Leigh Street: The Battle After the War

Perry L. (urpl4ut)

Assignment #3


In the years that followed the Civil War, the devastated South struggled to regain its strength and reassert itself as a part of the new United States.  In this struggle, southern cities found new identities, particularly those cities previously caught in the crossfire of war, such as Richmond.  Evacuated by many of its inhabitants in the moments before the invasion of Union forces in 1865, Richmond evolved in its demographic and cultural composition in the decades following the Civil War.  As white citizens left the cities for the suburbs or new opportunities to the west, many of the recently freed black population moved in and settled down in newly vacated urban neighborhoods.  In the seventy years following the end of the Civil War, African Americans demonstrated a newfound freedom in urban areas like Richmond’s Leigh Street, that not only caused changes in infrastructure, but also exerted pressure against the street’s white population through attempts at “race progress.”[i]  This tension forced whites on Leigh Street to either find new ways in which to reestablish their social superiority over blacks in the area, or flee.

Vast demographic change on Leigh Street occurred as soon as the Civil War ended.  Leigh Street, once an area of white affluence in the antebellum era, altered its appearance upon the return of people, following the Fire of 1865.  Although some white citizens returned, many decided to permanently move away from the city, whether for fear of future military conflicts or just to avoid such close proximity to newly-freed slaves.  Many African Americans, freed from the grip of slavery, returned to cities in order to find work.  Where this African American population settled likely resulted from the actions of freed slaves before the war.  Interestingly, a handful of blacks bought their freedom in the 1840s and ‘50s, and they built residences on Leigh Street, near Brook Avenue.[ii]  A map of the free black population in 1852 also shows this cluster of residences on Leigh.[iii]  New blacks in the city may have found themselves drawn to an area with black residences already established, or they saw Leigh Street as an attractive option due to the higher quality of its recently vacated homes.  Mary Wingfield Scott notes: “Small houses in the western end [of Leigh Street] were gradually occupied by colored people decades before they moved on to Marshall and Clay [one block away from Leigh].”[iv]  Whatever the appeal to African Americans, Leigh Street began to look very different in the eyes of Richmond’s residents than it had appeared in past decades.

By the 1880s, Leigh Street’s black population developed a strong presence, particularly on West Leigh Street, to the west of St. James Street.  According to demographic information compiled in the Richmond City Directories, West Leigh housed approximately 304 black residents in 1884, compared to 93 white residents.[v]  East Leigh Street gained a cluster of black residents by this time, but overall that section of the street stayed under white control, as the white population numbered 254, in relation to the black 69.[vi]  A split nearly down the middle of Leigh Street suddenly turned the west into a “black” part of town with a black to white ratio of 3:1, while the east side maintained a 4:1 ratio in favor of whites.  One point of note from these figures is that the City Directory lists 37 black residents at the same addresses as white residents—34 on East Leigh and just three on West Leigh—signifying those African Americans who found work as housemaids or who were renting out rooms in buildings still owned by whites.[vii]

Comparison of these Directory figures with those of just ten years later reveals a major shift in spatial use on the street.  While the population of West Leigh changed little in that decade, the East Leigh population dropped by over 120 residents, although still maintaining a white to black ratio of 3:1.[viii]  This dramatic decrease in population can be attributed primarily to economic growth.  Once Virginia found a lucrative export in tobacco, companies for its packaging and processing popped up in Richmond.  As Richmond’s economy rebounded, businessmen saw more opportunities for profit near the city center, and those who could not set up shop on the preferable Broad or Main streets settled on East Leigh.  The growth of business, accompanied by the large and ever-increasing black population, caused even more white residents to move away from Leigh Street, leaving those who remained feeling compressed into an increasingly smaller area.  By 1911, the change in East Leigh towards commercial use solidified, as population numbers for that part of the street changed very little from the 1890s.[ix]  However, the 1911 directory reveals a new shift—the increasing racial disparity of West Leigh.  At this time, the white population of West Leigh numbered 51, while the black population numbered nearly 400, a ratio of 1:8.[x]  Also in 1911, the directory lists no black resident in the building of a white resident, indicating the end of black reliance on white homes.[xi]

While the black population began to make its mark on spaces in Richmond like Leigh Street, the infrastructure and uses of the spaces themselves changed in accordance with the needs of their new residents.  The blossoming tobacco trade produced multiple factories and warehouses around the city, and the far west end of Leigh Street grew into one of Richmond’s industrial hubs.  By 1905, Leigh Street housed not only the American Tobacco Company, but also the maintenance shops for the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad lines, Southern Stove Works, and a lumber company.[xii]  In 1919, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company joined American—under the new name of Export Leaf Tobacco Company—on West Leigh.[xiii]  In contrast, East Leigh grew in the commercial sector, as businesses, primarily white, increased in number.  The black center of West Leigh gained a number of stores as well, but that area of the street stayed primarily residential, whereas the white East Leigh developed more commercial property at the expense of residential space.  The aforementioned population figures attest to the shift towards industrial uses in the far west, black residential uses in the west, and white residential and commercial uses in the east.

Growth of West Leigh Street into almost exclusively black residences led to both the creation of new buildings and improvements of old spaces, to the anxiety of some white residents.  Brown and Kimball claim that in the late 19th century, black citizens of Richmond began the improvement of their new spaces in an attempt to show “race progress,” that included “the construction of a black urban environment of larger and more elaborate businesses, churches, and homes.”[xiv]  One example of such work was Ebenezer Baptist Church.  Originally built in 1858, nearby residents gave the church new brick walls and a portico in 1873 that Scott claims “transformed the ante-bellum building into one of the handsomest of Richmond’s old churches.”[xv]  West Leigh also developed a unique social scene, and residents created new spaces for the purpose of leisure, like jazz clubs, saloons, and the Hippodrome, a theater for movies and vaudeville acts.[xvi]

The addition of educational facilities on Leigh Street illustrated the priorities of the street’s black population to teach its youth.  In 1883, members of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society established the Hartshorn Memorial College, one of the first institutions for the education of black women.[xvii]  Before the campus construction finished at Lombardy and Leigh Streets, classes began in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist.[xviii]  Also along West Leigh, the Monroe School and Armstrong High School—both for African American students—added to the black “race progress” taking place on that street.[xix]  More black churches found their way onto Leigh Street, and even a hotel for “colored” people, the Miller Hotel, served customers in the early 20th century.[xx]  The presence of the hotel alone confirms the increasing wealth of the black population in Richmond and elsewhere; otherwise, the hotel would have served few clients.

The related racial and infrastructural changes that occurred on Leigh Street at the turn of the 20th century did not come without anxiety to the street’s white population.  Although residents clearly defined and separated the spaces in which they lived, racial interaction was far from limited on Leigh Street, and racial tension played out in various ways over the city’s spaces and their uses.  Richmond’s white population felt pressure to limit the black “race progress” that began to encroach on spaces they called their own.  Brown and Kimball describe one such effort of white lawmakers to restrict black use of space: “By the 1880s, a series of debates within black Richmond…led to a prohibition against mass political meetings at First African Baptist Church. …the closing off of First African meant that indoor mass gatherings of Afro-Richmonders were no longer possible.”[xxi]

Richmond Directory figures further suggest white actions that limited black growth.  For example, from 1877 to 1894, Leigh Street grew from two black grocery stores to five.[xxii] In that same span of time, however, the number of white grocery stores skyrocketed from five to 22.[xxiii]  This change took place while Leigh Street’s residential white population decreased and its black population increased; why would such growth occur while the white population diminished?  The most concrete evidence comes from the uses of the street by each race; since the majority white section of the road contained more commercial buildings, that commercial growth would occur on East Leigh with less difficulty and at a more rapid pace than the addition of commercial space in West Leigh, a primarily residential area.  The effect of such white commercial growth, whether conscious or subconscious by the white population, exhibited a challenge to African American “race progress:” an attempt to reassert racial dominance—through growth of infrastructure—over the economically surging black population.  By encouraging white commercial growth and simultaneously preventing further expansion from the African American community on Leigh Street, Richmond’s white population tried to hold the black residents at bay, legally discriminating and altering spaces against African American progression.

Although Leigh Street’s black residents felt restricted from white efforts to limit their social and economic growth, they found solutions and ways around such obstacles. When the white population pushed, the street’s black population pushed back.  For example, after the prohibition of large public gatherings, small reactionary groups formed to serve similar purposes, such as social clubs and fraternal orders.[xxiv]  Also in the attempt to show black progress and unity, African Americans marched in multiple parades through downtown Richmond.[xxv]  Most of these parades traversed Leigh Street, serving as reminders of how far blacks had come in their journey from slaves to freedmen, yet adding to racial tension.[xxvi]  Despite these demonstrations and acts contributing to black growth, the fight for control of space continued to play out in neighborhoods across Richmond during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; but as one of the few early post-war black residential centers, Leigh Street functioned as one of the first battlegrounds in the city for clashes over “race progress.”

Map 1: Racial Composition, 1884-1911

Map 2: Growth of Business, 1873-1894


[i] Elsa Barkley Brown and Gregg D. Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain of Richmond,” Journal of Urban History 21, no. 3 (1995): 315, accessed March 13 2011, http://juh.sagepub.com/content/21/3/296.full.pdf+html.

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

[iii] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain,” 300-301.

[iv] Scott, Old Richmond Neighborhoods, 250.

[v] Richmond City Directory 1884 (Richmond: J.H. Chataigne, 1884), 122-124.

[vi] Ibid., 120-122.

[vii] Richmond City Directory 1884, 120-124.

[viii] Richmond City Directory 1893-1894 (Richmond: J.H. Chataigne, 1893-1894), 923-928.

[ix] Richmond City Directory 1911 (Richmond: J.H. Chataigne, 1911), 1348-1349.

[x] Richmond City Directory 1911, 1349-1352.

[xi] Richmond City Directory 1911, 1348-1352.

[xii] The Sanborn Map Company, “Sanborn Map Richmond, Virginia: 1905,” Accessed February 27, 2011, http://sanborn.umi.com/.

[xiii] The Sanborn Map Company, “Sanborn Map Richmond, Virginia: 1919-1950,” Accessed February 27, 2011,  http://sanborn.umi.com/.

[xiv] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain,” 315.

[xv] Scott, Old Richmond Neighborhoods, 245

[xvi] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain,” 317.

[xvii] Eligio Martinez, Jr., “Virginia Union University (1865-),” The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, last modified 2011, http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/virginia-union-university-1865.

[xviii] Raymond P. Hylton, “University History,” Virginia Union University, last modified 2011, http://www.vuu.edu/about_vuu/history.aspx.

[xix] The Sanborn Map Company, “Sanborn Map Richmond, Virginia: 1924,” Accessed February 27, 2011, http://sanborn.umi.com/.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain,” 313

[xxii] Richmond City Directory 1877 (Richmond: J.H. Chataigne, 1877), 254-257. And Richmond City Directory 1893-1894, 796-801.

[xxiii] Richmond City Directory 1877, 254-257. And Richmond City Directory 1893-1894, 796-801.

[xxiv] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Black Terrain,” 314.

[xxv] Ibid., 309-312.

[xxvi] Ibid.

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