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.

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