South 17th Street


            Drew Patenaude


                                                            South 17th Street


From 1897 to 1907 a man or a women in need of necessary goods could walk down the last few blocks of North 17th Street, as the street intersects with Main Street, and see an array of grocery stores and shops.  On the street there were auctions and goods being sold in the public market that ran down the center of the street, which is displayed in the Sanborn Fire Maps.  Then this person would make the cross over of Main Street and reach what seemed to be an entirely new street in itself.  He or she would be able to see that South 17th Street was lined with large warehouses and well known companies in the city of Richmond, run primarily by white owners.  Filling in the spaces between the massive buildings were small business and shops run by black men. South 17th Street ran from Main Street all the way down to the James River. So, this person walking along to the end of the street would see docks and many boats bringing in items such as wood, coal, ice, and other essential goods. 

While through the eyes of a person from 21st century it would appear that race was not an issue on South 17th Street in the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, as blacks lived along side whites, the gap could not have been greater on this street. Whites owned many idle companies that often distributed to all corners of the city. If the companies went out of business or moved, such as D.N. Walker’s Tobacco Stemmery, the warehouses would become either vacant lots, which is what the Tobacco Stemmery became, or they would be bought out by another white man.1  Blacks owned small businesses that often were built for the communities’ usage causing many of them to not make enough money forcing them to sell the shop to other black entrepreneurs.  17th Street South in the ten-year span of 1987 to 1907 was a street of business, commerce, and the distribution of goods where large white companies and warehouses seemed to overwhelm the lesser and smaller black businesses, often causing the small businesses to leave after only a year or so.

In the late 1800’s companies such as Gregory’s J. M. M.’s Stemmery and Davenport, Morris, & Co. were white owned companies that took up ten or more addresses and whole city blocks when looking at the Sanborn Maps.2 These two businesses were only two of the many white owned companies that populated most of 17th Street South.  These massive warehouses got their goods from docks that each individual business owned at the end of the street and would pick up what ever they needed from boats that came in off the James River.  In newspapers of this specific time, such as the Richmond Planet, companies such as Davenport, Morris, & Co. would use advertisements to let the city of Richmond know of their business goals.3 These goals according to the advertisements were to take the products they were obtaining from the docks and distribute them with trucks and cars to the citizens all around the city.3  Over the period of the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s, as the years progressed, the bigger and well-known businesses, such as The Richmond Ice Company or Waulke & Ballauf’s Coal & Wood, on South 17th Street advertised more frequently and put more effort and information into their advertisements.4  This was distinct in the Richmond Planet as in 1897 the large companies did not have addresses and information, such as numbers to call or people running the business, and then in the early 1900’s this information was added.5

The small black businesses on the other hand almost never advertised and kept a much lower profile in the Richmond community.  These businesses seemed to be more for the communities around South 17th Street instead incorporating people from all corners of the city, as many of the blacks were coopers, brakesmen, ran cook shops or eating houses, or had the lowest job of them all, a laborer.6 None of these businesses were run for the masses of the city because it appeared that they were either not run out of large factories that generated enough income or had enough space for such a massive amount of man power, or their products only appealed to people that were within a reasonable distance of the shops. Due to these inconveniences of the small black businesses, the shops often didn’t last more than a year or two.  While there was not many considerable changes to black business over this time period, year in and year out many of the black businesses either changed owner or altered the business completely.

While not every white company on South 17th Street was successful there were many businesses that lasted.  A few of the companies that endured were F.A. Saunders & Son, Waulke & Ballauff Coal & Wood, Shockoe Mills run by Warner, Moore, & Co, and Richmond Ice Co.6 These companies persisted because of their influence in the city and the amount of income they were able to generate.  Companies such as Gregory J M M’s Stemmery were unable to set up advertisements in resources such as newspapers and directories causing the company to fail.  Companies such as the Richmond Ice Co. covered newspapers such as the Richmond Planet and the Richmond Directories with their advertisementsOn one single page of the Richmond Planet published February 9th, 1892 there were actually multiple ads for the Richmond Ice Co. and their delivery service.7 These advertisements were also full of useful information such as addresses, phone numbers, and what the company actually was doing. Companies such as the Richmond Ice Co. were also successful because their products of ice, wood, and coal which could not be easily accessed in the city.8 This meant that the people of Richmond relied on companies like the Richmond Ice Co. to bring them firewood and coal to heat their houses and ice to preserve their food.  While predominately white companies such as Waulke & Ballauff’s Coal & Wood stayed idle as Richmond made it’s turn into the 20th century, changes in black businesses were much more frequent. 

Many of the white companies that left South 17th Street turned either into vacant lots or were sold off to completely different companies, while black businesses stayed predominately black and often kept the same profession, only changing the owner. (Sanborn Maps)  A Business that stayed the same during this time period was the shoemakers on nine South 17th Street as the original owner in 1897, Rocco Moschetta, sold the building to another shoemaker in 1900.9  The business was then sold to another black man named John Spaulding in 1907. Also, according to the Richmond Directory, businesses tended to stay in the same building with professions such as coopers from 1897 to 1907.10 Furthermore, shoemakers and coopers tended to stay in the same buildings because blacks often lived above their shops.  While white people on South 17th Street lived miles away from their businesses separating work from home, shops were also homes to black people eliminating any inconveniences of travel and making the shops feel more like a home to customers. 

17th Street South in the city of Richmond from 1897 to 1907 was lined with massive warehouses and small privately own businesses.11 While at first glace, over this ten-year period of time, there does not seem to be an enormous amount of change, but as you look closer, the street changed on a year-to-year basis.  Predominately white companies became vacant lots or changed products and owners completely while black shops either went bankrupt or sold the building to another black man annually.  Another change that occurred dealt with companies that did not move or leave the South 17th Street area, and controlled the delivery of goods to different parts of Richmond, began to up the amount of advertisements in newspapers, such as the Richmond City Directories and the Richmond Planet, to create more awareness around the city.  While smaller predominantly black companies, on the other hand, did not advertise their companies in public sources, making it a lot tough for a customer to find a black company that fits their needs.  When looking at South 17th Street over the course of the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s the changes of the street can be seen through primarily large white companies beginning to settle down and thrive in the city of Richmond, through advertisement and easy access to their goods.  This, in turn, pressured smaller black companies to leave 17th Street in search of a different community that appeals more to smaller business venues.


1)                  The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

2)                  The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

3)                  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

1 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

2 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

3 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

4 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

5 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

6 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

6 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

7 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

8 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

9 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

10 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

11 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)


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Fifteenth Street’s Civil War

Fifteenth Street’s Civil War

By John C. McAuliff

On November 15, 1862, Lieutenant J.O. Withmell of the Confederate Army and five or six of his friends had been drinking late into the night. As they left the bar, they passed Lumpkin’s Jail as they made their way down Fifteenth Street The street was muddy, and the men had to stop each other from falling in puddles, or into Shockoe Creek itself. The smell of sewage raided their nostrils, but the alcohol left Withmell and company in good spirits. They passed Lumpkin’s Jail, the most deadly and largest of all slave jails, owned by Robert Lumpkin, to their left. A friend of Withmell’s, Mr. Tom Hiltzheimer of the Second Militia, suggested a “women’s boarding home” which belonged to a friend of his, Ann Thomas, up the street between Main and Cary Streets, and all the men applauded as they set out in search of a happy ending to their long night. As they neared Franklin Street, which marked the end of Lumpkin’s Alley and the beginning of Wall Street, the spirits of the party increased as they left the muddy cobblestones behind.

As Lieut. Withmell and his band of men turned into an alley as they neared Main Street,the fevered prayers of enslaved mothers to keep their children broke the night silence from the cells deep inside Silas Omohundro’s slave jail. Upon passing the jails, one of the gentlemen in the party appeared worried, and voiced his concern that it was a dark place, and some one might get killed. A Mr. Miller said, “No, there are too many of us.”

            Ann Thomas met the men at the door to her brothel and refused them entry. Downcast, they turned back toward Main Street to head home. A deafening shot disrupted the quiet of the night, striking down Lieut. Withmell, who cried: “Why have they shot me?” The party was in disarray, but one member counted three assailants who ran off toward Main St, where they passed the St. Charles Hotel and R.W. Powers drug store before bumping into slave trader and auctioneer Alexander Nott by way of trespassing on his property. The three assailants escaped down Main Street, never to be captured.

            Lieut. Withmell died within the hour, and an inquest began. A day later, the police raided Ann Thomas’s brothel and arrested nine men and ten women.[1]

The story of J.O. Withmell and Ann Thomas illustrates the danger and lawlessness brought to Richmond by the Civil War.  Even for a group of armed Confederate soldiers, Fifteenth Street was a dangerous place. Two drastically different sections made up the street. Lumpkin’s Alley, which paralleled Shockoe Creek and began at Broad Street, flooded frequently and held most of the slave jails. A block away at Franklin Street, Wall Street began. The latter was where Richmond’s merchants owned auction houses and the city’s grandest hotels stood nearby. On Wall Street, traders mixed with the wealthy elite for dealings of human trafficking from the corner of Franklin and Fifteenth, to the corner of Cary and Fifteenth with Main Street in between. These three blocks constituted the capital of the American slave trade. By April 1861, millions of dollars exchanged hands each year along the avenue.[2]

The economic forces which govern the economy of twenty-first century would be hard pressed to make a street like Fifteenth into a producer of huge wealth, but in 1861, when the trading of enslaved people—a dirty, unseemly trade—made up a massive portion of Richmond’s economy, few places in Richmond were better equipped than Fifteenth.

Men who visited Fifteenth Street to purchase enslaved people would find a cast of characters both prominent in social society in Richmond and unsavory. Besides Robert Lumpkin, both Silas Omohundro and Bacon Tait owned slave jails and traded their human wares. Tait was a prominent city councilman through the Civil War[3], while Omohundro was a leader on the business council. These traders of enslaved people worked closely with the auctioneers, but it was the latter group of merchants who dealt directly with the purchasing public.

In preparation for buying enslaved people from the auctioneers, a purchaser would stay at any of the nearby hotels: The St. Charles, The Exchange, The Ballard, or The Bell Tavern. He might go out the next morning for breakfast with friends, but when he saw a red flag come up over the hotel in which he was staying, he would know it was time for business. He would view the wares of auctioneers R.H. Dickenson of Dickenson, Hill and Company who owned one of the city’s largest enslaved persons trading operations, reporting over $2 million in sales in 1857.[4] If he found nothing to his liking, he could visit Hector Davis, the primary auctioneer for Peter and David Pulliam. Davis also may have had relatives with businesses nearby: Solomon and Benjamin. The slave trade was indeed a family business for its operators, though it tore more families apart among the enslaved than it built. Davis was the top advertiser of slave auctions in 1861 and 1862, though he dealt mostly with runaways along with the rest of auctioneers and traders in 1862 and 1863.[5] If a gentleman could not find the right man or woman to buy from Dickenson or Davis, Alexander Nott was also known to deal in enslaved people.

The stories of the people like Dickenson, Davis, and Nott who populated Fifteenth Street tell a tale of lavish success put which only increased at the war went on. How much a man would pay to own another would vary greatly depending on the year. Emancipation started as soon as the war began as enslaved people escaped, causing prices to change dramatically, and the options of a buyer to decrease. In 1862, the price to catch a runaway person was $10-25. In 1863 most bounty hunters would need at least $100, and by 1864 that number would climb to $500 per person.[6] Given that enslaved people at this time could cost more than $2000, the cost of catching one was a small price to pay.[7] The reasons for fluctuations in the cost of enslaved people are not known for sure. A number of options are possible. The Confederate dollar steadily lost value as the war continued and as enslaved people freed themselves, fewer were available, and so the price went up. Moreover, enslaved people needed only to get behind the often nearby Union lines to achieve freedom, which made it much more difficult for bounty hunters to make it worth their time. The trade of enslaved people in Richmond would continue getting more expensive and more difficult until the city fell to General Ulysses Grant in 1865.

Once Virginia rejoined the Union and the fires on Fifteenth Street had cooled, the center of Richmond’s economy became entirely obsolete. Since the end of the Civil War, Fifteenth Street has been a street in search of a purpose. Once covered by the trickling waters of Shockoe Creek, Fifteenth has since become a railroad line and eventually an Interstate. The Creek was paved over. The Main Street Train Station was built in 1901. The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, also known as I-95, was built in 1958. Most people who drive over Fifteenth Street today are passing through to destinations south or north on the eastern coast via the Interstate or the railroad. Only a few of them will realize they are passing over a once extremely profitable and immoral center of commerce, and fewer still will see the string of empty parking lots which once housed offices, auction houses, and hotels as anything other than parking lots. Only the very diligent will find a grass and cobblestone half-acre, where enslaved people once languished with little hope in “the Devil’s half-acre,” Lumpkin’s Jail.

Lumpkin’s jail is an archeological site now, but until recently was an interstate retaining wall and parking lot. A large plaque marks the spot, but very few people ever see it nestled in the far end of a usually empty parking lot. At the edge of the lot, a burial ground for enslaved people is marked behind a fence. Down the street, the St. Charles Hotel is marked by a plaque describing the trade. Where the hotel once stood is a parking lot for a strip club, formally known as Club Velvet, but renamed Club Rouge. Further down toward Cary Street, old brick buildings are more numerous, and the sounds of construction can be heard as the Shockoe Bottom area is revitalized. On the corner of Fifteenth and Cary, the auction house which belonged to traders Davenport and Allen still stands. As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, it is prudent to recall that about 11,500 slaves—30.8 percent of the population—made Richmond their home in 1860, either permanent or transient, and many of them were separated from loved ones, jailed, tortured, whipped, or sold south on Fifteenth Street. All that remains to recall their suffering and commemorate their emancipation are signs, a parking lot, a strip club, and a construction site.

The juxtaposition of the dirty, smelly, Shockoe Creek experienced by Lieutenant Withmell, Ann Thomas, and Robert Lumpkin shows a Fifteenth Street drastically different from the cleaner Wall Street area populated by Bacon Tait, Alexander Nott, and Hector Davis. The slave jails stood in the nastiest part of the city. Yet up the nearest hill, the profitable Main Street stood on high ground and the Capitol sat just five blocks away. The juxtaposition of immense wealth and social power shown by Tait, Nott, and Davis and the crime and poverty witnessed by Withmell, Thomas, and Lumpkin within just one block of each other could not have set a better scene for America’s cruelest economic practice. In that sense, Fifteenth was destined to serve the role as home to the trade of enslaved people in America. For those same reasons, it was just as destined to become a seedy set of blocks shrouded in shadow every hour of every day by the I-95 overpass.

[1] Details of the story are taken from articles in the Archives from Nov 17th to Nov. 22nd.

Richmond Daily Dispatch. “Murder of a Confederate Officer–cold Blooded Assassination.” November 17, 1862. Accessed February 10, 2011. University of Richmond Daily Dispatch Archives.

[2] Kimball, Gregg D. “Liberty and Slavery.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 156. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[3] Kimball, Gregg D. “The World of Goods.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 112. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[4] Kimball, Gregg D. “Liberty and Slavery.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 156. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[5] From many articles, One example: Richmond Daily Dispatch. “Business Notices.” December 4, 1860. Accessed February 10, 2011. U. Richmond Daily Dispatch.

[6] Many articles, One example: Lumpkin, Robert. “Five Hundred Dollars Reward.” Richmond Daily Dispatch. February 18, 1865. Accessed February 10, 2011. U. Richmond Daily Dispatch.

[7] Kimball, Gregg D. “American City in a Southern Place.” In American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond, 76. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

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Richmond: Not Just Black and White

Richmond: Not Just Black and White

By John C. McAuliff

The most profitable economy in the nineteenth century American South was outlawed. When Slavery was abolished, the prominence and controversy of Fifteenth Street, like a Hollywood starlet at her peak, faded away. Fifteenth would not stay quiet for long. The street can be divided into three sections. South Fifteenth Street, which ran from just south of Cary Street up to Main Street, makes up the southern leg. North Fifteenth Street, which ran from Main Street to Franklin Street, is the central leg. The northernmost and final leg, Lumpkin’s Alley, ran from Franklin Street up toward Broad Street at an angle to the west. The three sections, though each was within a block of one another, responded differently to the passing of time. On the whole, Fifteenth Street from 1880 to 1920 underwent immense change, both in the ethnic makeup of the street and the physical space those people occupied.

Fifteenth Street changed in two significant ways. The occupants of Fifteenth Street between 1894 and 1911 changed enough so that it went from a street with a narrow majority of English descended people, to a street containing a majority of people who descend from immigrants who lived in non-English nations. Fifteenth Street was also the stage for industrial ventures in tobacco, iron, and electric transportation which took up an increasingly large amount of space over the forty years studied. Given the changes occurring in ethnicity and industrial projects from 1880 to 1920 on Fifteenth Street, it is not a stretch to say that Fifteenth Street served as a microcosm of the Gilded Age and the Second American Industrial Revolution.

The ethnic diversity of Fifteenth Street grew from about half being people of non-English descent in 1894 to two-thirds of people of non-English descent in 1911 using a last name search from a genealogy website[1] These statistics, though convincing on their own, only refer to building ownership. The laborers who worked in the markets, tobacco warehouses, and ironworks of Fifteenth Street were likely more diverse. In 1894, eight of eleven building owners on North Fifteenth were of an ethnicity besides English, while just five of sixteen on South Fifteenth shared that quality. At this time, South Fifteenth was still very much a white, English owned area. By 1911, the two halves of Fifteenth Street became more similar: Three-fourths of North Fifteenth’s residents were of an ethnicity besides English, and three-fifths of the occupants of South Fifteenth were of non-English ethnicity.[2] The change within the street means that the white, English owned businesses moved out and business-owners of other ethnicities moved in.

The change of storefront ownership could have been caused by the opening of the Broad Street train line, which made the canal less important for transporting goods and opened up more desirable locations for property elsewhere.[3] Another possibility is that as Fifteenth Street became a more industrial area, the property values dropped and the income of its inhabitants fell as well. Middle class residents are accompanied by saloons, so when the middle class market moved in, so did new businesses to support them. The change in ethnicity is likely because at the time, many immigrants came to America with very little looking for jobs, and Fifteenth Street was able to provide some. Possibly, ethnic businessowners thrived on Fifteenth Street because its inhabitants were more comfortable being served by people similar to them, and vice versa for the bartenders.

In 1894, South Fifteenth Street was a stew of smells. The stench of freshly caught fish and oysters mixed with coffee, spices, tobacco, and wood paint in the span of two blocks must have given Fifteenth Street the powerful acrid odor of a working man’s jacket. Two blocks north, the smell of industry poured out of the Richmond Ironworks and machine shop. Residents in 1895 may have thought this smell terrible, but it was not yet the peak of space given up to industrial pursuits.

The stink of the street could be replaced by a visit to the produce market of William Ratcliffe and Henry Richardson of South Fifteenth Street, where fresh fruit and vegetables would be a welcome smell. Ratcliffe and Richardson, both of English descent, provide information about the standing of such a market. When Ratcliffe’s brother died in 1900, he was buried in a family plot in Henrico County, showing some wealth. Other white merchants of English descent shed light on the class in which they lived. When young Charles Sizer, a merchant who owned two buildings and lived on Clay Street, died, he was buried in Hollywood cemetery.[4] Men like this would rarely be seen on Fifteenth Street by residents or passersby except to check up on their holdings. They were of a class that would shortly be replaced: the white, English descended business owners of South Fifteenth Street.

North Fifteenth Street in 1894 painted a picture of growing diversity. In the shadow of the Ironworks, another tobacco house dried and cured its wares. Laborers on their way to work at either factory would pass the homes of black laborer James Henley, black shoemaker Benjamin Ellis, and black, female homeowner Mamie Ford. These three African American’s were the only ones living on Fifteenth at this time. If a laborer lost his job, an Irish employment agent named Justis Henson had a building near Main Street. After work, laborers could liven up their evenings at the saloon of Dennis O’Neill on the corner of Main and Fifteenth Streets, or that of Peter Chiocca in the middle of the block.[5] The business owners on North Fifteenth seem to aptly serve the working class who work in the Ironworks or Tobacco factories up and down the street. The employment agent and shoemaker were both useful for the working class to have around, while the two saloons provided a release after a day of hard labor. The fact that most of the people on North Fifteenth were of an ethnicity other than English also suggests that the laborers were as well. As the years went on, the makeup of North Fifteenth Street would expand onto South Fifteenth as well.

By 1911, the ethnic dynamics of Fifteenth Street had begun to change. The first five buildings of North Fifteenth Street were Vacant, indicating that the area had become an undesirable place to live. Given that construction of the Main Street train station would soon begin, this is not surprising. The only residents were E N Myers, a black shoemaker, and Esther Jones, a black homeowner. The only other buildings between Main and Franklin were a warehouse owned by teamster Thomas Thompson and a plow company owned by Scotsman Arthur Sinclair. Sinclair did well for himself, as he took out a half page ad on the third page of the 1911 Richmond City Directory.

On South Fifteenth Street, much had changed as well. Barkeep Dennis O’Neill had moved across the street to the other side of Main and Fifteenth Streets. Next door, F E Schmidt, a German Jewish man, opened another Saloon. Other denizens of the block were German, Dutch, Welsh, Jewish, and Irish, while a couple of men of English ethnicity still owned buildings.[6] However, on the whole the block had become a European microcosm. The presence of two plow factories indicates available jobs and the coming train station would provide many more opportunities for laborers. It is likely this continued abundance of industrial projects is the reason that Fifteenth became such a diverse area.

The industrial projects which took up most of Fifteenth Street’s physical space varied depending on the year.[7] In 1888, three tobacco warehouses took up the equivalent of around two blocks (one side). In a three block area, this was one-third of Fifteenth Street. In 1895, the peak of projects, four tobacco warehouses or curing plants and an ironworks took up the equivalent of three blocks (one side) or about half of Fifteenth Street. By 1924, the Train Station was built, and the Philip Morris Tobacco Company owned a massive warehouse complex resulting again in a full three blocks of space being devoted to industrial projects.[8] The amount of physical space these projects demanded and the jobs that were created likely dictated the income levels of the people which would inhabit the area, and paved the way for an influx of ethnic immigration to Fifteenth.

Due to the industrial and ethnic overhaul undergone by Fifteenth Street, the argument can be made that Richmond was not left out of the massive increase in immigration that accompanied the Second American Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. Fifteenth Street could have just as easily played a role in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as downtown New York in 1902. Fifteenth Street produced immense wealth for the upper class, while being the place of work and opportunity for the immigrant middle class. Even the numbers are not that far off. America as a whole saw forty-six percent more immigrants in 1910 than 1900, whereas Fifteenth Street saw a slightly lower jump in ethnicities (immigrants or otherwise) of 19% on an already fairly diverse street.[9] It is certainly accurate to say that Richmond did not benefit from the many new immigrants to America as much as New York, but Fifteenth Street is proof that Richmond was not just black and white.

[1] See Attached figures F2 and F3

[2] “Business Owners.” Richmond City Directory 1893-4 and 1911. Richmond. Print.

[3] Dr. Edward Ayers, theory mentioned in class, March 21, 2011

[4] “Deaths and Funerals” The Richmond Times-Dispatch 05 Sept. 1893 and 20 Jul. 1900. Library of Congress: Chronicling America. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <;.

[5] “Business Owners.” Richmond City Directory 1893-4 and 1911. Richmond. Print.

[6] “Many Articles Viewed concerning the Origins of the Names of the People of Fifteenth Street.” Genealogy, Family Trees and Family History Records Online. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <;.

[7] See Attached Figures, F1

[8] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map-Richmond 1888, 1895, 1924.” Map. Digital Sanborn Maps. Proquest, Library of Congress. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <;.

[9] “Tech Paper 29: Table 4. Region and Country or Area of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population, With Geographic Detail Shown in Decennial Census Publications of 1930 or Earlier: 1850 to 1930 and 1960 to 1990.” Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <;.

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Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

By John C. McAuliff

            A quiet street lay nestled in the bottom of a valley at the center of a city. It had once heard the searing clangs and bangs of industry, breathed deeply the sweet stench of tobacco, and watched as injustice drove enslaved men to build machines of war. The air was never fresh, the nights never silent, and the work never-ending. The street slowly receded into obscurity and eventually housed no inhabitants at all. A street defeated, politicians and contractors started to scavenge the street’s remains. By 1958, little Fifteenth Street, which had seen the rise and fall of slavery and industry on its cobblestones, had become a part of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.

At the center of three of the most profitable economies the American South has ever known—enslaved people, tobacco, and iron—and the home of a train line and later a highway, Fifteenth Street served as a testament to industry and poverty. On Fifteenth Street, the power of the free market invited the lifelong bonds of slavery to a twisted dance that led to the creation of public housing for slavery’s descendants in Fairfield and Whitcomb Courts in 1958 as the Turnpike took over. Afterward, Fifteenth Street began its descent into obscurity.

The year before the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike was built, Fifteenth Street going north had several large buildings and the Seaboard Air Line Rail Road (SALRR) Company. The Southern Bank and Trust Company had a large warehouse, as did the Producers Co-op Exchange. However, the railroad and the construction of the highway dominated the landscape. Going south toward the canal, Fifteenth had twelve occupants with a few vacant buildings in between. Businesses included representatives from smaller industries like Pizzini Printing and ACME chemicals as well as mainstays like Philip Morris and Co.  Fifteen businesses had open doors on Fifteenth Street in 1957.[1] Ten years later, the number had shrunk.

In 1966 the Southern Bank and Trust Co was the only company on Fifteenth north of Main Street. The Turnpike, in use for about a decade, had driven business away. To the south, Fifteenth Street was home to twelve businesses. Two large warehouses still owned by Philip Morris stood nearest the canal, and ACME still owned a building between Main and Cary Streets. A smokehouse next to the Philip Morris tobacco warehouse changed hands over the decade though retained its function. Overall, the number of businesses on Fifteenth Street between 1957 and 1967 dropped by only two, and rested at thirteen.[2]

By 1977, thirteen had become eight, and by 1987 only seven businesses still remained on Fifteenth. The bank on North Fifteenth had become a parking garage and would remain so until the 1990’s. The only corporation still on South Fifteenth over three decades was Philip Morris and Co, which still operated two warehouses. The smokehouse had again changed hands to a third and fourth food services company in 1977 and 1987. By 1997, no businesses stood north of Main Street, and only three sat to the south: a café, a building owned by the Virginia Parking Services, and a hot tub manufacturing warehouse.[3]

Over forty years, Fifteenth Street went from housing fifteen businesses to a fraction of its former capacity. Naturally, the creation of the Main Street train station and Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike disrupted the street and decimated property values. Yet the deterioration of Fifteenth Street as an attractive place for businesses really began after the Turnpike was built and did not hit a low point until just before the millennium. Why did Fifteenth Street really start to fall apart in the second half of the twentieth century? Why not immediately after the Turnpike was built, why the delay? In effect, the question best asked is: Why did Fifteenth Street fall apart when it did?

The factors which left Fifteenth Street with just three businesses calling it home must have been factors more powerful than just a Turnpike since the decline accelerated twenty years after the Turnpike was built. Given the timing, it seems as though economics and race may have actually played a larger role.  In order to find out how, going back to the building of the Turnpike when Fifteenth Street began to slide downhill would be a good start.

The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike took thirty-three months to build and opened finally on June 30th, 1958. The Governor of Virginia came to cut the ribbon, and the people of Virginia piled on to the highway and created a 30,000 car traffic jam. The story that was not told that day was that over seven hundred buildings stood where the Turnpike’s massive legs took root. The homes were all destroyed, almost as many as when Richmond burned in 1865. The Turnpike blocked thirty streets and passed over another twenty. Many families were displaced, but nearly 1,000 of those were African American.[4]

According to an editorial run by The Richmond News Leader in 1955, 40% of the African American families displaced were of middle income, and 60% were “lower.” It was the fear, the editors wrote, of the groups in opposition to the Turnpike that African Americans would move into the white neighborhoods of Barton Heights and North Side. The debate raged on throughout Richmond. To pacify the opponents of the plan, the city created public housing and schools in Whitcomb and Fairfield Court’s, where the displaced families would move. In effect, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike would serve not just as a mode of transportation but as the Richmond-Petersburg Dam designed to keep African Americans out of the high property value neighborhoods dominated by white Americans.

The plan worked, and Fairfield and Whitcomb Court’s each housed 447 African American families.[5] The debate in Richmond separated the city economically and racially, and can serve to partially explain why businesses left Fifteenth Street after the Turnpike was built. The debate over the Turnpike shed light on race relations in Richmond, and equated African Americans with poverty and White Americans with money. As the Turnpike sectioned off African American Richmond from the rest of the city, the racial and economic divide took on a physical form. Those with cars could use the Turnpike to work in the city and live in the Suburbs. Those with cars were white, for the most part. The divide between white and black broadened as white Americans moved out, but the city justified it by citing the “congestion” of the city. “Congestion,” however, served as a euphemism for poverty and violence. [6]

As white families with resources moved out of the city to escape the “congestion,” they took their wealth with them. According to a Federal Housing Administration report, real estate agents took great pains to insure that the suburbs remained as white as possible, indicating that there was money to be made.[7] Real estate agents were not the only businesspeople who recognized that the disappearance of white Richmonders meant vanishing cash flow. How this trend affected Fifteenth Street is not clear, but looking at the revitalization of the area this year does reveal a trend.

In 2011, the sounds of construction can be heard once again on South Fifteenth, and several shops, including a frame store, a strip club, and a restaurant have moved in. This restoration of Fifteenth Street and the Shockhoe Bottom area at large does not coincide with the return of young white Americans to the city coincidentally. With white twenty-somethings and even families returning to the city, they bring wealth back with them. Their wealth creates opportunity for business. Shortly, Fifteenth Street will be graced with the first housing, apartment style condominiums, since 1911 on the block once renovations are finished on an old brick warehouse. Thanks to revitalization efforts, new housing, and new signs clearly marking the former slave trading district, Fifteenth Street could occupy a central role in a future “Historic District” in Richmond.

The gradual decline of Fifteenth Street in the twentieth century and its renewal in the twenty first seems to correspond well with the coming and going of white Americans to the city. Whether or not the correlation is equivalent to causation on Fifteenth Street is unclear. The answer to why Fifteenth Street declined severely twenty years after the turnpike was built is still unclear, but a closer look at what types of companies left in what year could provide a reason why.

The first businesses to leave Fifteenth Street after the Turnpike was built were food service industries. Three food stores moved out within a decade. The significance of the movement could be that Fifteenth became a shadowy, dirty place not fit for food production after the Turnpike moved in. Within ten years, major industries including an oil company, ACME science production, and a sound equipment company had moved away as well. Each company was a large scale manufacturing firm. The next type of businesses to leave were small manufacturing businesses like family owned printing companies, air conditioning services, and camper manufacturers. The departure of these businesses really marked the jump in the speed of Fifteenth Street’s decline, and within ten years virtually everything had left.

Breaking down the data of what types of businesses left Fifteenth Street when revealed no further connections to the suburbanization of the white consumer class, but shows an interesting pattern. Food services departed, followed by large manufacturers, followed by small manufacturers. If anything useful can be gleaned from this data, it could be that Fifteenth Street depended heavily on the presence of small manufacturing businesses, but the correlation found between the decline and revitalization of Fifteenth Street and whites seems not to be caused by the movement of the white consumer class.

[1] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1957. Richmond. Print.

[2] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1967. Richmond. Print.

[3] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1977, 1987, 1997. Richmond. Print.

[4] Editorial Board. “Behind the Turnpike Opposition-Editorial.” The Richmond News Leader 27 Sept. 1955: 12. Print.

[5] M, John. “Public Housing In Richmond.” The Church Hill People’s News. RVA News Network, 23 Aug. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2011.

[6] Kuswa, Kevin D. “SUBURBIFICATION, SEGREGATION, AND THE CONSOLIDATION OF THE HIGHWAY MACHINE.” The Journal of Law in Society (Winter, 2002): 31-64. Print.

[7] Kuswa, Suburbification

Posted in Uncategorized

The Interplay of Race and Development

Lily Hazelton

Franklin Street has generally been a place of commerce. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many things changed, but the main use of Franklin Street remained as a place of business. The businesses on the street changed; they moved around, they altered their merchandise, purpose, and ownership. Franklin Street was somewhat of a conundrum. The businesses from a physical and economic standpoint changed considerably, but the ethnic and racial makeup of the street did not change at all. In many ways change in one area could often lead to another—an influx of racially diverse business men, or merchants wanting to set up shop in an area, could lead to physical change as these people built new store or home, while the building and development of new homes, spaces, or businesses could also invite ethnicity into a neighborhood. Franklin Street does not follow this pattern. Franklin Street went through many physical changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but its ethnic and racial diversity did not. Without this equilibrium in its development, it was nearly impossible for Franklin Street to establish a constant industry.

When the physical and ethnic makeup of a street changes, there are many possible reasons for each aspect. Natural disasters such as flooding or fires could destroy a building, commissioned projects could lead to new development, and events in other parts of the city, or even in other states or countries could lead to an immigration or larger influx of ethnicities into a certain area. The natural destruction or commissioned developments are the most likely reasons there was such a physical change on Franklin Street. The section of Franklin Street east of capital square transformed into a business region at the turn of the century. A change or growth in an industry or business, such as the printing industry, is the main reason for this. With Franklin Street becoming an increasingly desirable area to establish business, it became the most desirable and practical location for expansion.

Since at least 1875, for example, J.W. Ferguson & Sons had been a well-known printing company in Richmond, and was even advertising in the Richmond City Directories as late as 1893[1]. Sometime between 1911 and 1919, however, J.W. Ferguson & Sons Printing decided to move their business from the corner of Fourteenth and Main Street to the corner of Fourteenth and Franklin Street. It is interesting that after spending almost forty years in one spot the business was suddenly moved up the street, and at the same time that they moved, more then ten other printing, or printing related businesses, all in fairly large buildings, appeared within a one block radius on either side of Ferguson & Son’s new home[2]. Around 1919 Franklin Street seemed to be the new home of a large portion of the printing industry in Richmond. By the end of the nineteenth century printing had gone from being created using heavy wooden hand presses and traditional methods in small dingy workshops to an industry dominated by fewer, larger firms in factories with machinery specifically designed for such work,[3] and established in either new or recently renovated buildings[2].

Besides the growth and change in the printing industry, though, Franklin Street went through many other changes as well at the start of the twentieth century. Between 1905 and 1919, and again between 1919 and 1925, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show only two buildings and businesses that are the same on the two separate maps of the block along Franklin Street, between Fourteenth Street and Mayo, or Ballard, Street. One business and building that stayed the same over those six years was the relatively new W.H. Miles Shoes Co., Inc. owned by Walter H. Miles, previously a sales clerk for the large Stephen Putney & Co. which sold shoes on Main Street. The only other constant over those six years was J.W. Ferguson & Sons Inc., a business that had already been established in Richmond for almost fifty years—and actually only recently shut down in 2006[2],[4].

Though this block of Franklin Street went through a lot of physical change, the racial and ethnic makeup of it did not. Despite having been freed from slavery, and gaining a few more rights as citizens,  African Americans did not see much improvement in their economic standing, and the largest concentration of African American jobs and workers was found in unskilled labor and service jobs. In 1900 the percentage of African Americans, both men and women, who held positions as a proprietor, manager, or official was just one percent throughout the United States, and tended to be even lower in southern states[5]. The large amount of physical change on Franklin Street might actually have been one of the causes for the lack of racial diversity in the area. Due to their social and economic standing, many African American workers would not have had the economic means to start or build a business in this area of Franklin Street, and the few who did possess the means most likely would have chosen a more central location. While there may have been a few African Americans working in the shops and factories on Franklin Street, it is highly unlikely that they would have owned a business in the area, nor was it likely that they held any position in which they might be readily recognized, and so they went unrecorded in the Richmond City Directories.

The constant physical change and the lack of racial change are both prominent patterns in the development of Franklin Street. African Americans did not have the means to build a building or start a business. Vice versa, the lack of racial change, or really any change in the social demographic may explain why so many places were built and destroyed, and so may people went in and out of business. The only places with the metal to withstand the test of time were two businesses that were established in the community, and had ties to an established business.  Racial change and physical change feed off each other, when these two aspects are in some state of equilibrium, then an area has the power to develop an industry that works for the local demographic. Without these two aspects working together, the only businesses with a chance to be successful must already have community ties, and be relevant to the demographic. With no racial change, and a surplus of physical change, Franklin Street never had the chance to thrive.

[1] Richmond City Directory (Richmond: Hill Directory Company, 1893)

[2] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1919),” map, Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970,

[3] The British Library, “Printing During the Nineteenth Century,” Aspects of the Victorian Book, last modified 2011,

[4] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1925),” map, Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970,

[5] Thomas N. Maloney, “African Americans in the Twentieth Century,”Economic History Encyclopedia, last modified February 1, 2010,

Posted in Assignment #3, Uncategorized

A View of Segregation on Main Street

A View of Segregation on Main Street

Taking a walk down Main Street in Richmond during the early twentieth century would make it appear like any other street in the nation. It housed the main financial and commercial center of the city, and was utilized for shopping, business, and even in parts for living. Richmond’s Main Street was not just one street, but had three distinct sections. These sections fell primarily into either “residential” or “commercial” divisions, but the street was also segregated by race. These divisions remained accurate for several decades, but over time, the street increasingly became dominated by whites and businesses rather than African Americans and residents.

The residential areas of Main Street are comprised of First through Eighth Streets and Fifteenth through Thirtieth Streets, with the commercial district located in between them on Eighth through Fifteenth Streets. In 1884, there were 312 and 467 residents living on the first and third segments of Main Street, respectively.[1] Although the second section had 444 residents, it had many more businesses than the residential areas.[2] In 1884, while the section of Main Street between First and Eighth Streets had a total of ten businesses and the third section had twenty-one, the commercial district between Eighth Street and Fifteenth Street had 183 businesses.[3] As time passed, the number of businesses on Main Street as a whole continued to grow, while the number of residents saw a decline. However, the aspect of the three distinct sections remained constant. In 1894, the first section of Main Street remained largely residential, as there were 181 occupants to the twenty-seven businesses.[4] The third section of the street provided homes for 315 people, while thirty-two businesses had opened shop here.[5] In comparison, the number of businesses on the commercial district of Main outnumbered the number of residents 287 to 284.[6] And in 1911, the trend of these three distinct sections persisted. Although the number of businesses had increased to ninety-two, 165 people still lived in the first section, and the third area of the street was home to 201 people and fifty-three businesses. The middle section of the street had more residents than the two other sections of the street, numbering 388. However, it still remained primarily a business center, with 464 businesses operating in this section of the street. [7] This number not only exceeds the number of residents in the second section at this time, but also dwarfs the number of businesses that existed on the other two sections of the street. In addition to the divisions in the street based on function, Main Street had clear racial divisions.

Main Street of 1884 had a drastically different ethnic makeup than the Main Street of 1911. In 1884, only 159 of the 1,223 residents of Main Street were African American – a meager thirteen percent.[8] These African Americans were not evenly distributed throughout the street. The commercial center between Eighth Street and Fifteenth Street was home to only twelve African Americans, barely three percent of the total population of this section.[9] Because this was a business center, this may indicate a discrimination of race in business. In comparison, forty-eight of the 312 residents of the first section were African American (fifteen percent), and ninety-nine of the 467 residents of the third section were African American, comprising twenty-one percent.[10]

A clear distinction exists in the places where African Americans could live on Main Street, if they could live there at all. In 1884, African Americans only represented thirteen percent of the total street population.[11] This number would only decrease with time, as by 1894 only sixty five African Americans lived on Main Street, making up only eight percent of the street’s population.[12] As in 1884, the commercial district of Main Street between Eighth Street and Fifteenth Street was on paper devoid of any African Americans; a total of three blacks lived in these street blocks, and two dared to operate businesses there.[13] It is highly possible that the African Americans used this section of Main Street as any other white Richmonder would, however it was rare for them to own businesses or live here. These African Americans that did own businesses on Main Street were both barbers, since in a segregated society this was one of the only acceptable form of social interaction between white and black men.[14] Other African American American businesses would probably not have survived here since there would be very few African American patrons to support them, and whites would likely not shop there. Although excluded from this section of Main Street, the populations of the first and third sections were eighteen and ten percent, respectively.[15] By 1911, however, the African American population of Main Street had fallen drastically across the entire street. Only twenty five African Americans lived on the entire street, and there was only about one African American in both the first and second section of Main Street. The third section, however was home to almost the entire African American population of the street, with twenty-three African Americans.[16]

Racial Segregation on Main Street is evident to anyone looking back through the city directories, though not directly at first. African Americans lived and worked on both the north and south side of the street, and owned property on both the even-numbered and odd-numbered sides of Main Street. In 1884, sixty-five African Americans lived or worked on the south side of the street in the odd-numbered blocks, while ninety-eight lived or worked on the even-numbered blocks.[17] In 1894, the numbers were even closer, with thirty-three African Americans living or working on the odd-numbered blocks and thirty-seven living and working on the even-numbered blocks.[18] And in 1911, the numbers were still very close, where eleven African Americans lived or worked on the odd-numbered blocks and nineteen lived and worked on the even-numbered blocks.[19] Large concentrations of African Americans could be found on interspersed street blocks, especially in 1884. For example, the 600 block in 1884 had seventeen black residents, while the two surrounding blocks had one and three respectively.[20] There were nine African Americans who lived on the 2700 block of the street, making up seventy-five percent of the block’s population, while the other two surrounding blocks had two and zero black residents, respectively.[21] The reason for these clusters of African Americans mixed with the white populations is the fact that many of the residents of Main Street were widows or laborers.[22] They stayed in the area because it provided better access to cheap housing and proximity to jobs in the factories, saloons, or railroads. Rabinowitz says that when such a pattern is present, “intrablock patterns of segregation exist.”[23]

The people of Richmond never intended Main Street to be an area with a large African American population. It was always meant to become a commercial and industrial center for the city. The percentages of African Americans in all three sections of Main Street were too small to ever move towards an all black street. “Truly integrated [neighborhoods] were unstable and occurred in changing neighborhoods. Once a block became more than 20 percent black, it was on its way to the predominant pattern of segregation.”[24] While the percentages of African Americans in the Residential sections of Main Street do show that this would never become a predominantly African American street, it would not become a predominantly white street either. It was always destined to grow and expand in its commercialism. The entirety of Main Street never at any point where the African American population was above twenty percent, and only one section of the street had over twenty percent of African American residents in the years examined. In 1884, the third section of Main Street was twenty-one percent African American, but this level would not be maintained.[25] African Americans were able to live in these sections of Main Street likely because they were inexpensive and since they were close to their jobs.[26] However, once businesses on Main Street started expanding, the African Americans and even poorer whites started to disappear. With the slow decline in residents, both black and white, and exponential rise of businesses from year to year, Main Street had begun moving in the direction of being primarily an economic center of the city across the entire street.

The only constant aspect of Main Street in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that it was always changing. Its two residential sections, which were in 1884 interracially mixed, became increasingly less diverse. In addition, businesses and industry began to take over the street, and forcing residents out of their homes. White Richmond citizens sought to segregate their city in order to control the African American race, and succeeded in doing so by forcing the majority of the black population off of Main Street. Since the main goal of segregation was to control the other race, white Richmonders indirectly succeeded in keeping the population of African American residents on Main Street low. They controlled where they could and could not live since they were able to push so many people out with their expanding businesses.

[1] Richmond City Directory. 1884, pp. 127-135.

[2] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 128-133.

[3] Richmond City Directory, 1884. Pp.127-135.

[4] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 932-933.

[5] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 937-940.

[6] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 933-937.

[7] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pp. 1357-1365.

[8] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 127-135.

[9] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 128-132.

[10] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 127-135.

[11] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 127-135.

[12] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 932-940.

[13] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 934-937.

[14] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 597.

[15] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 932-940.

[16] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pp. 1357-1365.

[17] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 127-135.

[18] Richmond City Directory, 1893-1894, pp. 932-940.

[19] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pp. 1357-1365.

[20] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 128

[21] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 135.

[22] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pp. 1357-1365.

[23] Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South: 1865-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press 1978), 112.

[24] Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 106.

[25] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pp. 132-135.

[26] Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 114.

Posted in Uncategorized

Clay Street Opposition and Transition

Shaye Ellis


The contractor waited for approval to begin construction on the new Mechanics’ Savings Bank. He held the completed plans of the structure designed for the northwest corner of 3rd and Clay Streets in his hands. Across town, instead of giving the crew approval to break ground, bank President, John Mitchell Jr. fought back against white Clay Street residents attempting to impose building limitations that would prove impossible to accommodate. Changes in this neighborhood’s surroundings sparked heated debates as the concern for the future of Clay Street overlapped with personal prejudices.

The turn of the twentieth century brought about countless alterations to the city of Richmond as technology and new industry built up after the Civil War provided new opportunities for Richmonders, both black and white. Although Clay Street’s outward appearance did not transform drastically, adjustments made to the functionality of existing homes, churches, and shops by the incoming residents exacerbated already strained interactions between the area’s white and black populations.

Clay Street, formerly a white residential area, integrated steadily with the growth of the free African American population. As black Richmonders entered industries and positions previously off-limits to their race, they came into direct competition with established white entrepreneurs. Those fortunate enough to make money often invested in real estate to cultivate and strengthen budding black communities in the city. One such man, John Mitchell Jr., served as editor of the Richmond Planet, a premier black newspaper, and also invested heavily in property along Clay Street. In his efforts to relocate the Mechanics’ Savings Bank, Mitchell encountered stern opposition from white property owners; these opponents petitioned for a zoning line to be created that would prevent Mitchell from building a structure “to occupy a space of 27 feet by 97 feet”[1] in the preferred location. Consequently, Mitchell made it clear that should he be prohibited from using the land at 3rd and Clay, he could relocate to his property in “the old St. Paul’s Church home, just across the street from the white Clay Street Methodist Church”[2]. He appeared to rank this location second out of respect for white inhabitants residing nearby, so as not to encroach further on such an important aspect of their community. Though some residents argued that the construction of the bank would damage property values in the neighborhood, the underlying concern was the mere presence of black property owners or tenants. Whites “subjected to the fear that they would be surrounded by a colored colony,”[3] hoped that by preventing new construction they would be protected from the infringement of the black community.

Map of Potential Building Sites for Mechanic's Savings Bank and the surrounding area

The expansion and division of the black community into social hierarchies guaranteed its overflow into previously exclusive white districts. “The 1888 introduction of the electric streetcar facilitated the development of white-middle class enclaves north and west of the city”[4] and opportunities to move about the urban center increased. Clay Street’s location placed it in close proximity to what Kimball and Brown described as an “enclave”[5] of black entrepreneurs, culture, and entertainment. Maggie Lena Walker, an iconic black businesswoman who transformed her own social and physical environment much like Mitchell, resided just blocks from Clay Street. That thriving black neighborhood presented a strong model for others to emulate on Clay Street. Also, Jackson Ward, a densely populated black community served primarily as a home to the lower working class and a maturing middle-class of African Americans, desired to “move from its present confines and extension [was] sought in the direction of Clay Street”[6]. Thus, houses once occupied by white families became available to black tenants, much to the apprehension of the remaining white residents.

As the racial composition of the street changed, so too did the function of the houses along it. Details of the Sanborn insurance maps reveal a transition from private residences to boarding homes and duplexes at the start of the twentieth century.[7] The 1911 Richmond City Directory noted twenty-six boarding houses on Clay Street alone[8], suggesting that with the decline of the economic status of the street, a transient group of residents became more common. Further turning the old social order on its end was black ownership of property rented to white tenants. John Mitchell Jr. owned four additional properties on Clay Street that he “rented to white people, though it is supposed that few, if any of them, [knew] who the owner [was].”[9] If Mitchell had been the recognized owner of these homes, it is unlikely that the white tenants would have remained there for long. In 1909, the New Baptist Church purchased “the Quaker church, known as ‘Friends Meeting House’ on Clay Street between First and St. James.”[10] Despite an injunction by the whites to prevent the use of the property “as a place of worship for a Negro congregation,”[11] the court ruled in favor of the Church in 1910. As the Sanborn Maps reflect, the Friends Meeting House did indeed become the Mosby Memorial Baptist Church in 1919, before being replaced by the New Baptist Church in 1924. The nearby Rose D. Bowser Branch Library also gave way to a Club House for African Americans and, ironically, the white Clay Street Methodist Church discussed in the Mechanics’ Savings Bank debate converted to the Hood Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church by 1924.[12] Building exteriors on the street largely remained consistent in the early twentieth century. Financial limitations likely prohibited the African American community from all new construction, and instead they repurposed existing structures to meet their needs.

Map documenting the changes in the functions of buildings on Clay Street

Clay Street was characterized by inconsistent attitudes towards the changing composition of its residents and structures. Given Richmond’s broad spectrum of opinions on slavery and secession leading up to and during the war, it is fair to assume that the ‘turn of the century’ Richmonders were not unified in their opinon of the black community. Indeed some residents fully accepted the realities of black advancement in society and “not only [sold] their property to colored people, but they [solicited] the aid of colored real estate owners in so doing”[13]. These unlikely business transactions proved profitable for the white owners and also organized the expansion of black communities to some extent. Yet, not all whites were so welcoming, including the Chairman of the Street Committee, William Adams, who presented the Mechanics’ Bank situation as a choice between the lesser of two evils: a black-owned business or black residents.[14] In general, the support of blacks from Richmond’s white residents was guarded; they felt “excited and nervous over the idea of living next door to a colored population.”[15] As a defensive measure, these Clay Street whites ultimately sought to build up the black community in select areas as a means of preventing movement into the elite white sections of the city and surrounding suburbs.

Richmond’s infrastructure and order underwent noticeable modifications at the turn of the century as the city “tripled it’s land size and at the same time segregation of commercial, financial, industrial and residential areas increased.”[16] These taxing changes permeated a small area, spanning several blocks on Clay Street. Mounting tensions between blacks and whites flowed into arguments over rental properties and building permits, as in the case of the Mechanics’ Savings Bank. While the future bank would fail to violate any structure requirements or pose a real threat to civic order, the troubled opposition on Clay Street perceived the situation differently. They viewed blacks as immoral, dangers to society, and the institutions associated with them unsafe as well. Yet such turmoil never materialized and the incoming black community modified and integrated the functions of various spaces within the existing framework of Clay Street. The new residents of the neighborhood redefined the space, namely African Americans seeking a community better than Jackson Ward. As the Richmond cityscape expanded and reacted to changes in the twentieth century, Clay Street apprehensively and sometimes unwillingly adapted to the racial and infrastructural developments.

[1] John Mitchell, ed., “Permit Is Issued,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), July 24, 1909, accessed March 18, 2010,

[2] ibid “Permit is Issued”

[3] John Mitchell, ed., “Says She Has Rented Clay Street Home,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), August 21, 1909, accessed March 18, 2010,

[4] Elsa B. Brown and Gregg D. Kimball, “Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” Journal of Urban History 21, no. 3 (March 1995): 303.

[5] ibid 317

[6] The Richmond Planet, “Says She Has Rented Clay Street Home.”

[7] Map (Richmond, VA: Sanborn Map Company, 1895, 1905, 1919, 1924/1925), accessed March 19, 2010,

[8] Hill’s Richmond City Directory (Chesterfield and Henrico Counties, Va.) (Richmond: Richmond: John Maddox [etc.], 1911), 1277.

[9] The Richmond Planet, “Says She Has Rented Clay Street Home.”

[10] John Mitchell, ed., “White Residents Want An Injunction,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), November 20, 1909, accessed March 18, 2010,

[11] ibid “White Residents Want An Injunction.”

[12] Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps,

[13] John Mitchell, ed., “Don’t Want Colored Folks There,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), October 1, 1910, accessed March 18, 2010,

[14] The Richmond Planet, “Permit Is Issued.”

[15] The Richmond Planet, “Says She Has Rented Clay Street Home.”

[16] Elsa B. Brown and Gregg D. Kimball, “Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” Journal of Urban History 21, no. 3 (March 1995): 302-303.

Posted in Assignment #3