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.

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