Race, Space and Power in Richmond, Virginia
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.
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.
[i] The Racial Dot Map. Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://demographics.coopercenter.org/racial-dot-map/.
[ii] Plumer, B., Popovich, N., & Palmer, B. (2020, August 24). How decades of racist housing policy left neighborhoods sweltering. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/24/climate/racism-redlining-cities-global-warming.html.
[iii] Samuels, M. (2020, June 2). Police brutality influenced by residential segregation, not "a few bad apples". Boston University. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/police-brutality-residential-segregation-michael-siegel-bu/.
[iv] Smith, T. (2013, January 27). 20 years. that's the difference in life expectancy between a person who lives their entire life in Richmond's west end versus some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://richmond.com/news/local/20-years-that-s-the-difference-in-life-expectancy-between-a-person-who-lives-their/article_2cc6b9b5-b2cb-5d45-838a-6765c30bc20b.html.
[v] Robinson, M., photo, F., Okada, M., & Min/times-dispatch/, D. S. (2021, April 18). Battered by demolition and displacement, Jackson Ward stands strong at 150th anniversary. Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://richmond.com/news/local/battered-by-demolition-and-displacement-jackson-ward-stands-strong-at-150th-anniversary/article_4d064300-4d2c-56cf-b73d-4956b43b26ea.html.
[viii] Franklin, J. H., & Higginbotham, E. (2020, June 11). From Slavery to Freedom. McGraw Hill. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.mheducation.com/highered/product/slavery-freedom-franklin-higginbotham/M9780073513348.html.
[ix] The state of Louisiana - Literacy Test. sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/aale/pdfs/Voter%20Test%20LA.pdf.
[xi] 1924 code of Ethics. www.nar.realtor. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.nar.realtor/about-nar/history/1924-code-of-ethics.
[xii] Smith, T. (2013, January 27). 20 years. that's the difference in life expectancy between a person who lives their entire life in Richmond's west end versus some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://richmond.com/news/local/20-years-that-s-the-difference-in-life-expectancy-between-a-person-who-lives-their/article_2cc6b9b5-b2cb-5d45-838a-6765c30bc20b.html.
[xiii] VCU CNS Top posts by VCU CNS 1 “Dopesick” Series To Film In Virginia 2 Marijuana Possession and Cultivation Could Be Legal By July 3 Virginia Restaurants Grapple with P, V. C. U. C. N. S. (2020, January 9). Navy hill: From thriving black community to debated redevelopment. RVA Mag. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://rvamag.com/politics/local-politics/navy-hill-from-thriving-black-community-to-debated-redevelopment.html.
[xv] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (n.d.). HOUSING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST RACIAL AND ETHNIC MINORITIES 2012. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.huduser.gov/portal//Publications/pdf/HUD-50812.pdf.
[xvi] Demsas, J. (2021, February 17). America's racist housing rules really can be fixed. Vox. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/22252625/america-racist-housing-rules-how-to-fix.
[xvii] Perry, A. M. (2020, February 21). Discriminatory housing practices are leading to the devaluation of Black Americans. Brookings. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/02/13/discriminatory-housing-practices-are-leading-to-the-devaluation-of-black-americans/.
[xviii] Board, E., & Montoni, L. M. (2019, November 22). Buying space, policing race. The Activist History Review. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://activisthistory.com/2019/11/22/buying-space-policing-race/#_edn11.
[xix] Urban Displacement Project. (2021, November 3). What are gentrification and displacement. Urban Displacement. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.urbandisplacement.org/about/what-are-gentrification-and-displacement/.
[xxi] RVA Eviction Lab. Our History. (2020, February 4). Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://rampages.us/rvaevictionlab/about-the-lab/why-did-we-form-the-lab/.
[xxii] Mitchell, S. (2019, March 18). In Richmond, Virginia, gentrification is colonization. In Richmond, Virginia, gentrification is colonization " NCRC. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://ncrc.org/gentrification-richmondva/embed/.
To learn more about Virginia politics in the 19th century, check out these online resources (mostly from the wonderful Encyclopedia of Virginia):
- Underwood Convention: https://www.virginiamemory.com/online-exhibitions/exhibits/show/remaking-virginia/voting/constitutional-convention
- Readjuster Party: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/readjuster-party-the/
- Danville Riot of 1883: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/danville-riot-1883/
- Coalition Rule in Virginia Pamphlet: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/coalition-rule-in-danville-october-1883/
- Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/constitutional-convention-virginia-1901-1902/
- Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), Chapter 8
- Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc (HOME), “Where you Live Makes All the Difference: An Opportunity Map of the Richmond Region” (2013)
- John Moeser and Rutledge M. Dennis, The Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City, Open Access Edition (VCU Libraries, 2020)
- Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017)
- Christopher Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984)
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019)
Reflection activity directions
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?