Richmond: Not Just Black and White

Richmond: Not Just Black and White

By John C. McAuliff

The most profitable economy in the nineteenth century American South was outlawed. When Slavery was abolished, the prominence and controversy of Fifteenth Street, like a Hollywood starlet at her peak, faded away. Fifteenth would not stay quiet for long. The street can be divided into three sections. South Fifteenth Street, which ran from just south of Cary Street up to Main Street, makes up the southern leg. North Fifteenth Street, which ran from Main Street to Franklin Street, is the central leg. The northernmost and final leg, Lumpkin’s Alley, ran from Franklin Street up toward Broad Street at an angle to the west. The three sections, though each was within a block of one another, responded differently to the passing of time. On the whole, Fifteenth Street from 1880 to 1920 underwent immense change, both in the ethnic makeup of the street and the physical space those people occupied.

Fifteenth Street changed in two significant ways. The occupants of Fifteenth Street between 1894 and 1911 changed enough so that it went from a street with a narrow majority of English descended people, to a street containing a majority of people who descend from immigrants who lived in non-English nations. Fifteenth Street was also the stage for industrial ventures in tobacco, iron, and electric transportation which took up an increasingly large amount of space over the forty years studied. Given the changes occurring in ethnicity and industrial projects from 1880 to 1920 on Fifteenth Street, it is not a stretch to say that Fifteenth Street served as a microcosm of the Gilded Age and the Second American Industrial Revolution.

The ethnic diversity of Fifteenth Street grew from about half being people of non-English descent in 1894 to two-thirds of people of non-English descent in 1911 using a last name search from a genealogy website[1] These statistics, though convincing on their own, only refer to building ownership. The laborers who worked in the markets, tobacco warehouses, and ironworks of Fifteenth Street were likely more diverse. In 1894, eight of eleven building owners on North Fifteenth were of an ethnicity besides English, while just five of sixteen on South Fifteenth shared that quality. At this time, South Fifteenth was still very much a white, English owned area. By 1911, the two halves of Fifteenth Street became more similar: Three-fourths of North Fifteenth’s residents were of an ethnicity besides English, and three-fifths of the occupants of South Fifteenth were of non-English ethnicity.[2] The change within the street means that the white, English owned businesses moved out and business-owners of other ethnicities moved in.

The change of storefront ownership could have been caused by the opening of the Broad Street train line, which made the canal less important for transporting goods and opened up more desirable locations for property elsewhere.[3] Another possibility is that as Fifteenth Street became a more industrial area, the property values dropped and the income of its inhabitants fell as well. Middle class residents are accompanied by saloons, so when the middle class market moved in, so did new businesses to support them. The change in ethnicity is likely because at the time, many immigrants came to America with very little looking for jobs, and Fifteenth Street was able to provide some. Possibly, ethnic businessowners thrived on Fifteenth Street because its inhabitants were more comfortable being served by people similar to them, and vice versa for the bartenders.

In 1894, South Fifteenth Street was a stew of smells. The stench of freshly caught fish and oysters mixed with coffee, spices, tobacco, and wood paint in the span of two blocks must have given Fifteenth Street the powerful acrid odor of a working man’s jacket. Two blocks north, the smell of industry poured out of the Richmond Ironworks and machine shop. Residents in 1895 may have thought this smell terrible, but it was not yet the peak of space given up to industrial pursuits.

The stink of the street could be replaced by a visit to the produce market of William Ratcliffe and Henry Richardson of South Fifteenth Street, where fresh fruit and vegetables would be a welcome smell. Ratcliffe and Richardson, both of English descent, provide information about the standing of such a market. When Ratcliffe’s brother died in 1900, he was buried in a family plot in Henrico County, showing some wealth. Other white merchants of English descent shed light on the class in which they lived. When young Charles Sizer, a merchant who owned two buildings and lived on Clay Street, died, he was buried in Hollywood cemetery.[4] Men like this would rarely be seen on Fifteenth Street by residents or passersby except to check up on their holdings. They were of a class that would shortly be replaced: the white, English descended business owners of South Fifteenth Street.

North Fifteenth Street in 1894 painted a picture of growing diversity. In the shadow of the Ironworks, another tobacco house dried and cured its wares. Laborers on their way to work at either factory would pass the homes of black laborer James Henley, black shoemaker Benjamin Ellis, and black, female homeowner Mamie Ford. These three African American’s were the only ones living on Fifteenth at this time. If a laborer lost his job, an Irish employment agent named Justis Henson had a building near Main Street. After work, laborers could liven up their evenings at the saloon of Dennis O’Neill on the corner of Main and Fifteenth Streets, or that of Peter Chiocca in the middle of the block.[5] The business owners on North Fifteenth seem to aptly serve the working class who work in the Ironworks or Tobacco factories up and down the street. The employment agent and shoemaker were both useful for the working class to have around, while the two saloons provided a release after a day of hard labor. The fact that most of the people on North Fifteenth were of an ethnicity other than English also suggests that the laborers were as well. As the years went on, the makeup of North Fifteenth Street would expand onto South Fifteenth as well.

By 1911, the ethnic dynamics of Fifteenth Street had begun to change. The first five buildings of North Fifteenth Street were Vacant, indicating that the area had become an undesirable place to live. Given that construction of the Main Street train station would soon begin, this is not surprising. The only residents were E N Myers, a black shoemaker, and Esther Jones, a black homeowner. The only other buildings between Main and Franklin were a warehouse owned by teamster Thomas Thompson and a plow company owned by Scotsman Arthur Sinclair. Sinclair did well for himself, as he took out a half page ad on the third page of the 1911 Richmond City Directory.

On South Fifteenth Street, much had changed as well. Barkeep Dennis O’Neill had moved across the street to the other side of Main and Fifteenth Streets. Next door, F E Schmidt, a German Jewish man, opened another Saloon. Other denizens of the block were German, Dutch, Welsh, Jewish, and Irish, while a couple of men of English ethnicity still owned buildings.[6] However, on the whole the block had become a European microcosm. The presence of two plow factories indicates available jobs and the coming train station would provide many more opportunities for laborers. It is likely this continued abundance of industrial projects is the reason that Fifteenth became such a diverse area.

The industrial projects which took up most of Fifteenth Street’s physical space varied depending on the year.[7] In 1888, three tobacco warehouses took up the equivalent of around two blocks (one side). In a three block area, this was one-third of Fifteenth Street. In 1895, the peak of projects, four tobacco warehouses or curing plants and an ironworks took up the equivalent of three blocks (one side) or about half of Fifteenth Street. By 1924, the Train Station was built, and the Philip Morris Tobacco Company owned a massive warehouse complex resulting again in a full three blocks of space being devoted to industrial projects.[8] The amount of physical space these projects demanded and the jobs that were created likely dictated the income levels of the people which would inhabit the area, and paved the way for an influx of ethnic immigration to Fifteenth.

Due to the industrial and ethnic overhaul undergone by Fifteenth Street, the argument can be made that Richmond was not left out of the massive increase in immigration that accompanied the Second American Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. Fifteenth Street could have just as easily played a role in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as downtown New York in 1902. Fifteenth Street produced immense wealth for the upper class, while being the place of work and opportunity for the immigrant middle class. Even the numbers are not that far off. America as a whole saw forty-six percent more immigrants in 1910 than 1900, whereas Fifteenth Street saw a slightly lower jump in ethnicities (immigrants or otherwise) of 19% on an already fairly diverse street.[9] It is certainly accurate to say that Richmond did not benefit from the many new immigrants to America as much as New York, but Fifteenth Street is proof that Richmond was not just black and white.


[1] See Attached figures F2 and F3

[2] “Business Owners.” Richmond City Directory 1893-4 and 1911. Richmond. Print.

[3] Dr. Edward Ayers, theory mentioned in class, March 21, 2011

[4] “Deaths and Funerals” The Richmond Times-Dispatch 05 Sept. 1893 and 20 Jul. 1900. Library of Congress: Chronicling America. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038614/1893-09-05/ed-1/seq-1/&gt;.

[5] “Business Owners.” Richmond City Directory 1893-4 and 1911. Richmond. Print.

[6] “Many Articles Viewed concerning the Origins of the Names of the People of Fifteenth Street.” Genealogy, Family Trees and Family History Records Online. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ancestry.com/&gt;.

[7] See Attached Figures, F1

[8] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map-Richmond 1888, 1895, 1924.” Map. Digital Sanborn Maps. Proquest, Library of Congress. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://sanborn.umi.com/&gt;.

[9] “Tech Paper 29: Table 4. Region and Country or Area of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population, With Geographic Detail Shown in Decennial Census Publications of 1930 or Earlier: 1850 to 1930 and 1960 to 1990.” Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/tab04.html&gt;.

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