The New (South) Broad Street

Zac Brown

With only three remaining tenants, modern day Broad Street in-between 5th and 6th streets has completed a physical transformation that began in the 1880’s. At the turn of the 19th century Broad Street meant business. Clients converged from all parts of the city via the new streetcar line to purchase anything from tea to jewelry and shoes to groceries.  Even though the civil war had ended almost thirty years earlier, and reconstruction was officially over, from 1891 to 1908 Broad Street between 5th and 6th transformed both physically and racially.  The small section of Broad Street had 28 addresses in 1891; by 1908 that number had gone down to 20 starting the progression towards today, in which a Marriott Hotel overshadows the newly refurbished Miller and Rhoads condominiums and Hyatt Garden Inn on the south side of the street[i]. The businesses that made up those addresses ranged from millineries to dry good stores, while most of their tenants where white, there was an African American presence on Broad Street[ii]. Amidst increased racial tension throughout Richmond, the number of African American businesses and residents on Broad street dropped greatly from 1891 to 1908. From 1891 to 1908 Broad Street between 5th and 6th streets simplified both physically and racially through a decrease in tenants and African Americans.

After the Knights of Labor hosted the largest mixed racial political party convention in Richmond in 1886, the city became an increasingly segregated community for the next 30 years and Broad Street followed suit[iii]. In 1891 there were eight African Americans on Broad between fifth and sixth streets, with two owning their own buildings. William H Tatum rented the area above his grocery store to two African Americans and Cornelius D Kenny housed three African Americans over his tea and coffee shop[iv].  Society changed greatly over the next 20 years and by 1908 there were only two African Americans living on the street on top of the black owned Negro Development Corporation[v]. The Richmond Planet, Richmond’s largest African American newspaper, only mentioned the Negro Development Corporation one time from 1883-1938 on August 18, 1906 because they attended a conference about creating a Negro memorial in Jamestown[vi]. Proving the lack of importance the organization had on the Black community. Having only one address in which African Americans resided on the block in 1908 exemplifies the increasing segregation that occurred throughout Richmond at the turn of the century.

Richmond transformed into a city entrenched in segregation at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1890’s defining neighborhoods based on race was near impossible as laborers and artisans would often work together and cross paths[vii]. Yet as African American political standing grew after emancipation, black hysteria became ramped throughout the white community, reminding blacks of their political inferiority. The banning of political meetings in black churches limited African Americans ability to organize and the implementation of poll taxes and other voting measures disenfranchised many African American voters[viii]. The African American community did not just sit idly by through the increased racialization, staging massive emancipation day parades and protests as a statement to Confederates who mourn that day as the loss of the confederacy and the burning of Richmond.

African Americans march down Broad Street on Emancipation Day in 1905. Courtesy VCU Library

Many of the parades, including one of the biggest put on by the Knights of Pythias in 1903, went from Black neighborhood to black neighborhood crossing through white neighborhoods and heading right down Broad Street[ix].  The parades were intentionally staged going right through the areas white people needed to buy things from because it would make the greatest impact. While members of the African American community celebrated emancipation day as a holiday of freedom, many Richmonders viewed it as the day the city was burned and the confederacy lost the war. The increased racial tension brought with it a great deal of segregation resulting in many African Americans leaving Broad Street and white landowners no longer renting to them. While the racial makeup of Broad Street changed from 1891-1908, the infrastructure and physical makeup of the block transformed at a similarly staggering rate.

With the influx of big business, many small businesses were pushed off of Broad Street, Richmond’s main retail hub of Richmond in the early 20th century. In 1891 there were 28 addresses between 5th and 6th streets on Broad, but as time passed the businesses of Broad Street became more established and were able to expand, limiting the amount of tenants to 25 in 1898 and 20 in 1908. Tenants would come from all over the city and even Baltimore, Maryland to open up shop on Broad Street and by 1908 none of the tenants lived in their businesses[x]. White tenants made the commute from the newly built suburbs in response to growing black hysteria, but it was only possible because of America’s first electric streetcar line, built in 1888[xi].  This new form of transportation allowed wealthy businessmen to live in what they believed to be safer suburbs, away from African Americans, while keeping their business in the heart of thriving downtown Richmond. One of those big businesses opened its doors in 1885 and changed the landscape of Richmond forever.

The original Miller & Rhoads building in 1885. Courtesy

When Linton Miller, Webster Rhoads and Simon Gerhart invested in a small plot on Broad Street in 1885 and opened Miller, Rhoads and Gerhart, a dry goods store at 509 E Broad Street, they began the consolidation of businesses on Broad Street that remains evident today. By 1898 the store took up three addresses from 509 to 513 and with Simon Gerhart’s move to Lynchburg the business was renamed Miller & Rhoads, a name that would resonate with Richmonders for decades to come. In 1909 the business took up most of the block and by 1920 the store had expanded to Grace Street to the South, absorbing almost a whole city block. Miller & Rhoads not only transformed the geography of Broad Street, but the shopping experience for Richmonders. By instating a “one price” system they removed bartering from shopping and allowed customers to walk freely without fearing being pressured or haggled[xii]. Throughout its history, Miller & Rhoads also became involved in the Richmond community, they supported the arts through their large contributions to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and cultural events like the Tobacco Festival and Jamestown 350th anniversary celebration[xiii]. The store’s legacy continued throughout the 20th century, opening suburban branches to aid whites who fled the city in the 1920’s and expanded as far south as North Carolina, until it finally shut its doors in 1990.  When three businessmen opened a seemingly irrelevant dry goods store on Broad street in 1885 they not only marked the beginning of an empire, but a transformation of the block and neighborhood in which it was apart of.

At the turn of the 20th century Broad Street redefined itself racially and economically alongside the rest of greater Richmond. The city emerged as a stronghold for racism and segregation once again after an era in which many African Americans had political power in the late 1800’s. Broad Street between 5th and 6th Streets emerged as a center for white commerce through the changing practices of business like Cornelius D Kenny’s tea and coffee shop and the practical disappearance of African Americans on the street. And it 1885 when three men opened a dry goods store, the economic identity of Broad Street would never be the same again. The Miller & Rhoads dry goods store represents the disappearance of small businesses that began upon their arrival in 1885 and remains evident today with only three remaining buildings on the street. Through the electric streetcar line and increasing economic stability for white business owners Broad Street became a hub for big business allowing residents of the new suburbs to come into the city either as workers or shoppers to enjoy a day in the city before retreating to the white suburbs. Broad Street between 5th and 6th transformed into the hub of big business and represents a microcosm for the increased racialization that occurred throughout Richmond, Virginia at the turn of the 20th century.

[i] Richmond City Directory 1891,1898, 1908,

[ii] Richmond City Directory 1891

[iii] Miner, Claudia, “The 1886 Convention of the Knights of Labor,” Phylon. 44. 2 (1983): 149, accessed March 21, 2011

[iv] Richmond City Directory 1891

[v] Richmond City Directory 1908

[vi]“The Jamestown Exposition”. Richmond Planet, August 18, 1906, accessed March 19, 2011;words=Development+Negro

[vii] Elsa Barkley Brown and Gregg D. Kimball, “Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” Journal of Urban History 21 (1995): 325-326, accessed March 19, 2011

[viii] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” 313

[ix] Brown and Kimball, “Mapping the Terrain of Black Richmond,” 313

[x] Richmond City Directory 1891, 1898, 1908

[xi] “Miller and Rhoads’ Consumer Community,”

[xii] Rhoads, Webster, Jr. Miller & Rhoads: Seventy-five Years of Growth. New York: Newcomen Society, 1960

[xiii] Earle Dunford and George Bryson, Under the Clock: The Story of Miller & Rhoads (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2008) 78-80

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