The Struggle for Space on Leigh Street: Progression vs. Preservation

Perry L. (urpl4ut)

Assignment #4


Desires for more space both characterize and plague the history of the United States, and in its first 200 years, the country’s dealings with space quickly became racialized.  Southern cities like Richmond contained particularly tough competition over spaces after the Civil War, when African Americans gained the ability to acquire property.  As rival forces for the control of space continued to grow in the century that followed, tensions rose, especially in areas considered important to both white and African American residents.

On Richmond’s Leigh Street, where a blossoming African American population forced the white population out in the late 19th century, white Richmonders countered in the middle of the 20th century by exerting pressure on the African American community of Leigh Street through housing discrimination, “redlining,” and expansion of infrastructure in the neighborhood of Jackson Ward.  White expansion, utilizing the “bigger is better” mantra, institutionalized and legitimized the demolition of many of Leigh’s most celebrated spaces, threatening the African American culture there.

Many decades of racialized pressure over use of space finally came to a peak in the 1960s, resulting in the Civil Rights Movement.  With certain spaces on Leigh as cultural centers, Jackson Ward’s African American population took to action in an effort to reclaim space stripped from them over many years, and their work resulted in integration—the sharing of space, in which they could find expression of their humanity and their culture.

The makeup of Leigh Street in the middle of the twentieth century, produced by decades of movements and spatial limitations, set the stage for racial struggles later in the century.  By the early 1900s, a majority of the residences on Leigh housed black residents, after freed slaves moved in and white residents relocated to other parts of the city and the suburbs. Picture 1 shows a particular block of Leigh as a space where African American residents gathered to share a drink and socialize in the 1940s.[i]

Picture 1: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

When the Great Depression spurred the creation of government programs, one such program dealt with the task of evaluating properties for the sake of refinancing and the prevention of foreclosures.[ii] The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation assessed Richmond’s neighborhoods and assigned each one a rating based on factors such as “favorable and detrimental influences,” types of construction, and categories of inhabitants present.[iii]  HOLC assessors reported the results of their surveys in the late 1930s, and reports of Jackson Ward described the area as “95% Negro.”[iv]  The almost singular demographic presence on Leigh Street, one that surveyors described as “undesirable,” caused Jackson Ward to receive a rating of “D,” the least preferred classification in the HOLC scale.[v]  Government projects like the HOLC assessments, as well as other revitalization efforts, brought a number of white workers to Leigh Street.

Once the HOLC assessments of the 1930s identified Leigh Street and Jackson Ward as areas unfavorable for loan financing, the city began to take steps to change the look of the area—but using methods that proved detrimental to the population living there.  Over the course of the next half-century, city expansion projects crept onto Leigh Street, then ripped it apart, in dramatic fashion.  Richmond City investigators ordered many buildings on Leigh Street to be “repaired or razed,” such as the Young Men’s Christian Association building in Picture 2.[vi]  This strategy forced the beautification of some properties on Leigh Street (see Pictures 3 and 4, before and after shots of one block)[vii], but other buildings had little hope, as few residents could afford the desired repairs as outlined by the city.

Picture 2: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

Picture 3: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

Picture 4: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

City leaders had knowledge of the general lack of wealth in Jackson Ward in the mid-20th century and used such knowledge to their advantage, claiming some of Leigh Street’s spaces in the name of “expansion” and “progress.”  These spaces often had cultural significance to the black community; for example, the Leigh Street YMCA building was the first facility of its kind in the country owned by an African American YMCA.[viii]  Today, a parking lot sits in its place.

Picture 5: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

Residences also felt the force of city expansion projects.  One of Leigh Street’s larger homes, the Patrick Gibson house, fell victim to the “repair or raze” efforts of city planners.  Picture 5 shows the house in 1931 with boarded windows and a destroyed front lawn; men stand on the house patio, about to leave.[ix] These men likely visited the home to inspect it for repairs—or lack thereof—as the home was demolished later that year.[x]

The destruction of African American spaces for urban development continued into the 1960s, when the city developed an entire block of Leigh Street to make room for the Richmond Coliseum, an arena for entertainment, musical acts, and later, sporting events.  Picture 6 shows the impact of this construction, which led to the destruction of smaller nearby buildings.[xi]  The Coliseum is a perfect example of encroachment into Leigh’s residential area; even though African Americans were eventually able to use the space along with white Richmonders, the price paid by the neighborhood for the creation of such a structure was too high for many of Leigh’s black residents.

Picture 6: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

A look inside Mary Wingfield Scott’s Old Richmond Neighborhoods further reveals many of Leigh Street’s once celebrated spaces, a number of which the city demolished in the 1920s through the 1940s for the sake of urban expansion.[xii]  Scott mentions that more homes were erected in the 1950s, but by the 1970s the city demolished these newer homes as well.[xiii]  Scott also attests to the urban growth that encroached onto Leigh Street, asserting, “As Leigh ceased to be fashionable, various institutions took over….”[xiv] Scott’s book, published in 1950, mentions the likelihood of more Leigh Street buildings becoming “only a memory,” and the book’s predictions were proven true when the city cleared more space in Jackson Ward for Interstate 95 in 1958, which spilt the neighborhood into pieces.[xv]

Even the city’s mandated gentrification of Leigh Street’s properties—the “repair” option—had the potential to harm residents.  Historian Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik explain that attempts at urban revival often included gentrification, but “these strategies increased the burden on the salaries of poor people who could neither afford to move to the suburbs, nor could they afford to rent the newly gentrified units they had previously occupied.”[xvi]  Coleman et al add that even those African Americans who could afford a move to the suburbs often stayed away for fear of white hostility.[xvii]  In combination, financial and social constraints confined African Americans to Richmond’s urban areas like Leigh Street, the size of which the city continued to decrease via expansion projects.  Richmond’s African American population found itself trapped in an area growing ever smaller, even with government-created housing for some of those displaced on Leigh Street.

The city government claimed that expansion onto Leigh Street and Jackson Ward benefited the growth of the city, using the ideal of progression as justification to modify both the physical and the social landscape of Leigh Street.  HOLC data, compiled by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, offers clues as to the ways in which Richmond substantiated its destruction of Jackson Ward properties.  In the assessment of the neighborhood, the survey’s “Clarifying remarks” read: “Population decreasing because of demolition to save taxes.”[xviii]  While demolition was in fact the cause of the diminishing population, the reason for such demolition is doubtful.  A Study of Richmond City Government, a citywide assessment conducted in 1934 by the Richmond First Club, includes a pictorial representation of the revenue and expenditures for the city (see Picture 7).[xix]  The chart’s categories give hints as to where the government would save money via the demolition of residences.

Picture 7: From the Richmond First Club

In the chart titled “Where The Tax Dollar Goes,” a portion of every dollar went towards “Protection of Persons and Property,” “General Government,” and “Highways.”[xx]  If the government destroyed residential areas, fewer people would need “Protection of Persons and Property,” as some of the displaced would move to another city.  As a result, more of each tax dollar could go towards the construction of highways that improve both inter- and intrastate trade, as well as “General Government,” which likely included city employees’ salaries.  The defense of “saving taxes” would prove useful in moving any “undesirable” parts of the population out of the city, or at least to another area of the government’s choosing within the city.  Yet, expansion in Richmond did not follow such an easy plan, as the people of Leigh Street and Jackson Ward did not submit quietly to the destruction of their spaces.

Picture 8: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

By the 1950s, Richmond’s African American population found themselves increasingly confined by white urban expansion, losing spaces of residence, work, and entertainment.  Most black residents could only move to other urban neighborhoods or government-created housing projects.  As living conditions worsened, the pressure within the African American community began to peak.  Government efforts at limiting space for African Americans continued until there was no space left for them, and the only option for the African American community (other than flee) was to push back into “white” spaces.  Something had to give, and the Civil Rights movement saw African Americans fighting to regain space.  With churches (see Picture 8) and institutions like Virginia Union University serving as African-American cultural centers, both on and around Leigh Street, the city’s black population made great gains towards racial equality in the 1960s, although some barriers and discrimination continued into later decades.[xxi]

While a majority of expansion efforts by the city negatively affected Leigh Street and its population, some changes had a positive impact, particularly after the end of public segregation.  In the 1970s, the city turned the former Broad Street Train Station—whose back door opens on Leigh Street—into the Science Museum of Virginia.  Picture 9 shows the museum within two years of its dedication, open to both whites and African Americans.[xxii]

Picture 9: Courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center

Over the course of the mid-1900s, Richmond’s racial pressures swayed back and forth.  The white-dominated government forced detrimental change upon the city’s black community, threatening their way of life, one that for the past few decades had been blossoming.  Through a seemingly justified restriction of space, Richmond’s urban expansion program served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in the city, when racial tensions reached a peak in the 1960s.  Photos from Leigh Street during these remarkable decades suggest that the street exemplified the changes taking place in Richmond, particularly because of Leigh’s function as part of Jackson Ward, the black racial center of the city.  From these photos we can see concrete evidence of the growing racial pressures over space moving through the city, and the result of such pressures in later decades—integration, the sharing of space.  The desire for expansion and development led the government of the mid-1900s to pave over the places where buildings of black cultural significance once stood, and it is only through pictures that we may retain memories of spaces lost in the name of progress.


[i] “N. 5th and E. Leigh Streets, July 7, 1942.” Photograph.  c1942.  Valentine Richmond History Center, Cook Collection.

[ii] Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond.  Redlining Richmond. (accessed April 11, 2011).

[iii] Ibid., “Factors” page. (accessed April 11, 2011).

[iv] Ibid., “Neighborhoods” page. (accessed April 11, 2011).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Leigh St. Y.M.C.A. Building (foreground) Ordered Repaired Or Razed.” Photograph.  Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Newspapers, Inc., c1955.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, V.66.10.61. (accessed 12 April 2011).

[vii] “[Rear of Leigh Street Homes].” Photograph.  Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Newspapers, Inc., c1954.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, V.66.10.316. (accessed April 12, 2011).

and “[Rear of Leigh Street Homes].” Photograph.  Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Newspapers, Inc., c1954.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, V.66.10.317. (accessed April 12, 2011).

[viii] YMCA of Greater Richmond. Records, 1854-2004 (bulk 1920-1998). Accession 41642, Organization records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (accessed April 14, 2011).

[ix] Layton House Studio.  “Patrick Gibson House, 706 E. Leigh Street, c1931.”  Photograph. c1931. From the Valentine Richmond History Center, V.63.184.1.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] O’Neil, Michael, photographer.  “Workmen Are Almost Finished Tearing Down Fire Station At Seventh And Leigh Streets.” Photograph.  Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Newspapers, Inc., c1970.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, P.70.40.73w. (accessed April 12, 2011).

[xii] Mary Wingfield Scott, Old Richmond Neighborhoods (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1950), 245-248.

[xiii] Ibid., 249

[xiv] Ibid., 250

[xv] Ibid.. and Marie Tyler-McGraw, At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994), 293.

[xvi] Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik, Family Life in 20th Century America (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), 45.

[xvii] Ibid., 43.

[xviii] Digital Scholarship Lab, “Neighborhoods” page.

[xix] Richmond First Club.  Study Reveals Richmond’s Sources of Income.  Illustration.  From A Study of Richmond City Government (Richmond: Richmond First Club, 1934), 20.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] “[Ebenezer Baptist Church – Spring 1968].” Photograph.  Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Newspapers, Inc., c1968.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, L.68.90.21. (accessed April 12, 2011).

and Parke Rouse, We happy WASPs : Virginia in the days of Jim Crow and Harry Byrd (Richmond: Dietz Press, 1996), 186.

[xxii] Okada, Masaaki, photographer. “Solar Energy Exhibit activities at the Science Museum of Virginia.”  Photograph.  c1978.  From the Valentine Richmond History Center, The Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, V.85.37.526.

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