Commemorating the History of African Americans in Central Virginia

As a staff member at the Valentine Richmond History Center, I have heard stories of how this institution has uniquely offered a place where local African American children could explore the 400-year history of Richmond.  In its 114 years of operation, the History Center has consistently included African American themes in its educational programs.  An integral part of the organization’s mission is to chronicle the contributions of African Americans to the ongoing growth and success of the Richmond region.

This mission has afforded me and so many others the opportunity to see many of the real treasures of African American history in Central Virginia.  This includes a restaurant booth from the Eggleston’s Hotel, which opened in Jackson Ward in 1939.  There is also a bust of Maggie L. Walker (pictured to the right), the first African American and woman to found a bank, and John Jasper, founding pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church who is famous for his “De Sun Do Move” sermon.  In the “I am well, and war is Hell: Richmond during the World Wars” exhibition, visitors can hear the story of Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., the Richmond native who served in World War II and later became the first African American to achieve rank of admiral and to command a naval fleet.

While promoting these historical figures, the History Center is equally inclusive of the harsh realities of slavery and racism.  The lives of the over 15 slaves who toiled in the Wickham House is detailed in the basement of the historic home.  A portrait of black children barefoot, eating watermelon, and smiling, which reinforces stereotypes of African Americans after the Civil War, is shown in the museum’s “Settlement to Streetcar Suburbs: Richmond and Its People” exhibition.
Beyond our walls, the History Center loans many items across the country related to African American history.  This includes the suit worn by Governor L. Douglas Wilder during his 1990 inauguration, which is currently displayed at the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibition at the Science Museum of Virginia.  Likewise, a portrait of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave from New Kent County who served as a spy during the American Revolution, is frequently loaned to other museums as it is believed to be the first portrait of an African American in the nation.

On June 9, Richmond History Tours is offering a unique opportunity to explore Richmond’s African American Heritage by bus.  The guided tour will explore the impact of the slave trade, explore the role of urban slaves and free blacks, and revisit the Jim Crow era.  Along the route, the importance of Maggie Walker, Oliver Hill and Douglass Wilder will be discussed as well.  A trip through Jackson Ward with visits to the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site, Lumpkin’s Jail site and Capitol Square to view the Civil Rights Memorial are all included in the tour that will begin at the History Center.

There is an old gospel hymn in which the protagonist says “my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.”  Because of this institution, and many like it, I never wonder about my heritage. I can walk throughout the History Center’s exhibitions to learn and be reminded of the long and dynamic history of African Americans and their role in the incredible history of our city and state; and for this I am grateful.

Please visit the History Center soon to explore the many items related to African American history that are on display year-round or join us on June 9 for Richmond’s African American Heritage bus tour.

Corey Boone
Special Events Coordinator and Development Assistant
Valentine Richmond History Center