Picturing Business in Jackson Ward

As a summer intern here in the Valentine Richmond History Center Archives I have been researching photographs and objects that the History Center has collected over the past several years.  To my surprise, some of the images that have interested me the most have been of banks, insurance companies, and other businesses. (All due respect to my own insurance agent and other financial wizards out there.)

The period between 1900 and 1930 has been called the “Golden Age of Black Business” and it is hard to overstate the national importance of Jackson Ward during that time.  Because African Americans were largely denied credit by white-owned banks, they created their own institutions to save and loan money.  Often, fraternal and religious organizations formed banks to pool resources, and banks spun off insurance outfits or investment firms.  The Southern Aid Society was the nation’s first black owned insurance company, established by two former officers of Richmond’s own True Reformers Bank in 1893.  This image shows the Southern Aid home office at 504 North Second Street circa 1905.  The company soon grew to occupy a larger office at 527 North Second Street.  While Maggie Lena Walker remains the most famous financier in Jackson Ward, Richmond boasted many smaller companies like Southern Aid and Mechanics Savings Bank (founded in 1902 and run by newspaper editor John Mitchell, Jr.). As much as a sense of security, it is interesting to think of how the existence of Southern Aid or Mechanics Bank might have given their neighbors pride during segregation.  The History Center’s photograph collection contains some other great images of these buildings as well as the employees that worked there.

Southern Aid Society of Virginia Home Office
504 N. Second Street, Richmond, Virginia
c. 1905
Photographer Unknown
V. 2009.70.61
Gift of Richmond Public Library

On the surface pictures like these are just brick walls and wooden doors.  Peek in the window though (just past the barber pole), and you can see someone getting a shave next door at G.W. Thweatts Hot & Cold Baths.  Buildings like the Southern Aid Society’s could be home base for all kinds of economic and social activity.  Moreover, by cooperating with other organizations and creative figures (like the photographers that made the picture!) homegrown businesses like the Southern Aid Society, True Reformers and Mechanics Banks were part of the foundation of African American cultural life in Richmond.

Brian Piper
Collections Intern
Valentine Richmond History Center