By Renée S. Gordon
I wrote my first article on a Virginia Black History Trail twelve years ago. At that time, much of the history of the African American presence and contributions was not included as part of the larger historic perspective, but Virginia early on took a holistic approach and they continue to be the model for inclusion in tourism. Each time I revisit a city, I find that more sites have been added and additional stories are told in the quest to tell a “round, unvarnished tale” of life in colonial America and in the United States. www.virginia.org
One could argue that our nation’s history began in Virginia. It was the first permanent English colony and is considered the site of the first importation of African slaves. It was home to four of the first five presidents as well as home to the country’s most famous black insurrectionists, Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner. At the onset of the Civil War, more blacks in general, and free blacks specifically, lived in VA than in any other state.
Only ten days after the arrival at Jamestown, John Smith and 100 men sailed upriver on a trade mission to the village of Parahunt, son of Powhatan. Shortly thereafter, they established a colony, Henricus, at the site of modern Richmond. In 1646, the English gained ownership of the land through a treaty and in 1780 the state’s capitol was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond. In 1861, it became the Capitol of the Confederate States of America and remained so until the end of the war. A tour of the city is like a crash course in American history with emphasis on the Civil War and African American culture.
The Museum and White House of the Confederacy has been restored to its 1860’s appearance. It functioned as both home and headquarters for Jefferson Davis until April of 1865. It was here that two African American spies, William Jackson and Mary Elizabeth Bowser, worked as personal coachman and maid to the Davises and passed important information to the Union.
Following Richmond’s surrender on April 5, 1865 Lincoln visited. He and his son walked the streets, visited the Capitol and the White House of the Confederacy and Lincoln sat at Davis’ desk. www.moc.org
The National Historic Monumental Church is built on the site of a theater that burned in 1811. Seventy-five people, including Governor George William Smith, died. The most heroic story is that of Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, who went to the church seeking the daughter of his wife’s owner. He never located her but he did obtain a ladder and rescued a large number of people. As a reward, he was allowed to purchase his freedom. Unbelievably, in 1823 he appeared at the scene of a penitentiary fire and held a man on his shoulders to facilitate a hole being made in the wall that allowed prisoners to escape. Hunt’s fame resulted in the 1859 publication of a booklet, “Gilbert Hunt, the City Blacksmith,” proceeds of which went into an account to support him in his old age. He died four years later.
Those who died in the church were buried in a common grave on the site and the community planned to build a monument and a church in their memory. America’s first native-born, professional architect Robert Mills’ design was chosen because it combined a monument and church into a single structure. This stunning, octagon-shaped, domed, sandstone building is constructed with a six Doric columned portico and a frieze with lachrymatories representing mourning and remembrance. The porch contains a monument upon which are etched the names of the deceased and their ashes rest beneath the floor.
A 20th-century plaque on the portico’s doors says, “In memory of Gilbert Hunt, the colored man who, at the risk of his own life, heroically saved many lives at the burning of the Richmond Theatre (Dec. 26, 1811) on the site which this church stands. www.historicrichmond.com/preservation-monumental.php
Seventeen markers and nine sites along the Richmond Slave Trail relate the story of the process of slavery, its human toll and its aftermath. The trail is designed for walking and contemplation. Optimally it should be experienced in daylight and darkness. The trail begins at Manchester Docks where slaves were offloaded in the dark and walked to the slave jails to await sale.
The Elegba Folklore Society is comprised of a cultural center, performance company and heritage tour entity. They offer the premier Slave Trail tours including a torch-lit, interactive, evening tour that immerses you in the slave experience. www.efsinc.org
Robert Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, in Shockoe Bottom, was known as “the devil’s half acre” from the 1830s until 1865. The compound was a slavetrading hub with a 2.5-story brick building warehousing hundreds of slaves. Archeologists have uncovered the complex and a similar “jail” has been placed on the site. It was the largest antebellum slave auction area after New Orleans and more than 300,000 slaves passed through here.
Robert and his former slave, Mary, had five children and she inherited the property when he died. In 1867 she rented it to a group of missionaries who built a school to educate newly freed blacks. That school, at a new location, became Virginia Union University in 1899.
Stephen Broadbent’s bronze Slavery Reconciliation Statue was unveiled near a former slave market in 2007. The statue is one of three identical statues that represent three significant points in the triangle trade. The other two sculptures are in Liverpool, England, and Benin in West Africa.
The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is notable not only for its collection but also because it was the first museum to present the Civil War from three points of view, the Confederates, the Union and the African Americans. J. Anderson purchased it in 1836 and turned it into one of the top 5 businesses in the country. He hired and purchased blacks and trained them in important skills and in 1866 he hired Northern laborers to come to Richmond to work but they refused to work beside African American heaters and rollers. Anderson told them not to come to work if they refused to work with blacks. www.tredegar.org
Jackson Ward is a 42-block neighborhood that has existed since the 1700s and is one of the largest black historic districts in the country. It was known as “Little Africa” until after the Civil War when it became known as “The Black Wall Street” because it was the home of the nation’s first black owned bank and insurance company. Architecturally the area is significant because of the East-lake style homes, wooden carved ornamentation and ornamental cast-iron trim.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center founded in 1981, is a repository of records on the lives of African Americans in VA. www.blackhistorymuseum.org
Luther “Bojangles” Robinson was born in Jackson Ward and an iconic statue of him stands in a roundabout. He forever dances down a staircase on the site where he purchased the city’s first traffic light in 1933 after a child had been killed in a traffic accident. He died penniless in 1949 though he had been the highest paid black performer. Ed Sullivan paid for his funeral and 500,000 people honored him as he lay in state in Harlem.
The free Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses the largest collection in the Southeast and a number are exemplary works of African American art. The collection includes pieces by Catlett, Lawrence, Kehinde Wiley, Bannister, Tanner, Vanderzee and Barthé. www.vmfa.museum
Though there are many more sites our final stop will be the phenomenal Virginia Historical Society. It was established in 1831 and is currently an important research facility. Several years ago the VHS instituted, “Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names.” The database is accessible to those seeking information on any of the 1400 slaves and 189 owners whose information has been among the 8 million documents processed so far.
Outstanding galleries present rare and unique artifacts and 17 interactives that tell the story of VA from its founding. My favorite exhibit is an interactive fugitive slave kiosk that allows visitors to make choices that affect the ultimate outcome of their decision to escape bondage. www.vahistorical.org
Richmond is 212 miles south of Philadelphia. You can leave in the morning and step into history by early afternoon. I encourage you to go back to where it all began and hear “a round unvarnished tale.” All the information you need is online. www.visitrichmondva.com
I wish you smooth travels!
Macmillan Audio has released three audiobooks that will greatly enhance your knowledge of the Civil War and make your visit to any related sites more meaningful. Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln,” Tony Horwitz’ “Midnight Rising,” and “Battle of the Crater” by Newt Gingrich all deal with aspects of the war in incredible detail. Horowitz relates the story of John Brown and Gingrich deals with a disastrous battle that ended in the execution of black troops. This is a very palatable way for the most reluctant person to learn the lessons of history. www.us.macmillan.com