffrage organization. Named the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, they elected Lila Meade Valentine as their president. Their mission was to “educate” Virginians and Virginia’s legislators on the merits of women’s suffrage. Like all good educators, they were strategic, creative and tireless in their methods. For easy access to the halls of power and the public, they established headquarters at 802 East Broad Street—just blocks from both the Capitol and the busiest commercial district in the city. From there, audiences were easy to capture.

Out in the streets, they distributed flyers both serious and humorous. To reach people in their homes, artistic members such as Nora Houston designed postcards. The writers—Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston—wrote editorials. Adele Clark, another artist, even used trickery to spread the message. With a paintbrush in hand, she’d set up her easel on Broad Street. After an unwitting crowd formed to watch her paint, she turn from her canvas and begin to canvass for the cause. The Equal Suffrage League became hard to ignore as they traveled to schools, took over street corners, haunted legislative sessions, attended union meetings, marched in parades and even set up booths at the state fair. By 1914, the League had grown to 45 local chapters. By 1916, they reported 115 local chapters statewide.

As a state-focused organization, the League aimed to gain suffrage through changes in the state constitution. But despite their multi-faceted efforts, the Virginia legislature rejected suffrage resolutions three times between 1912 and 1916. Some League members became frustrated and shifted their efforts to national organizations that lobbied the U.S. Congress for a Constitutional amendment. Others continued to press on at the state level, where they confronted the anti-suffragists’ escalating war of words. In Virginia, and across the South in general, many feared the unintended consequences of enfranchising Black women. With Black men and Black women at the polls, they argued, whites might lose power. In response, the League sought to allay those fears by embracing racist laws, positions and rhetoric. They printed more “educational” flyers, such as the one below, which assured nervous whites that white supremacy would, in fact, be strengthened by female suffrage.

V.89.25, Equal Suffrage and the Negro Vote, Flyer, circa 1910, The Valentine

Of course, the suffragists eventually won at the national level. When the Constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1919, the 32,000-member League poured their energies into the campaign for ratification. The amendment failed in both houses of the state legislature, however, by a large majority. It would not pass for more than 30 years. Only in 1952 did the General Assembly formally, perhaps begrudgingly, ratify the 19th Amendment. But none of this mattered much once enough states signed on by August of 1920. Within two months, and in time for the 1920 Presidential election, more than 10,000 white women and nearly 2,500 Black women had registered to vote in Virginia.

Learn more about the complicated, nuanced and problematic struggle for suffrage in Richmond when you visit our exhibition #BallotBattle: Richmond’s Social Struggle for Suffrage, which reimagines early suffrage debates through the lens of modern social media platforms.

Richmond Story: Fan Free Clinic

In the early 1980s, news outlets began to report about a mysterious new “gay cancer” in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Little was known about the disease, other than its main demographic. At first, the threat seemed far away to many Americans, with risk limited to the urban gay community. But soon, the epidemic spread to smaller cities and the demographic picture blurred. By 1990, the estimated number of people diagnosed worldwide with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was between eight and 10 million. With little information and with no known treatments, fear largely motivated responses in Richmond and around the word. People with AIDS were shunned. Hospitals posted huge warning signs outside patients’ rooms. Medical personnel wore hazmat suits and left food trays in the halls. Funeral homes refused to bury those who died of the disease. Here in Richmond, amidst this turmoil, a clinic initially founded to serve “hippies” stepped in to become the area’s leader in AIDS diagnosis, treatment, outreach and prevention.

V.89.192.320 Third annual AIDS candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic May 30, 1988 Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine Photo: Bruce Parker

The first free clinic in Virginia, two doctors, a nurse and a minister founded Fan Free Clinic in 1970. A large population of young, poor students and runaways had moved into the Fan District during the 1960s. Free love, communal living, recreational drug use and protests became the dominant lifestyle of the neighborhood. Skeptical of the judgment of the medical establishment, these young people tended to avoid doctors. When the Fan Free Clinic opened, it provided a revolutionary model for healthcare for a revolutionary generation. Without judgment and only using first names, the staff treated STDs, provided birth control, handled overdoses and treated a wide variety of injuries. They also provided counseling to young people entering into adulthood during this uncertain time.

A decade into operation, Fan Free Clinic had gained the trust of a skeptical community that had often avoided medical treatment. Soon, the staff began to notice that their young, mostly white counterculture patients had a lot in common with another medically elusive demographic: the broader population of urban poor, many of whom were Black. However, these individuals didn’t avoid medical care as an act of rebellion. Instead, many Black Richmonders couldn’t get time off work, struggled to find sustainable housing, couldn’t find childcare or simply couldn’t afford the care they needed. The Fan Free Clinic expanded to meet their needs as well, offering evening doctor appointments and advertising their services in homeless shelters.

When the AIDS epidemic hit Richmond in the 1980s, the Fan Free Clinic was poised to address the new healthcare threat. As hospitals balked at this mysterious new disease, as the media spread fear and misinformation and as scandalized citizens either moralized or refused to talk at all about the raging epidemic, Fan Free Clinic rose to the challenge. They formed Richmond’s frontline for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. In 1983, they set up an AIDS hotline and established Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN) with a network of volunteers. Through its AIDS hotline, volunteers answered questions about virus transmission and advocated for safer sex and the use of clean drug needles. Misinformation about how the disease spread terrified the American public, making education vitally important. Perhaps just as important, they fought the AIDS epidemic with compassion. RAIN provided services and companionship to those affected by the disease. They offered comfort to the dying, raised money for medical treatments and staged funerals. When other cemeteries around Richmond refused to bury AIDS victims, the Fan Free Clinic established their own burial ground.

The Fan Free Clinic, renamed Health Brigade, in still in operation today. Its mission remains unchanged: to provide medical treatment, health education and social services to Richmonders with limited access to care. Though its mission remains the same, the clinic’s reach has expanded in order to serve Richmond’s transgender community. As before, they are on the frontlines, combatting the healthcare challenges of a pandemic which has had a disparate impact on communities of color. Currently, Health Brigade is providing free testing and accurate COVID-19 information to a clientele that desperately need this vital lifeline of care.

To learn more about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Virginia and the ongoin impact in 2020, we invite you to experience Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, our exhibition that uses first-person oral histories and powerful black-and-white portraits to offer a nuanced look at the ongoing epidemic through the stories of survivors, caregivers, activists and health care workers on the front lines.

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.