Like all urban centers in the United States, Richmond is visibly segregated by race.[i] Divided into separate parts of the city and the surrounding area, Black and White Richmonders have unequal access to quality schools, transportation, good jobs, and amenities like grocery stores and green spaces. Poor Black neighborhoods are more often "heat islands," meaning they are on average hotter than wealthy Whites ones, posing multiple health problems.[ii] Residential segregation has played a critical role in creating and maintaining the wealth gap between Black and White Americans. It facilitates the over-policing of Black communities.[iii] It also leads to disparate health outcomes and life expectancy between Black and White residents of the city.[iv]
Richmond’s residential segregation is the result of social engineering and not the product of chance or free market choices. Following the enfranchisement of Black male voters in the wake of the Civil War, White supremacists waged a decades-long fight to strip Black men of their right to vote and to eliminate Black political officeholding. When Black Richmonders were legally disenfranchised, they were vulnerable to efforts by White Richmonders to deny them access to economic mobility and opportunity1. This project of maintaining racial hierarchy was etched into the landscape of the city. Through the combined efforts of government officials, real estate agents, private interests, and city boosters, Black residents were restricted to neglected neighborhoods, denied access to homeownership in the growing suburbs, and uprooted again and again in the name of urban renewal and city improvements.[v] The result is the Richmond we have today: separate and unequal.
In the 1950s, the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), now VCU Health, was a direct beneficiary of this policy of racialized urban planning. To affirm the university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, as outlined in VCU's mission statement, the university must confront the history of racialized social engineering in Richmond, acknowledge its complicity in this practice, and commit to a different course.
1 For a good summary of this process from a national perspective, see Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corportation, 2017).
IMAGE: Racial segregation in Richmond, VA., 2010. Image copyright, 2013. Racial dot map, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator).
Understand the historical roots of Black political disenfranchisement and racial segregation in Richmond.
Summarize the policies that created and maintained inequalities between Richmond’s White and Black neighborhoods.
Identify the role played by VCU in the displacement and neglect of Black communities in Richmond.
NOTE:Users who are pursuing the Unlocking Health Equity badge, credit through the VCU Health System DEI learning requirement, or those who would like to claim continuing education credit must complete and submit the Reflection Activity at the bottom of this page. Please visit VCU Health Continuing Education for more information.
We ask that you spend an hour reading and viewing the resources before completing the reflection activity. Reflections will be evaluated, and individuals may be asked to resubmit if answers are incomplete or do not meet the length requirement.
From Slavery to Freedom to Disenfranchisement
We are taught to think of United States history as moving in a straight line: from settlement to colonial development to nation; from slavery to freedom to equality. Martin Luther King Jr. assured us that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.[vi] Barack Obama celebrated the capacity of the United States to reinvent itself time and again as the nation developed a “more perfect union.”[vii] The most famous textbook of African American history, written by John Hope Franklin and now in its tenth edition, gives voice to this notion of historical movement in its title: From Slavery to Freedom.[viii]
However, since the abolition of slavery in 1865, the United States has witnessed periods of Black enfranchisement and Black disenfranchisement. In some moments, Black communities and their allies have pulled the country toward democratic, multiracial governance. Historically, these ongoing efforts have been suppressed by a White majority that remains the beneficiary of racial hierarchy that sustains White political, economic, and social power.
The Reconstruction period (1865-1877)
The Reconstruction period (1865-1877) involved a genuine effort to transform the United States into a multi-racial democracy. The Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th, and 15th — abolished slavery, granted Black Americans full citizenship, erected protections against racial discrimination, and gave Black men the vote.
In Virginia (as elsewhere in the former Confederacy), Black delegates played a critical role in writing the new state constitution which, among other accomplishments, created a statewide system of free public grade schools for all Virginian children, and guaranteed civil rights to all Virginians.
In the 1880s, Black Virginian voters played a critical role in bringing the reformist Readjuster Party to power. In general, during the last decades of the 19th century, nearly 70 Black men served on the state legislature, with John Mercer Langston representing Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many more Black men served in local elected positions.
Across the South, Black political power and civil rights were stripped away by a combination of anti-Black propaganda, violence, and fraud. The Democratic Party — then the party of White supremacy — returned to power in Virginia by galvanizing White voters around the specter of “Negro rule.”
Once restored to power across the South, the Democratic Party moved to disenfranchise Black voters by legal means. In Virginia, alleging widespread voter fraud, Democrats took measures to curtail the Black vote beginning in the 1890s. These efforts were codified at a new constitutional convention, organized to ensure, in the words of one delegate, "that the Anglo-Saxon race is now and will be forever master wherever it exists."
Carter Glass, another delegate, explained the convention's plan of Black voter suppression:
By fraud, no; by discrimination, yes. But it will be discrimination within the letter of the law, and not in violation of the law. Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose; that exactly, is why this Convention was elected — to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with the view to the elimination of every Negro who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.
The 1902 Constitution included several provisions designed, as Glass suggested, to legally circumvent the 15th Amendment voter protections, including a poll tax, a racially-targeted “literacy test,” and wide-ranging felony disenfranchisement measures.[ix] Across Virginia, the number of eligible Black voters was reduced from 147,000 in 1900 to roughly 10,000 by 1905. In Jackson Ward alone, Black voter registration fell from 2,983 in 1900 to 347 in 1902, and 33 by the end of 1903. From 1871 to 1898, 33 Black men served on Richmond’s city council. Between 1898 and 1948, the council remained all White.
IMAGE: Map of Richmond, Virginia in 1876, divided by wards
Residential segregation was not destiny in Richmond. At the time of the passage of the 1902 Constitution, the city’s Black population was widely dispersed throughout the city. The nucleus of Black life was Jackson Ward, located just north of the city center, a thriving hub of commerce and social life, variously referred to as Black Wall Street or the “Harlem of the South.”[x] But Black families populated nearly every part of the city. More than half of the city’s 22 Black churches were located outside of Jackson Ward.
IMAGE: Jackson Ward in the 1870s (Credit: The Valentine Museum).
The restoration of White supremacy in Virginia allowed Richmond’s all-White city leadership to reimagine the city in ways that preserved racial hierarchy. The result of this work was the cordoning of Richmond into racially divided and unequal parcels of space.
One arm of this strategy was the preservation and protection of all-White space. At first, the Richmond City Council simply passed an ordinance, in 1911, barring Black families from moving into blocks with a majority White population. When the ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the city tried again, this time mobilizing Virginia’s infamous 1924 law banning interracial marriage by preventing Richmonders from moving onto city blocks where they were legally barred from marrying any of the block’s residents. This law, too, was struck down by the Supreme Court, in 1930.
IMAGE: Virginia Health Bulletin by the Virginia Department of Health, March 1924, Vol. XVI, Extra No. 2. Photo by Francisco Macias. Source: Library of Congress.
Barred from explicitly segregating Richmond’s blocks and neighborhoods, city planners turned to zoning practices designed to achieve the same effect. Exclusionary zoning practices — preserving neighborhoods for single-family homes and large lots — kept housing prices high and prevented non-affluent families, both White and Black, from moving in. These all-White affluent neighborhoods were then protected by private restrictive covenants, which forbade White homeowners from selling their property to non-White homebuyers.
IMAGE: A restrictive covenant for the wealthy neighborhood of Windsor Farms in Richmond’s west end.
The real estate industry did its part by demanding that real estate agents defend White neighborhoods from non-White families. The National Association of Real Estate Board’s 1924 code of ethics counseled that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood . . . members of any race or nationality . . . whose presence will be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”[xi]
IMAGE: National Association of Real Estate Boards, Code of Ethics (1924)
The desire to prevent Black encroachment on White neighborhoods also led city planners to look outward — toward the expansion of the city and the development of new, all-White neighborhoods — rather than to the needs of the inner city core, where Black communities already resided. The annexation plan of 1913, which more than doubled the area of the city, allowed Richmond planners to regulate this expansion — with zoning practices and restrictive covenants — to ensure that these new areas of the city would be reserved exclusively for White families.
Un/Building Black Spaces
The combined efforts of city planners, homeowners, and real estate agents confined Black people in cities across the country to overcrowded and neglected neighborhoods. In the early 20th century, Jackson Ward, Richmond’s most densely populated area, received the lowest amount of public funds and had unpaved streets, no sidewalks, unreliable or nonexistent streetlights, and poor municipal services. The conditions of Black neighborhoods were made worse by White slumlords and speculators, who built cheaply, charged artificially high rents, subdivided properties to their breaking point, and invested little money in repairs.
IMAGE: Postcard from the early 20th Century: “A Glimpse Through E. 18th, the Slums of Richmond, VA” (Source: James Branch Cabell Library, Special Collections).
Black Richmonders were also victimized by environmental racism, the widespread pattern of locating environmental hazards in the proximity of Black neighborhoods. Richmond’s first waste incinerator was slated to be built in a lightly populated area in the city’s north-east before nearby White residents launched a successful protest campaign. The project was moved to the densely populated area of Jackson Ward known as Apostletown, filling the air with “nauseating” smells in the summer. The homes of some Jackson Ward residents backed onto the city dump. Residents also had to contend with the open sewer of Shockoe Creek and smoke billowing from the nearby locomotive works.
IMAGE: Homes in Jackson Ward, just below the dump (Source: Jackson Davis Collection of African American Photographs, University of Virginia Special Collections).
The environmental hazards in Black communities across the city helped contribute to a death rate that was nearly twice as high for Black Richmonders as for White Richmonders before World War II. In 1927, the average age of death for Black Richmonders was only 37.2, compared to 52.1 for White Richmonders. (The gap is currently larger when comparing Richmond’s rich, overwhelmingly White neighborhoods, against its poor, overwhelmingly Black neighborhoods.)[xii]
IMAGE: More Jackson Ward homes running up to the dump (Source: Jackson Davis Collection of African American Photographs, University of Virginia Special Collections).
IMAGE: The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1-95) cleaves through the heart of Jackson Ward (Source: Library of Virginia).
After World World II, city planners took steps to uproot Black neighborhoods entirely in the name of “urban renewal.” The most famous of these projects was the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (I-95), which was routed through the heart of Jackson Ward, irreparably breaking up Richmond’s most important Black neighborhood and displacing more than 7,000 people, or 10% of Richmond’s entire Black population. The Turnpike did not need to cleave through Jackson Ward, but city planners wanted suburban White commuters to have easy access to Richmond’s downtown.2 They wanted to protect industrial land and land set aside for a revitalized city center. “The demolition of scores of dwellings and business places will create difficult problems for some of the persons involved,” conceded the Richmond Times-Dispatch of the Turnpike construction.[xiii] But the paper added: “This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when individual citizens must be inconvenienced for the good of the community.”
Urban renewal efforts across the country became synonymous with “Negro removal.”[xiv] In Richmond, a remarkable 95% of the residents displaced by urban renewal and highway construction projects during the 1950s and 1960s were Black (in some cities, like Columbus, Ohio, and Charlotte, North Carolina, urban planners displaced hundreds of Black families without affecting a single White residence).3 The Downtown Expressway cut through Randolph and pushed out thousands of Black families. The redevelopment of the 17th Street area, the Carver neighborhood, Navy Hill, and Fulton displaced thousands more. In the stead of these neighborhoods, the city erected public housing projects — Gilpin Court, Mosby Court, Creighton Court — which were segregated and soon limited (by income caps) to the low-income families.
2 Christopher Silver, “‘Greater Richmond’ and the ‘Good City’: Politics and Planning in a New South Metropolis” (PhD diss, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1981), 306. Silver writes: “Blacks and both working and middle class whites, in large numbers, opposed the plan for expressways to be cut through the heart of the city. Downtown business interests and planners, on the other hand, pressed for a midtown route to improve access to the central business district. Thus while proclaiming sensitivity to the neighborhood needs of city residents, city planners and progressive business allies stressed that losses sustained by inner city neighborhoods would be offset by gains realized through easier access to the downtown area.” Silver painstakingly reconstructs the fight over the turnpike in his dissertation and, later, his book. Richard Rothstein explains how this practice of highway construction—which targeted Black neighborhoods for removal and sought to link downtown business districts to the fast-growing suburbs—was a national phenomenon (see chapter 3 of The Color of Law).
3 Heywood T. Sanders, “Urban Renewal and the Revitalized City: A Reconsideration of Recent History,” in Urban Revitalization, ed. David Rosenthal (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1980, 106-7. Sanders is cited in Silver, “‘Greater Richmond’ and the ‘Good City,’” 419.
IMAGE: Residential Security Map for Richmond, Virginia, 1923.
Beginning during the New Deal and unfolding after World War II, the federal government embarked on one of the largest and most consequential feats of social engineering in United States history. These combined efforts built the suburbs and the federal highway system to connect the suburbs to their city centers. They facilitated a massive redistribution of wealth and opportunity to working- and middle-class White families. Because of the practice that came to be known as Redlining, Black families were nearly entirely excluded.
The current racial wealth gap in the United States owes much to the legacy of this federally directed project. Sociologist Thomas Shapiro has estimated that between 1990 and 2020, some $7 to $9 trillion was inherited by the descendants of these homebuyers — men and women who purchased their homes with government support and enjoyed the steady appreciation of their wealth as the value of their properties grew.
Part 3: Old Patterns and New Futures
We live with the effects of racist housing policy and city planning. We also face the ongoing problem of racial discrimination. Since the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, discriminatory housing practices have declined, but they continue to persist; so have exclusionary zoning practices; so has the systematic devaluation of homes in Black-majority neighborhoods.[xv][xvi][xvii]
As Richmond continues to be reimagined and reshaped by government officials, entrepreneurs, and investors, it is critical that this history is acknowledged. Virginia Commonwealth University, like many other now predominantly White institutions, has been the beneficiary of the displacement of Black communities since their conceptions. The expansion of the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) was a prominent feature of the city’s civic center development, which included the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, and the building of the convention center, the Coliseum, and a new city hall. Final plans for the Turnpike were made to align with MCV’s own master plan. Part of the MCV campus sits on land that was once part of the Black neighborhood of Navy Hill.4
VCU’s current efforts at expansion have also raised concern. As Eli Coston has catalogued, VCU has responded to its need for more space and its desire to connect its two campuses — Monroe Park and MCV — by encroaching on existing community space, disrupting local businesses, driving up housing costs, and extending its police force into already-overpoliced areas of Jackson Ward.[xviii]
Richmond’s Black communities are currently under assault from these practices of gentrification.[xix] Neighborhoods that have been impoverished by constant neglect and devalued by state policy are now targets for redevelopment.[xx] This redevelopment drives up housing costs and drives out low- and moderate-income Black renters, replacing them with upwardly mobile, predominantly White professionals and families looking to move back into the city. As housing prices have increased, so too have evictions: Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country.[xxi] In Richmond, writes Shekinah Mitchell, “gentrification is colonization.”[xxii]
How should institutions like VCU acknowledge and respond to Richmond’s history of Black community neglect, displacement, and dispossession - a history in which VCU plays a part? How might VCU grow and develop in ways that disrupt this patter, that empowers- rather than displace - Black communities? How might we ensure that healthy neighborhoods are available for all Richmonders, so that all Richmonders might equally thrive?
4 “While unwilling to relinquish industrial property to minimize residential losses, highway planners were equally concerned about protecting and enhancing the potential of a proposed civic center for downtown Richmond,” writes Christopher Silver. “The final line of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike meshed with the master plan of the Medical College of Virginia which occupied a prominent place in the proposed Civic Center for Richmond. Indeed, once local control over the expressway planning shifted into the hands of the Turnpike Authority, the City Planning Commission redirected its energies toward the second pillar of the master plan, creation of a civic center to serve as an anchor to downtown development.” See Silver, “‘Greater Richmond’ and the ‘Good City.’” John V. Moeser and Rutledge M. Dennis add that Navy Hill “was destroyed by a combination of projects which included the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia as well as the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, Reynolds Community College, the convention center, a new coliseum, a new city hall, and a new federal office building.” See Moeser and Dennis, The Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City (Richmond, VCU Libraries, 2020), xx.
We ask that you spend the hour reading and viewing the resources above and viewing as many of the linked resources below as possible prior to completing the reflection activity. Reflections will be evaluated, and individuals may be asked to resubmit if answers are incomplete or do not meet the length requirement.
Users who are pursuing VCU’s History and Health; Racial Equity badge, credit through VCU Health System DEI learning requirement or those who would like to claim continuing education credit must complete and submit the Reflection Activity. The form asks the user to submit basic biographical information (e.g., name, department) and to answer one of the following 3 prompts. Your response must be a minimum of 250 words.
PROMPT OPTION 1: In 1934, the heart of Richmond’s Black community resided in the neighborhoods of Newtowne, Jackson Ward, and Navy Hill:
From the City Planning Commission’s A Master Plan for the Physical Development of the City, 1946.
Close up of City Planning Commission’s A Master Plan for the Physical Development of the City, 1946.
Map of Richmond (Courtesy: Google Maps).
Has MCV benefited from the displacement of Richmond’s Black community? What responsibility does it bear for this history, and how might MCV and VCU pursue actions that address this history?
- OR -
PROMPT OPTION 2: The city of Richmond has long supported a course of urban development that has generated opportunity and wealth creation for many White families while handicapping and displacing many Black families. How might the city address a history that has generated these inequalities and current practices (eviction, gentrification) that exacerbate them?