South 17th Street


            Drew Patenaude


                                                            South 17th Street


From 1897 to 1907 a man or a women in need of necessary goods could walk down the last few blocks of North 17th Street, as the street intersects with Main Street, and see an array of grocery stores and shops.  On the street there were auctions and goods being sold in the public market that ran down the center of the street, which is displayed in the Sanborn Fire Maps.  Then this person would make the cross over of Main Street and reach what seemed to be an entirely new street in itself.  He or she would be able to see that South 17th Street was lined with large warehouses and well known companies in the city of Richmond, run primarily by white owners.  Filling in the spaces between the massive buildings were small business and shops run by black men. South 17th Street ran from Main Street all the way down to the James River. So, this person walking along to the end of the street would see docks and many boats bringing in items such as wood, coal, ice, and other essential goods. 

While through the eyes of a person from 21st century it would appear that race was not an issue on South 17th Street in the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, as blacks lived along side whites, the gap could not have been greater on this street. Whites owned many idle companies that often distributed to all corners of the city. If the companies went out of business or moved, such as D.N. Walker’s Tobacco Stemmery, the warehouses would become either vacant lots, which is what the Tobacco Stemmery became, or they would be bought out by another white man.1  Blacks owned small businesses that often were built for the communities’ usage causing many of them to not make enough money forcing them to sell the shop to other black entrepreneurs.  17th Street South in the ten-year span of 1987 to 1907 was a street of business, commerce, and the distribution of goods where large white companies and warehouses seemed to overwhelm the lesser and smaller black businesses, often causing the small businesses to leave after only a year or so.

In the late 1800’s companies such as Gregory’s J. M. M.’s Stemmery and Davenport, Morris, & Co. were white owned companies that took up ten or more addresses and whole city blocks when looking at the Sanborn Maps.2 These two businesses were only two of the many white owned companies that populated most of 17th Street South.  These massive warehouses got their goods from docks that each individual business owned at the end of the street and would pick up what ever they needed from boats that came in off the James River.  In newspapers of this specific time, such as the Richmond Planet, companies such as Davenport, Morris, & Co. would use advertisements to let the city of Richmond know of their business goals.3 These goals according to the advertisements were to take the products they were obtaining from the docks and distribute them with trucks and cars to the citizens all around the city.3  Over the period of the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s, as the years progressed, the bigger and well-known businesses, such as The Richmond Ice Company or Waulke & Ballauf’s Coal & Wood, on South 17th Street advertised more frequently and put more effort and information into their advertisements.4  This was distinct in the Richmond Planet as in 1897 the large companies did not have addresses and information, such as numbers to call or people running the business, and then in the early 1900’s this information was added.5

The small black businesses on the other hand almost never advertised and kept a much lower profile in the Richmond community.  These businesses seemed to be more for the communities around South 17th Street instead incorporating people from all corners of the city, as many of the blacks were coopers, brakesmen, ran cook shops or eating houses, or had the lowest job of them all, a laborer.6 None of these businesses were run for the masses of the city because it appeared that they were either not run out of large factories that generated enough income or had enough space for such a massive amount of man power, or their products only appealed to people that were within a reasonable distance of the shops. Due to these inconveniences of the small black businesses, the shops often didn’t last more than a year or two.  While there was not many considerable changes to black business over this time period, year in and year out many of the black businesses either changed owner or altered the business completely.

While not every white company on South 17th Street was successful there were many businesses that lasted.  A few of the companies that endured were F.A. Saunders & Son, Waulke & Ballauff Coal & Wood, Shockoe Mills run by Warner, Moore, & Co, and Richmond Ice Co.6 These companies persisted because of their influence in the city and the amount of income they were able to generate.  Companies such as Gregory J M M’s Stemmery were unable to set up advertisements in resources such as newspapers and directories causing the company to fail.  Companies such as the Richmond Ice Co. covered newspapers such as the Richmond Planet and the Richmond Directories with their advertisementsOn one single page of the Richmond Planet published February 9th, 1892 there were actually multiple ads for the Richmond Ice Co. and their delivery service.7 These advertisements were also full of useful information such as addresses, phone numbers, and what the company actually was doing. Companies such as the Richmond Ice Co. were also successful because their products of ice, wood, and coal which could not be easily accessed in the city.8 This meant that the people of Richmond relied on companies like the Richmond Ice Co. to bring them firewood and coal to heat their houses and ice to preserve their food.  While predominately white companies such as Waulke & Ballauff’s Coal & Wood stayed idle as Richmond made it’s turn into the 20th century, changes in black businesses were much more frequent. 

Many of the white companies that left South 17th Street turned either into vacant lots or were sold off to completely different companies, while black businesses stayed predominately black and often kept the same profession, only changing the owner. (Sanborn Maps)  A Business that stayed the same during this time period was the shoemakers on nine South 17th Street as the original owner in 1897, Rocco Moschetta, sold the building to another shoemaker in 1900.9  The business was then sold to another black man named John Spaulding in 1907. Also, according to the Richmond Directory, businesses tended to stay in the same building with professions such as coopers from 1897 to 1907.10 Furthermore, shoemakers and coopers tended to stay in the same buildings because blacks often lived above their shops.  While white people on South 17th Street lived miles away from their businesses separating work from home, shops were also homes to black people eliminating any inconveniences of travel and making the shops feel more like a home to customers. 

17th Street South in the city of Richmond from 1897 to 1907 was lined with massive warehouses and small privately own businesses.11 While at first glace, over this ten-year period of time, there does not seem to be an enormous amount of change, but as you look closer, the street changed on a year-to-year basis.  Predominately white companies became vacant lots or changed products and owners completely while black shops either went bankrupt or sold the building to another black man annually.  Another change that occurred dealt with companies that did not move or leave the South 17th Street area, and controlled the delivery of goods to different parts of Richmond, began to up the amount of advertisements in newspapers, such as the Richmond City Directories and the Richmond Planet, to create more awareness around the city.  While smaller predominantly black companies, on the other hand, did not advertise their companies in public sources, making it a lot tough for a customer to find a black company that fits their needs.  When looking at South 17th Street over the course of the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s the changes of the street can be seen through primarily large white companies beginning to settle down and thrive in the city of Richmond, through advertisement and easy access to their goods.  This, in turn, pressured smaller black companies to leave 17th Street in search of a different community that appeals more to smaller business venues.


1)                  The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

2)                  The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

3)                  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

1 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

2 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

3 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

4 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

5 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

6 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

6 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

7 The Alexandria Gazette [Washington DC] 17 July 1901. Print.

8 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

9 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)

10 The Richmond City Directories (1897-1907)

11 The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (1905)


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