After Charlottesville horror, Richmond’s choice is clear

The message, scrawled in marker and taped to the front door of a bagel business near Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, gave me pause when I passed it Friday morning. The next day’s planned white supremacist rally near the Mall had been well-publicized, of course, but I’d never considered it could become a threat to public safety. There would be plenty of police there to keep protesters in check, I figured, and besides, what kind of riots could possibly happen in such a peaceful and progressive college town? By the time I’d reached Roanoke on my way to a weekend trip to southwest Virginia, I’d already forgotten about the note. But then Saturday happened.

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The events of that day, amplified by an avalanche of horrifying photos and videos posted on social media, leave many searching with anger and fear for answers. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get satisfactory explanations for how young white men can feel so persecuted, or how only three of them were arrested for inciting so much violence, or how the city and its police could have failed so comprehensively to keep their community safe.

There’s one question, however, that the rally answered with absolute clarity and thunderous finality.

What should Richmond do with the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue?

The monuments should be removed from public display. The sooner, the better.

It’s important to recognize here that the monuments are protected by state law, and that the City can’t act unilaterally in removing them. And yes, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in June – while announcing his Monument Avenue Commission – that though he wanted to help his city “redefine the [statues’] false narrative” he did not support their outright removal. But Charlottesville’s tragedy should force Stoney, his commission, and those in the Virginia General Assembly to reconsider their options.

There’s no narrative more false, it’s now abundantly clear, than the tired refrain that Confederate symbols like Richmond’s statues are about “heritage, not hate.” In dated terms that Southern sympathizers might understand, making that argument after Saturday is like telling someone you only subscribe to Playboy for the writing.

Still others may feel the monuments should remain out of a newly galvanized fear that their removal could inflict the kind of pain on our community that we witnessed on Saturday. Should the city take steps to remove its Confederate monuments, we can reasonably expect that white supremacists would soon visit with firearms brandished and fangs bared.

But hatred and fear shouldn’t dictate our city’s course. Rather than regard Saturday as a potential consequence, it’s imperative for city leaders to view it as an opportunity to repudiate the bigotry for which its statues now demonstrably stand, and for which their most ardent defenders will demonstrably kill.

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Prior to Saturday, I’d endorsed the Monument Avenue Commission’s ostensible purpose to somehow lend historical context to the Confederate statues, perhaps by creating markers near each detailing the anguish produced by the systemic slavery each man fought to defend. These additions would, of course, fail to placate the vociferous contingents supporting the extreme ends of the debate. If neither side is happy with the incorporation of contextual markers, I’d thought, fancying myself some modern-day King Solomon, then that’s the most equitable solution!

But after Saturday, that idea seems like a hollow, even cowardly, half-measure. I stopped in Charlottesville Sunday afternoon on my way back to Richmond, and saw the street where a young woman had been murdered the day before by a white supremacist. Three blocks away, a man in a suit who had organized the rally was about to be tackled into a bush by a counterprotester, and yet it was on this crowded but silent street where emotions remained most raw.

On that street, the stakes of the debate over Confederate statues irrevocably changed. No marker can better contextualize or define what those statues symbolize today than the bouquets Fourth Street’s Sunday congregants knelt in genuflection to rest, reflecting on a life so senselessly lost, before finally rising, blinking, into the sunlight.

Stealing Home

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Fulton from Chimborazo Hill in the 1890s. Credit: Cook Collection, The Valentine. Used with permission.

The outfielders that summer afternoon were playing deep, and justifiably so. A ball hit between them might just roll all the way to the foot of Chimborazo Hill, and by the time one of them grabbed it and whirled to throw, why, the batter would’ve already turned his back to Richmond as he rounded third base and began sprinting home, toward the town of Fulton.

And as he ran that way he could’ve seen so much. To his left were the spires of the town’s two churches, aligned perfectly with home plate, like stars in a constellation. Straight ahead was the lazy slope of Powhatan Hill, where not three centuries earlier John Smith and Christopher Newport met with Chief Powhatan’s son and set into motion a chain effect of cruelty that would, some 80 years after this photograph was taken, tear down damn near every building in Fulton.

But if he’d looked to the right, just over the shoulders of his cheering teammates, he would have seen a bridge about 50 feet from the plate he was racing toward. It was about as humble as bridges get, spanning a trickling tributary of the James called Gillies Creek, 15 yards long and barely wide enough for two horse-drawn buggies to pass at the same time. The twin brick supports beneath that bridge, their gaptoothed yawns almost hidden by undergrowth today, remain Fulton’s oldest structures to survive the days when the bulldozers arrived and one of Richmond’s most obscene larcenies began.

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Rosa Coleman remembers learning to smoke, under the careful tutelage of an older middle schooler, under the bridge in the late 1960s. By then the baseball field was long gone, but a new church – one of three that had been built in Fulton in the 20th century – cast a tented shadow over the bridge just beneath it.

Despite the new construction, however, much of Fulton had fallen into disrepair by the time Coleman first ventured beneath the bridge. Many of its rowhouses – which would have been built around the same time as those in nearby Church Hill, and looked similar – had begun to fall apart. Residents, nearly all of whom were low- to middle-class blacks, often lacked the resources necessary to repair them. Still, Coleman recalls with a smile, “there’s no place else in the world where I’d have rather grown up.”

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An undated photo of children in Fulton. Credit: Rosa Coleman. Used with permission.

The sentiment makes sense when you consider just how a town – technically a neighborhood, Fulton having been annexed by Richmond in 1905 – so small could have supported so many churches. Fulton’s greatest offering to its residents wasn’t so much an outlet for their religious inclinations but instead something even deeper, something represented by those churches: Sanctuary. And was it ever needed.

A horrifying photo, published in the March 1960 edition of Life magazine, shows a 58-year-old black woman carried away from Thalimers department store by two police officers, barking German Shepherd in tow. Ruth Nelson Tinsley would be arrested and later convicted on the charge of “refusing to move when told to do so by a police officer.” It was a reminder that 100 years earlier the Civil War hadn’t even begun, and that the intervening years had done little to change the prevailing attitudes of racism in the Confederate capital.

And yet – as sit-ins were staged at diners on Broad Street, and a young minister from Georgia began to emerge as a leader in what would be called the Civil Rights Movement – Coleman can’t remember ever once feeling victimized by discrimination. “We didn’t feel any of that in Fulton,” she says, pausing for emphasis. “It just didn’t exist where we lived.”

Part of this is due to simple geography. Hemmed in by Chimborazo Hill to the north, the James River to the west and Powhatan Hill to the east, Fulton was always destined to be somewhat insulated from the tumult and anger so evident in downtown Richmond.

Most of that feeling of sanctuary, however, was nurtured by Fulton’s self-sufficiency as a community. While thousands of Richmond’s blacks were uneasily adjusting to life in the newly built housing projects – cheerless and uninviting slums on the city’s periphery, where they remain conspicuously removed from meaningful municipal amenities – those in Fulton enjoyed all the resources and features of a fully realized community.

They had their own bank and their own gas station. If they needed groceries, they could shop at Grubb’s or the A&P. There were three barber shops, two movie theaters, and a hardware store. They could go to Allen’s Shoe Shine Parlor while they waited for their clothes to be ready for pickup at the Nu-Way Cleaners. Students went to Webster Davis Elementary and when it snowed would slide down Powhatan Hill on cardboard boxes found behind Evan’s Supermarket or J.A. Black & Sons’ furniture store, or on car hoods hastily snatched from Fogg’s junk yard. For less wholesome diversions, there was even a pool hall and what one former resident described as “plenty of nip joints.”

And then, of course, there were the residents themselves. The nobly conceived and exquisitely researched Historic Fulton Oral History Project is filled with disparate memories from former residents that coalesce like a Pointillist painting into a portrait of an unbelievably proud and tight-knit community. There were neither strangers nor secrets in Fulton, and so it wasn’t unusual for parents to host uninvited kids for dinner – or discipline others upon catching them misbehaving. Coleman remembers a handful of times when she’d return home with a bruised bottom from a friend’s house only to discover that word of her misdeeds had already beaten her there. “Second whoopings,” she remembers, “were a part of growing up in Fulton.”

Now president of the Greater Fulton Civic Association, Coleman speaks even more ruefully of the day her parents accepted the city’s relocation package in the early 1970s; Fulton’s homeowners were offered $15,000 and a new home elsewhere. “We were heartbroken, because it broke us up as a family,” she says, speaking of her neighbors who similarly scattered across the city. It’s a choice her family should never have been forced to make.

Much of Fulton’s gradual descent into its condition in the 1960s is attributable to its oversight and neglect by city officials. In citing rampant structural dilapidation after decades of failure to enforce building codes as the primary motive for Fulton’s dissolution, Richmond authorities acted no better than callous slumlords, and the resultant neighborhood they built once the bulldozers finally left is nearly as disgraceful.

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Fulton from Chimborazo Hill in 2016

Gone are the rowhouses, replaced by cheaply produced and tightly bunched homes of such eerily uniform design as to call to mind something from a Ray Bradbury story. Gone is the grid system, replaced by an utterly illogical abundance of cul-de-sacs, effectively discouraging the easy interaction the neighborhood’s residents once so freely enjoyed. And gone, most sadly, is every tangible landmark that might help newer generations understand how Fulton used to look, back when the neighborhood was a rare beacon of pride during a tragically dark time for Richmond’s black community.

Every landmark, that is, but one, connecting not just banks of a creek but eras in Richmond history.

Looking at the full version of the photo atop this story, every old landmark falls into place once you’re able to locate the bridge. The largest church – the one with the beautiful open belltower – was directly on what’s now a field used by River City Sports football and kickball leagues. The newer church, built next to the bridge, is where the horseshoe pits are today. That ramshackle white house, with four huge windows facing the baseball field, is exactly where the basket on the sixth hole of the Gillies Creek disc golf course stands today.

And the old baseball field itself? The city built Stony Run Road through its left field, and some scrubby trees have taken root behind second base and in shallow right field, but its basic infield dimensions are retained today by a weedy sand pit. It apparently used to be a pair of volleyball courts – there are two pairs of rotting 12-foot wooden beams near its middle, but the nets connecting them have long vanished – and whether the workers who constructed it were at all aware of what that expanse used to be remains impossible to ascertain.

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What’s certain, however, is that the loss of this baseball field is nothing compared to the loss of a neighborhood so rich in character, so cherished by its residents. It’s easy to feel anger over its razing, or over what’s replaced it – but it’s perhaps better to feel gratitude that such a place existed at all. And still better is the thought of being in attendance that summer afternoon, perhaps with your feet dangling off a nearby bridge, watching a baseball player rounding third and running toward Fulton, running toward home.

 

Belgium’s Loss, Richmond’s Gain: Virginia Union’s Friendship Building

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In 1941, a lifetime before anyone thought to express the sentiment using spray paint, a more enduring and constructive affirmation that Black Lives Matter was erected at Virginia Union University. The notion was a relatively unpopular one back then, slavery having been abolished only another lifetime earlier, but those looking today for a local monument that celebrates the best of Richmond’s heritage can proudly point to what’s become known as the Belgian Friendship Building.

Visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City would have seen the same building, with its maroon brick tiles and distinctive slate bell tower, from which Belgian folk songs would peal across the fair’s “Lagoon of Nations.” From its cloyingly altruistic theme “Building the World of Tomorrow” to the massive steel sphere that served as its focal point, the fair was a direct precursor to a certain Florida theme park that would open some four decades later.

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A postcard from the 1939 World’s Fair

While the fair’s earnest optimism must have been a comfort to visitors still struggling to pull themselves out of the Great Depression, 1939 wasn’t a particularly opportune time for its message of global collaboration. Shortly after the fair closed in October 1940, many of its structures – including the 18-story sphere in the center of the park – were razed and scrapped to be turned into munitions for World War II.

The Belgian government didn’t want its pavilion to meet the same fate, as it had been designed by their nation’s foremost architect to be easily disassembled so it could be brought back for use as a college in its native country. But by then they were in exile, their country under German occupation for the second time in three decades, with no way of bringing their prized structure back into it.

In a desperate diplomatic effort that must have landed with all the subtlety of, well, a hammer to a multi-ton bronze bell, the Belgian government elected to give their tower’s carillon to Stanford University’s newly-erected Hoover Tower. Hoover, a Stanford alumnus, became a hero in Belgium long before he was elected president here for his efforts to provide food to its citizens after the Germans invaded it during the first World War. The Belgians wanted America to know that its generosity hadn’t been forgotten, and would likely be relied upon again. In 1941, all 35 bells were loaded on a train to Palo Alto, where they remain today, sounding beautiful as ever.

All of which brings us to the rest of the building, a sprawling and elegant four-unit complex that the Belgians essentially decided was free to a good home – provided its new owners would be able to pay for its transportation and reconstruction. As the applications for the building rolled in – there would be 27 in total – one candidate began to emerge as the clear favorite.

An undated photo of Dr. John Malcus Ellison

An undated photo of Dr. John Malcus Ellison

Dr. John Malcus Ellison must have known he faced an incredibly trying tenure when he became president of his alma mater in 1941. As Virginia Union University’s first black leader, he had the burden of trying to prove a member of his race could handle the position’s rigors – all while fighting against Jim Crow policies and a wartime draft that would soon drastically deplete his student body and faculty. Just as pressing an issue was obtaining space for the students already enrolled; he had talented basketball players but no court for them to play on, he desperately needed laboratories for his science program, and there was no library on campus.

It just so happened, he learned, that the Belgian government was giving away a complex that could take care of each of those problems. All he needed to do was apply.

But why would Belgium donate its building to a relatively unheralded, historically black university in Richmond? The answer can be found in a pair of sandstone bas-reliefs at the base of the bell tower.

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Despite being generally known today for delicious things like waffles, chocolate, and beer, Belgium owns a track record in Africa every bit as horrifying as America’s. After somehow convincing the international community that he intended to offer philanthropic and humanitarian aid to its indigenous people, Belgium’s King Leopold II privately took over a swath of central Africa in 1885, which he named the Congo Free State. Over the course of the next 23 years, he proceeded to use unimaginable brutality to extract ivory, rubber and minerals for his personal gain. By the time humanitarian groups and journalists were able to expose what had happened, an estimated 10 million natives – some 20 percent of the colony’s population – had been killed.

By 1908, Belgium had assumed broader control of the area, renaming it the Belgian Congo, and by 1939 had proceeded to make living conditions at least nominally better for the colony’s original inhabitants. The bas-reliefs at the base of the tower purport to show these natives in harmonious productivity – Look at us singing and dancing and building things! – but it’s safe to assume the subjects’ states of undress and superhero physiques reveal some uncomfortable truths about prevailing Belgian attitudes toward Africans at the time of the fair.

Thankfully, the Belgian government’s decision to award their building to Ellison, as a means of promoting black achievement and atoning for their former king’s atrocities, proves that at least their hearts were in the right place. He had his building, but Ellison still needed to raise the $500,000 necessary to transport and rebuild it on his campus. The stage was set for one of the most inspirational chapters in our city’s history.

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It wouldn’t be easy to raise money for a black university in Jim Crow Richmond, especially while a global war was being waged, but Ellison was uniquely suited for the task. He’d overcome an adolescence spent earning $7 per month as a farmhand in the Northern Neck to become a teacher and earn both a M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Christian Education and Sociology while founding a high school and writing several books about rural black life in Virginia. An Oberlin College professor told him dismissively, when he was earning his master’s, that he would never achieve much because of his race. That same professor, so impressed by Ellison’s subsequent accomplishments, asked him years later to deliver his eulogy. Long odds didn’t scare John Malcus Ellison.

And so he went to Richmond’s churches and local leaders, black and white alike, leaning on the easy confidence and charming eloquence he’d picked up as a pastor, telling all his audiences the same thing. The students need this, he’d say. Our city deserves this. Our future depends on this. They listened, and offered what they could. He had the money within a year.

Dianne Watkins in 2015

Dianne Watkins in 2015

“It was a miracle,” Ellison’s niece remembers. Dianne Watkins was raised by her aunt and uncle on Virginia Union’s campus and watched firsthand how the sparkling new building transformed student life by offering not just better opportunities but a stronger sense of community. Ellison’s home became a place for traveling black luminaries like Marian Anderson and Langston Hughes to visit, his campus a place where Watkins could forget about the hurt she felt as a child in a dress and white gloves forced to use the dingy basement bathroom at Thalhimer’s or eat at a separate counter at the Woolworth’s deli.

Towering above that campus as Watkins grew up, beckoning to drivers along the newly-built Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, the bell tower remained silent, save for the coos of pigeons that had taken to roosting in its rafters. It would remain silent for nearly seven decades.

Today, Watkins leads a non-profit she founded, Bells for Peace, dedicated to returning bells to the tower and honoring the legacy of her aunt and uncle. She confesses she still has a long way to go toward obtaining the money needed to purchase those bells, but in 2011 was able to raise enough to install an electronic chime system in the structure. You can hear them ring three times a day – at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. – pale imitations of the booming carillon the tower once housed, to be sure, but a pleasing reminder of its original purpose nevertheless.

As wonderful as new bells might sound, however, it’s hard to imagine them any more elegant than what the Belgian Friendship Building already represents. Built to improve the lives of those unfairly treated during one of the most embarrassing periods in Richmond’s history, the perfectly imperfect bell tower reminds us still of the timeless power of redemption and the enduring beauty of generosity.

The Sobering, Sad Story of the Irish in Richmond

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They would walk up the steps wearily, with backs bent by the weight of newly forged iron, and in boots blackened by the dark river mud. They had made their way from ramshackle tenements, past mistrusting eyes and gloating jeers, all the way into the center of the doomed city. Finally, as the sunlight stretched their kneeling shadows across the coarse wooden floor of the church, Richmond’s Irish immigrants would close their eyes and begin to pray.

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Between 1830 and 1860, the Irish outnumbered any other immigrant group in Richmond. They were never here in particularly high numbers – records don’t indicate a local Irish population ever exceeding 2,500 – but then, Richmond wasn’t an especially desirable place for immigrants to live. The kind of unskilled jobs new Americans relied upon in the Northeast were filled largely in Richmond by slaves, which resulted in deplorable working conditions and barely any pay.

But the Irish were undaunted. They’d fled their country to escape poverty, disease, and later famine; it’s not that they’d become accustomed to the unforgiving life Richmond promised – they had simply never known anything else.

Still, their decision to move here was a calculated risk. In the northern ports in which their overcrowded ships had landed – especially Boston, New York and Baltimore – there were thriving Irish neighborhoods, with attendant familiarity and security. To move to Richmond was to place blind faith in its burgeoning mills and factories, to gamble on the city’s future in the vague hope that the fabled Irish luck would prevail.

Such faith was also reflected in their Catholicism, which they practiced fervently despite the low regard in which it was held by many in Richmond. Father Timothy O’Brien, the city’s first Catholic priest, arrived in Richmond in 1832 and immediately noted “little sympathy” among the public for his new congregation, describing those of his faith as “a degraded caste in one of the most aristocratic towns in the world.”

O’Brien realized that Richmond’s Catholics might derive some pride from a more impressive place of worship – they’d been using a humble wooden chapel on Fourth Street for their services – and began raising funds for the construction of a new church. Within two years, he’d scrounged up more than $4,000 to buy a lot, which he proudly described to the Archbishop of Baltimore as “in the genteelest part of the city and within a few yards of the western gate of the Capitol.”

What he didn’t express in that letter was the fact that the western side of the state capitol was seen as inferior; far more desirable would have been a site nearer the aristocracy in Church Hill. But there was simply no way the public would tolerate a Catholic church for low-born foreigners on the fairer side of the capitol. At the time there were no mansions along Monument Avenue (the road itself hadn’t yet been built), and so to the west of the capitol were relegated unsavory additions such as the jail, paupers’ cemeteries, and – in 1834, on the northeastern corner of Eighth and Grace streets* – St. Peter’s Church, for Richmond’s Irish.

*Grace Street wouldn’t be known as such for another decade, when its name was formally changed from G Street to reflect the growing number of churches along its cobblestones.

 St. Peter's Catholic Church, Eighth and Grace Streets Richmond

It was a lovely addition to the city. Modeled after the Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule in Paris, St. Peter’s boasted an elegant pedimented entrance between paired Doric columns, underneath a small but striking bronze dome. It was built only of stuccoed brick – marble being a bit beyond O’Brien’s budget – but would have seemed a glittering palace to the Irish who attended its dedication on Sunday, May 25.

“Those gathered in the new church that day were for the most part from life’s humble walks,” James Henry Bailey wrote in his history of the church, noting that the congregants were largely unable to share any money as the collection plate was passed during the service. But what they lacked materially they more than made up for in the pride they must have felt as they sat in the pews that day and gaped at the handsome windows and gleaming paint.

Beyond those walls, however, life was becoming increasingly difficult.

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The Kanawha Canal in 1865

Most Irish men in the 1830s worked to construct the Kanawha Canal, which had been conceived a half-century earlier by George Washington as a means of transporting people and freight from Richmond to the coast. This would have been incomprehensibly grueling labor. The Irish worked alongside slaves to dig deep channels through the hard red clay, knee-deep in mud and at the mercy of the mosquitoes that would have thrived in the stagnant filth. Yellow fever, malaria and cholera were rampant. After a particularly hot summer in 1838 during which several workers died of exhaustion, about 200 Irish immigrants fled Richmond to seek safer work in the North.

Their labor wasn’t merely dangerous – it was also completely pointless. The Kanawha Canal was never even completed, as its overseers came to the collective realization in the mid-19th century that trains could serve Washington’s purpose far more efficiently than boats. Work on the canal in Richmond was essentially abandoned by 1850. All of the workers’ effort had been for nothing.

The Irish would find new work in Richmond’s iron industry, which had been growing steadily in the 1840s and 1850s before exploding in 1860 to meet Confederate demand for munitions during the Civil War. It’s doubtful that the Irish philosophically supported the Southern cause, as they were in constant competition for work with slaves, whose emancipation would have given leverage to a labor class that had been ruthlessly subjugated for decades. Meanwhile, it would have been thankless and treacherous work amid the foundry furnaces, where injuries and deaths were not uncommon.

Many Irish were buried in Bishop’s Burial Ground, just downhill today from the Whitcomb Court housing project near the old city jail. It’s been abandoned for more than a century; the only clues that it was ever more than overgrown shrubs and trees are a pair of brick pillars, which would have once marked the entrance but are now knocked over and partly swallowed by undergrowth. There are no grave markers to be found anywhere. So after building a canal that no one needed, and producing weapons for an army that none of them supported, many of Richmond’s Irish were buried in graves that no one maintained.

How then, as the city burned during the evacuation in April 1865, could the remaining Irish have felt anything but relief? There was no longer any reason to stay in a place that had made a cruel mockery of the ambitions that had brought them there. When the war ended, nearly all of Richmond’s Irish moved to northern cities to seek better, more deserving fates than what they’d endured here.

Virtually all that’s left of their time in Richmond are several miles of an unfinished canal, a few sad tombstones in Shockoe Hill Cemetery, and one beautiful church.

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St. Peter’s Church spends much of its days now in shadow, dwarfed by towering apartment and office complexes built alongside it in the 20th century. Its majesty had begun to diminish as early as 1845, when a much larger and more ornate church – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – was constructed on the other side of the street. But there’s something poetic in this architectural degradation, something both perfect and heartbreaking, something that those who were similarly devalued and humiliated could appreciate.

As the decades passed, a brilliant patina began to coat the church’s bronze dome, and today its color might even bring a rare smile to those who prayed beneath it so many years ago.

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A Wet Monument to a Dry Cause: Byrd Park’s Temperance Fountain

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As those first few soft spring raindrops fell from the swollen clouds above Byrd Park, Sarah Hoge must have felt something deeper, more unsettling, than simple disappointment. In front of her were a few hundred people, mostly ladies in formal attire, there to celebrate the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s newest contribution to the “dry” movement. All were swiftly becoming drenched.

Behind her stood the newly unveiled focal point of their gathering. It offered the very substance that was at that moment sending her audience scrambling for the nearest shelter. Its script contained an erroneous date and an outrageous boast. Most strikingly, it looked like an oversized tombstone – which in a way it was. As her supporters continued to flee in droves, Hoge must have contemplated the mocking rain falling on Richmond’s newest water fountain and thought, if only for an instant, perhaps Prohibition won’t last forever after all.

An undated photo of Sara Hoge with husband Howard

An undated photo of Sarah Hoge with husband Howard

May 14, 1927 was supposed to have been among the proudest days in Hoge’s remarkable tenure as president of the WCTU‘s Virginia chapter. The Loudoun County native had held her position since 1898, and had seen her chapter’s membership grow from fewer than 1,000 to nearly 11,000 in 1920, thanks largely to her perseverance and passion.

“Every department, every approach to Prohibition, the various ways of keeping it, are familiar to her,” a colleague would recall. “As a Christian, a philanthropist, and as one devoted to her home life, Mrs. Hoge ranks with Virginia’s best.”

Her galvanizing efforts, which included organizing letter-writing campaigns and delivering impassioned speeches throughout the state, were instrumental in the Virginia legislature’s decision to go dry in November 1916, three years before Prohibition was adopted nationwide. As 1927 began, she could count herself among the most accomplished women in the state – but there was still one thing she hadn’t done.

A temperance fountain in Coudersport, PA

A temperance fountain in Coudersport, PA

At the WCTU’s inaugural convention in 1874, national president Annie Turner Wittenmyer urged the delegates in attendance to return to their home towns and erect water fountains. Their purpose – which she ostensibly explained with a straight face – would be to discourage men from entering saloons to quench their thirst with booze. The apparent shortsightedness here is amplified by the fact that most running water at that time was of such dubious quality that alcoholic drinks were generally considered a healthier alternative.

But no matter. WCTU members tackled this new imperative with characteristic zeal, and before long most states could boast at least one fountain; Massachusetts alone had nine. For Hoge, that her home state hadn’t yet built one more than 50 years after being instructed to must have been a gnawing vexation.

Her members soon raised the funds for the Virginia fountain’s construction and elected to unveil it in the busiest park of its capital city on “Play Day,” an annual event for which Byrd Park would have been packed with citizens watching and participating in various amusements such as a fiddlers’ contest and a marbles competition.

Postcard of Byrd Park, ca. 1920s

Postcard of Byrd Park, ca. 1920s

Those in attendance for the unveiling would have likely, upon leaning forward and squinting to read the curiously small script on the fountain, been bemused by what they saw. Beneath the WCTU’s symbolic white ribbon, the marker reads:

THIS FOUNTAIN IS ERECTED BY THE WOMANS CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION OF RICHMOND CITY AND HENRICO COUNTY  AND THEIR FRIENDS IN MEMORY OF THE CRUSADERS OF HILLSBORO, OHIO WHO WENT OUT DECEMBER 19, 1873 WITH THE WEAPONS OF PRAYER AND FAITH IN GOD TO OVERTHROW THE LIQUOR TRAFFIC:

AND ALSO IN MEMORY OF FRANCES E. WILLARD ORGANIZER OF THE WOMAN’S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION

THE BRAVEST BATTLE THAT EVER WAS FOUGHT? SHALL I TELL YOU WHERE AND WHEN? ON THE MAPS OF THE WORLD YOU’LL FIND IT NOT, ‘TWAS FOUGHT BY THE MOTHERS OF MEN!

The omission of the apostrophe in “Woman’s” isn’t even the most inexplicable typo of the first section. By all historical accounts, the Hillsboro protest occurred on December 23. On that night, some 70 women – inspired by a speech they’d just heard from temperance activist and certifiable nut job Diocletian Lewis – prayed inside each of Hillsboro’s saloons until their respective owners decided to close business for the night, presumably filling the frosty air with four-letter words as they locked their doors.

A print depicting the night of December 23, 1873

A print depicting the night of December 23, 1873

This event marked the unofficial beginning of the temperance movement, and its date would almost certainly have been committed to memory by a leader as devoted to her cause as Hoge. Whether she was unable to proofread the text before it was etched or had simply misplaced her trust in one of her subordinates to get the job done correctly remains unknown. What’s certain, however, is that her reaction as the veil was lifted would have been the most GIF-able moment of 1927’s Play Day.

Then there’s the matter of the poem at the bottom of the marker. It reads as hyperbole today, and could well have seemed downright tasteless by many in 1927. For the WCTU to deem its crusade “the bravest battle that was ever fought” on a statue in Richmond, former capital of a Confederacy for which hundreds of thousands had lost their lives, seems particularly galling. The poem wasn’t original – it had been penned decades earlier by a man named Joaquin Miller, and it wasn’t even about the temperance movement – and should probably have been left off the fountain altogether.

The truth is, Hoge had to have sensed the impending end of Prohibition even before the rain forced the ceremony’s abrupt cancellation that day. By 1927, drinking both in Virginia and nationwide appears to have been at or even in excess of its popularity a decade earlier, and its prohibition had allowed organized crime and illegal bootlegging operations to thrive. Support for the temperance movement had peaked years earlier; membership in the Virginia chapter of the WCTU had been steadily decreasing since 1920. Hoge would remain president of that chapter until 1938 – five years after the 21st Amendment ended the Prohibition era she’d worked so hard to bring about – waging her unwinnable war for as long as she could. She died the following year at 82.

There’s no more fitting home for Hoge’s fountain than here in Richmond, surrounded by so many other monuments to those who fought bravely in their own unwinnable wars. According to the city’s Parks Department, its water supply was shut off more than four decades ago when its underground piping began to deteriorate. That no one in the department could pinpoint the exact year in which the water was cut off speaks to how little attention that decision must have generated at the time, and how few in Byrd Park must have noticed the change.

But the fountain remains, reminding us of a forgotten fight and its failure, and looking especially beautiful when it rains.

The Noble Namesake of the Armstrong Wildcats

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The Colored High and Normal School’s largest building never really stood a chance. Unfinished when it opened in 1876 – funds for construction being simply too much for the local black community to scrape together on its own – it was deeded that same year to the City of Richmond, which allowed it to fall into disrepair with dismaying predictability. The building was condemned in 1908, at which point the school’s leaders knew they’d have to make some swift and sweeping changes for their ever-tenuous enterprise to remain viable.

Fortunately, in 1909 they were able to move their students and faculty into a building on the intersection of First and Leigh Streets recently vacated by a whites-only school, but evidently felt their overhaul wasn’t complete until their school had been renamed. There were no shortage of potential namesakes for a school devoted to black achievement; earlier that year W.E.B. Du Bois had founded the NAACP, and only two blocks south of the new building sat the thriving bank of Maggie Walker.

Ultimately, the school’s leaders decided to go with a choice far less obvious, but every bit as fitting: A white, Hawaiian-born Civil War hero of strong, sometimes-misguided convictions named Samuel Chapman Armstrong.

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For its first 21 years, Armstrong’s life was impossibly charmed. He was born to a large and well-off family on Maui in 1839, the son of missionaries-turned-educators who’d managed to develop close ties to King Kamehameha III. When not being educated in the island’s best schools, he spent his boyhood and adolescence outdoors on the pristine beaches, cultivating a curious sense of humor as he grew. One day he lowered the flag of the American Consulate to half-mast to mourn the death of a pet. On another, perhaps influenced by Old Testament lessons learned from his parents, he hanged his sisters’ dolls to protest the perceived false “i-doll-atry” they represented.

Armstrong spent his late teenage years apprenticing under his father, who had become Hawaii’s superintendent of education, and it was in this capacity that his attitudes toward education would be most crucially forged. In his approach to the natives, the elder Armstrong emphasized the development of trade skills such as carpentry or blacksmithing over more conventional disciplines like writing and math. This might seem innocuous, even practical – but there are darker implications here that doubtlessly informed Samuel’s thinking in later years, which we’ll revisit shortly.

Had his father not died in a horse-riding accident in 1860, it’s entirely possible Armstrong would have spent his adulthood riding his father’s coattails into plum jobs while continuing to lead a life of supreme leisure. (Many years later, this blueprint would be followed with remarkable fidelity by Jack Johnson.) However, the tragedy spurred him to pursue a more disciplined path, and he soon moved some 5,000 miles away to enroll at Williams College – where he wasted no time making his presence felt.

“In the winter of 1860, into my introspective life nature flung a sort of cataclasm [sic] named Sam Armstrong,” a classmate would recall years later. “There was a quality in him that defied the ordinary English vocabulary. He carried with him the vitality of the ocean … he shocked people by his irreverence and levity.”

It probably warrants mentioning here that it wasn’t exactly difficult to be regarded as an earlier incarnation of Danny Zuko at Williams in 1860. Most of its students were stuffy and cosseted New England bluebloods who would have regarded anyone west of, say, Pittsburgh, as impossibly exotic; Armstrong had only gone there to satisfy a dying wish of his father, who had been friends with the school’s president. The brio and ease with which he comported himself there among men of vastly different backgrounds, however, would prove to be among his most enduring qualities.

Armstrong in his early 20s, during the Civil War

Armstrong during the Civil War

When the Civil War began, Armstrong initially intended to join the Union ranks as a common soldier but was persuaded by his ever-obsequious Williams classmates to recruit and enlist men to serve under his command. “The character that shone in his face and manner,” a friend would later recall, “attracted the better class of men so that his company came to be called ‘The Sunday School Company.’ ” Blessed with an adoring – albeit terribly-named – group of charges at his disposal, Armstrong’s charmed military career was under way.

Within months he’d be among 12,000 prisoners taken at Harper’s Ferry, only to be paroled and promoted to captain of a division sent to Gettysburg. There, his troops defended Cemetery Hill against Pickett’s Charge – among the most pivotal stretches of hours in American history – where he was one of five Union officers to battle throughout the onslaught. Four would die; Armstrong emerged unscathed. He’d continue his rise through the Union ranks before assuming command of a regiment of black soldiers during the Siege of Petersburg. These troops would be among the first to enter the city after a victory months in the making, but their greatest contribution to the Union cause may have been the mark they left on their colonel.

Inspired by the success he’d had supervising black troops at Petersburg, Armstrong joined the Freedmen’s Bureau at the war’s conclusion, where he was appointed to help freed slaves in Virginia find employment. For two years, he worked almost exclusively in the peninsula bordered by the James and York rivers, and soon realized that without new skills at their disposal, most blacks had few employment options beyond returning to the very fields from which they’d been liberated. After securing some seed money from his family’s old contacts in the American Missionary Association, he founded a school to address that need. The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which opened in 1868, would become Armstrong’s greatest legacy.

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Hampton University, as it would later be known, was intended from the outset to be a place where blacks would be prepared to find jobs and succeed by virtue of hard work. Students would be required to perform manual labor in a variety of disciplines – much as the Hawaiians had done under his father’s oversight decades earlier – to best prepare them for the types of work they were conventionally expected to perform upon graduation. Armstrong made this abundantly clear, in language that revealed perhaps too much about his preconceptions of his new students, in remarks made at a ceremony marking the school’s opening:

“The thing to be done was clear: to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character.”

Save for precisely two words, this reads like a downright enlightened explanation for why Armstrong wanted to start a school. But even though the connotations of “stupid” may have changed somewhat over the past 150 years, it’s hard to paint the statement as anything better than naked condescension. It’s also hard to estimate the impact Armstrong’s upbringing may have had in shaping this subtle assurance in his racial supremacy. What’s beyond doubt, however, is that few men of any color did more to improve educational opportunities for blacks during a time in which they were so desperately needed.

Armstrong later in life

Armstrong later in life

By 1878, the Hampton school had become one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher education for blacks, though it struggled constantly to achieve financial stability. Public support for programs benefitting freed blacks had begun to wane, and of course the school had no endowment whatsoever. But whatever misconceptions Armstrong had about other races, he was shrewdly aware of how to exploit the guilt of his own, and promptly began a program at Hampton for Native Americans, bringing a few of his newest students with him to Northeastern cities on fundraising tours.

These didn’t always go off without a hitch. One night in 1879, Armstrong introduced a New York City audience to a Native American student, expecting the young man to regale the crowd with tales of his salvation. Instead, the clearly terrified student did nothing but mumble softly and fidget with his hat for several increasingly tense minutes, despite Armstrong’s presumably frantic exhortations.

Overall, however, Armstrong’s plan was immensely successful, securing not just desperately needed donations but also attracting widespread publicity to his broader efforts at Hampton. The school’s reputation was further bolstered by the accomplishments of a graduate named Booker T. Washington, who developed a close relationship with Armstrong and at his urging helped found a similar school in Alabama, which would become Tuskegee University. In the 1880s, Armstrong would gradually abandon his administrative duties to raise funds for his school, endearing himself to Northern philanthropists and earning honorary advanced degrees from both Williams and Harvard.

Armstrong died at Hampton in 1893 following complications from his second stroke. He was survived by four children, including two daughters who would go on to teach at Hampton and a son who, upon graduating from the Naval Academy, would lead the Navy’s Negro Recruit Training Program during the Second World War. In accordance with his wishes, Armstrong remains interred on the school’s campus, his grave marked with a stone from Hawaii.

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As for Armstrong High School, it’s in its third location since leaving its original home in Jackson Ward. In a poetic twist, that building at First and Leigh would be occupied upon Armstrong’s departure by Booker T. Washington Middle School, the pupil once again following in the footsteps of his old friend. In his autobiography, Washington would call his mentor “the noblest, rarest, human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet.”

Armstrong remains the only school ever to be named in his honor.

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Jackson Ward’s Lost Emperor

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Gilpin Court is not Richmond’s finest neighborhood. By many metrics, the 783-unit public housing complex – the city’s largest – is in fact the worst place to live within Richmond’s boundaries. Nearly 70 percent of its residents live below the poverty line; statistics released earlier this year by the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority indicate its average annual household income is only $8,753. A search for its recent appearances in Richmond Times-Dispatch articles reveals its 60 acres to be perhaps the most dangerous anywhere in the city.

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And then there are the units themselves. Several are in obvious disrepair, their thin plastic siding somehow sheared off to expose plywood walls beneath. The most striking aesthetic features of these homes, aside from their uniformly drab and cheerless color schemes, are ubiquitous mounds of concrete, which were long ago poured over boulders and today face the street resembling nothing so much as enormous unfinished sand castles (or perhaps the Flintstone residence). Their function, or how anyone could have found them an appealing alternative to grass, remains impossible to fathom. Simply put, Gilpin Court is no place to live, and its current condition is an embarrassment to the city.

In the middle of it all, almost hidden by dumpsters, is a humble tribute to its prodigiously talented and heroically dignified namesake, Charles Sidney Gilpin.

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Gilpin was the youngest of 14 children, born in 1878 to a nurse and a millworker living near present-day Gilpin Court in a home that would be demolished in the 1940s to make room for Interstate 95. Gilpin’s neighborhood, Jackson Ward, was a home to thousands of freed slaves and for decades after his birth would thrive as a hub of black commerce and entertainment. (Its most famous son, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was born six months before Gilpin, and would enjoy greater fame and prosperity than him for most of his life, for reasons we’ll explore shortly.) Gilpin dropped out of school at 12 to apprentice for three years at The Richmond Planet – during which time he would have worked closely with another Jackson Ward luminary, John Mitchell, Jr. – before leaving town in the mid-1890s to join a minstrel show, having discovered an aptitude for performing.

The details of Gilpin’s next 20 years are a bit sketchy, but from the jobs he’s known to have held and the traveling they would have entailed emerges a portrait of unbridled ambition and self-belief. He first went to Philadelphia, where he tried to resuscitate his journalism career as a printer for The Philadelphia Standard, but quit when white employees complained about his presence. He’d find subsequent employment there as a vaudeville entertainer, but moved to Chicago after being repeatedly denied more serious dramatic roles.

Once there he received his first steady work as a legitimate actor – he’d apparently turned his back for good on the minstrel and vaudevillian circuits in which blacks were typically typecast and demeaned (and in which by now “Bojangles” was thriving) – and even moved briefly to Ontario to perform plays in front of more accepting audiences. Along the way, he supported his ambition by finding intermittent work as a barber, Pullman porter, elevator operator, and even a boxing trainer. Finally confident in his abilities as a seasoned actor, he moved to New York City in 1915, and proceeded to electrify the city with his talent almost overnight.

Within months he was the lead actor of the Harlem-based Lafayette Theatre Players, performing in three well-received plays before leaving over a salary dispute. He’d soon be cast by British playwright John Drinkwater, playing former slave Rev. William Curtis in Abraham Lincoln, a heavy-handed and historically inaccurate depiction of Frederick Douglass’s influence. Pretty much the only thing critics agreed upon – other than the fact that the play itself was abysmal – was that Gilpin’s performance was like nothing they’d seen before from a black actor. A young, unknown playwright named Eugene O’Neill was in attendance for one of the play’s performances one evening, and thought so much of Gilpin that he promptly cast him as the lead in an experimental play he’d just completed called The Emperor Jones.

It was a role that would send Gilpin to an untimely and tragic death, but not before making him the most famous and esteemed black actor the country had ever seen.

A 1938 poster for the play

A 1938 poster for the play

The play, which opened on Broadway in November 1920, also made a star of O’Neill for its creative and unorthodox structure. It consisted of eight scenes, all of which but the first and last were extended, artistically demanding monologues from Gilpin’s character, Brutus Jones. The plot – which described the escape of Jones, a convicted black American murderer, from prison to an unnamed Caribbean nation, where he would establish himself as ruler before dying in a rebellion – was a caustic parody of recent military intervention in Haiti, and its subversive nature attracted audiences in droves.

What they were treated to, by all accounts, was a singularly transcendent performance by Charles Gilpin. Within weeks of the play’s opening, it had moved to a larger venue to accommodate an ever-increasing audience. Months later, it would move again for the same reason. In 1921, he was the undisputed star of Broadway.

Accolades and awards came quickly. In 1921, Gilpin received the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for exceptional contributions to his race. As context, the medal’s 1920 recipient was W.E.B. DuBois, and two years later it would be awarded to George Washington Carver. Later in 1921, Gilpin became the first American black ever to be named one of the year’s ten most significant contributors to theater by the Drama League of New York. This announcement spurred significant protests and fears of retribution, but the Drama League refused to retract its invitation to Gilpin for the awards banquet. He bravely attended, and was the unequivocal darling of the evening:

From the March 7, 1921 issue of The New York Times

From the March 7, 1921 issue of The New York Times

Still later in 1921, he accepted President Warren G. Harding’s invitation to be honored in Washington. Gilpin’s incomprehensible rise from Jackson Ward to the White House was complete. It would prove to be the last major public recognition he’d ever receive.

Gilpin’s downfall was triggered by his objection to the screenplay of The Emperor Jones, which used language that was – even for that relatively unenlightened era – wildly offensive. It forced him to say the word “nigger” no fewer than 35 times each performance, and to speak in O’Neill’s condescending conception of African-American dialect throughout. Here’s a representative sample, taken verbatim from the screenplay:

Lawd, I done wrong! And down heah whar dese fool bush niggers raised me up to the seat o’ de mighty, I steals all I could grab. Lawd, I done wrong! I knows it! I’se sorry! Forgive me, Lawd! Forgive dis po’ sinner!

For three years as the play enjoyed unabated success, O’Neill listened impassively to Gilpin’s concerns, and dismissed them each time. The lines and Jones’s depiction were racist, he agreed, but consistent with his dramatic intent. The rift between them deepened when Gilpin would substitute “black babies” or “my people” for the racial epithet during performances, and by 1924 had become irreparable. Gilpin, ever a man of principle, told O’Neill he would not perform his signature role for the play’s scheduled performances in London that year, in what would have been his first ever trip to Europe. Unfazed, O’Neill cast an unheralded football player and aspiring lawyer named Paul Robeson in Gilpin’s part. The play enjoyed continued success abroad, and marked the first major role of Robeson’s remarkable career.

That same role would prove Gilpin’s last. Disillusioned with the industry he’d sought so long to enter, he moved to Cleveland in 1924 and started a small theater company offering dramatic opportunities to blacks. He began drinking heavily, and returned to menial jobs such as operating hotel elevators to get by. In 1925, he was offered a final lifeline – the chance to make a “moving picture” in a small but steadily growing town called Hollywood to play the title role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but turned it down when he was told he’d have to perform the part in a stereotypical, demeaning manner.

He moved to New Jersey in the late 1920s, his drinking worsening each year. In 1929, he permanently lost his voice; a particularly cruel affliction for someone who’d used it so eloquently only eight years earlier to thank the audience at the Drama League of New York’s awards banquet. He died, penniless, the next year, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Today, his name is not even on the cemetery website’s list of notable people buried there. Gilpin Court would open 13 years later.

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If there’s a single attribute Gilpin demonstrated so brilliantly as his immense talent, it’s his incorruptible dignity. Each step he took toward the role that would make him a guest of honor in the White House – as well as each that drove him ever farther away from that audacious pinnacle – was forged by his uncompromising convictions. He rejected the simplest path to success for black entertainers at the time – the kind of self-parody in which “Bojangles,” it must be said, trafficked almost exclusively – to pursue a more noble and principled one.

To have that path derailed by those very principles must have produced a pain we can’t pretend to understand. It’s heartbreaking enough to see Gilpin’s name attached today to an eyesore so unsafe, so unworthy. No, our imaginations are better served by the thought of Jackson Ward’s forgotten emperor listening with what must have been gratitude, watching with what must have been vindication, as the ballroom crowd in New York stood and began to applaud for a second time.

A Reason to Hope

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As Foxtrot Team waited for the bus to fill, there wasn’t anything to do but stare at the phone in my hands. Minutes earlier, I’d volunteered to be Foxtrot’s secondary point of contact with Search and Rescue, meaning my phone would be used to report and receive news should our team leader’s dispatch radio fail to function. We were quiet and anxious in those final moments on Saturday morning before beginning our search for Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old University of Virginia student who’d first been reported missing one week earlier.

I tried to go through my mental checklist, remembering what I’d been taught at the prior night’s briefing for volunteers, but my thoughts kept returning to my phone. Would I have to use it today? And what would I have to report if I did?

*                    *                    *

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I’d arrived alone in Charlottesville the day before under gray skies, expecting to see a community shattered and subdued. But I passed dozens of students playing pickup football and frisbee on the lawn in front of the campus’s iconic Rotunda, and saw even more gathered around pitchers of beer on bar patios, all relaxed and ready to begin the weekend. Aside from a few reminders of the disappearance – a bridge had been painted with the rallying cry “Bring Hannah Home” and a sign outside a church notified passersby of its availability to those hoping to pray for her return – it was difficult to tell that the campus was the center of what had become a news story of increasing national significance. Even at the school’s amphitheater, where the night before thousands had gathered for a candlelit vigil, workers were busy disassembling the stage and scurrying away the folding chairs that had been used, seemingly restoring the collective sense of normality before my eyes.

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It was only after I ducked into a bar on the edge of campus, hoping to catch a televised press conference about the investigation, that the ongoing trauma revealed its impact. Minutes before the conference’s 5 p.m. start time, a singer had been performing on the patio, Top 40 music was blaring from the speakers inside, and the three televisions above the bar were set to ESPN. But that mundanity, and whatever normality I’d allowed myself to feel since my arrival, ended the second the channels were changed, the singing and radio stopped, and the press conference began.

People who had been sitting on the patio came inside to watch, and the waitstaff and bartenders abandoned their duties to turn and look upward with their patrons. For the conference’s 20-minute duration, business was brought to a standstill. The waitresses, in particular, looked on with grave concern. It was swiftly apparent that things remained far from normal in Charlottesville.

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The few details of Hannah’s disappearance are horrifying. She was probably drunk and definitely alone late at night in a relatively unfamiliar part of town, having apparently left her group of friends to walk to another party. Security footage shows a man walking in the opposite direction as she passes, only to change course and follow closely behind her. Within minutes, witnesses report, his arm is around her waist and they enter a bar together. She texted her friends shortly thereafter indicating uncertainty of her location, and was not heard from again.

Those details were rehashed Friday evening at a mandatory briefing at John Paul Jones Arena for members of the community hoping to join the search. After waiting for about 30 minutes in a near-silent line, about 1,200 aspiring volunteers signed liability waivers and received a time to report back to the arena in the morning, as teams would be leaving in shifts throughout the day. (I was asked by a wincing student volunteer if I minded going out “really early in the morning.” I said that wouldn’t be a problem, and was handed a ticket instructing me to report at 8:30 a.m., which made me feel roughly a billion years old.)

Once registered, each volunteer was given a wristband – somewhat tastelessly adorned with Bud Light logos – that we were told had to be worn for the duration of our search. Before the briefing began, a young student behind me wondered aloud whether her wristband would enable her to get into bars that evening, apparently having failed to grasp one of the singular lessons of the past several days.

Thankfully the rest of the volunteers, the majority of whom were middle-aged, were appropriately quiet and reflective as the briefing proceeded. We were given reminders by the sheriff and Search and Rescue authorities about what kind of clothes to look for, how to work with each other during the search, and to not even dare think about touching anything that looked like physical evidence.

Credit: @VDEM

Credit: @VDEM

By far the most compelling moment came when a pair of mothers, both of whom had recently lost daughters around Hannah’s age in similar cases, addressed the volunteers. The sheriff had handed them the microphone after telling us how much we inspired him – allowing us to briefly bask in the kind of self-congratulatory piousness familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a teacher’s conference – but that wasn’t what we needed to hear. We needed to hear from these proud, devastated women who’d lost daughters in incomprehensibly cruel ways. We needed to go into the weekend’s efforts hell-bent on doing anything we could to ease the pain of Hannah’s family, no matter how bruised or bloodied the search might make us. And we needed, we were told, a good night’s sleep beforehand.

That proved impossible, as I wrestled with what to hope for in the morning. It would be wonderful, of course, to find her somehow alive and well. But all kinds of resources, from dogs to boats to specialized teams brought in from around the region had already been employed around the clock for days with no success. If they couldn’t find her alive, what chance did any untrained volunteer have? Maybe it would be best, I thought, if we found no trace of her, and the faint, critical hope of her survival could endure for at least another day. It was only after I’d decided I should hope instead for the awful, unspeakable alternative, and then hating myself for coming to believe it with such conviction, that I finally fell asleep as dawn crept through the thin motel curtains.

*                    *                    *

The morning broke warm and sunny, and the college town looked especially beautiful in its soft light. I went to college in a town much like Charlottesville, and as such can’t speak for the kind of relationship a school in a busier city might have with its community. But I suspect a tragedy like Hannah’s disappearance resonates more deeply among local residents when it occurs in such an insulated and interconnected town. There are fewer degrees of separation among residents than here in Richmond, and that closeness cultivates a certain communal strength – maybe the word for it is devotion – that manifests itself most strongly in crises.

How else to explain what I saw Saturday morning? At 8:30 there was already a long line of people outside the arena who hadn’t attended last night’s briefing but desperately wanted to contribute to the day’s efforts. More than a dozen school buses snaked around the parking lot, ready to transport the first wave to their designated search zones. Inside, volunteers were quickly organized into groups of ten, while anyone who had military experience was ordered to attend separate training to serve as group leaders to help meet a rocketing demand.

It wasn’t long before I’d been given a neon orange-and-yellow vest and assigned to a group, exchanging bleary-eyed pleasantries with my peers and shuffling back out into the sunlight to board our bus. On our way out, an organizer informed us that we would be called Team Foxtrot, which sounded pleasingly official even if we never ended up using it. Our team leader, a 40ish man named Alan who spoke in a calm North Carolina drawl, called us over before we boarded and showed us our designated search zone on a map he’d been given. We’d be searching a few neighborhoods, he explained, but the bulk of our five-hour shift would be spent combing through dense woods. My teammates, all but one of whom were older than me, looked apprehensive. But my heart began to pound.

The ten of us were soon lined up several feet apart on a sidewalk, facing a wide field some 100 yards long and with what looked to be a wall of trees at its end. At Alan’s order, we began a slow walk forward, eyes scanning the ground. Pink iPhone case, I told myself. Silver sequined mesh top. Black pants. White shoes. Somewhere overhead a chevron of Canadian geese honked past, but I don’t think anyone on our team – in our own peculiar formation, on our own mission – even entertained the thought of looking up. If there were large stones, we overturned them. If we came to a culvert, we shone a flashlight into its mouth. And when we reached the woods, we went right into them, doing our best to keep our positions in line.

It’s funny how the mind operates when you’re doing this kind of work. Every piece of litter – at least early in the search – takes on an ominous and immediate importance, and I soon felt bad for Alan, under a barrage of well-meaning but comically trivial questions shouted at him from all places on our line. I found a shoe! No, it’s not white. But there’s only one, isn’t it strange that there aren’t two? In our first hour, we came across only one potential piece of evidence – a pair of purple latex gloves that did look suspiciously new – discarded by the side of a road. Alan took a photo, radioed it in, and we moved on.

The woods proved more dense and treacherous than I’d anticipated. We’d emerge every few hundred yards onto a street and then plunge back into a steeply banked wilderness where seemingly every bush and weed threatened us with thick thorns, which poked through my jeans and sliced into my cotton long-sleeved shirt. We collectively stopped caring about the spiderwebs in our way early on and shoved through them, never stopping to wonder if we were in a patch of poison ivy and always, always keeping eyes on the ground for clues.

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The other volunteers were remarkable. A woman in her sixties to my left would pause every few minutes to pick thorns from her exposed skin. She told me she was a retired teacher. A man who said he’d been diagnosed with cancer three years ago sucked from an e-cigarette all morning and pushed through brambles with enthusiastic abandon, keeping up a steady stream of encouraging chatter. He said he’d always wanted to participate in a search like this. An older man, an academic type, fell repeatedly on the slippery stones beneath the shallow creek in the middle of the woods, picking himself up each time. He never once complained.

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In the end, we found nothing. My heart had once firmly lodged itself in my throat for a moment when I thought I’d discovered a pistol, only to be told with gentle reproach by a teammate that it was just a cap gun. Alan, keeping tabs on his radio with other teams, reported that no one else had found anything useful either so far. The bus ride back to the arena parking lot was silent, and we bid each other hasty and dejected farewells before scattering like the leaves that, it seemed, had only just begun to fall from the deep blue autumn sky.

*                    *                    *

I suppose it’s not true that I had found nothing. Evil had visited Charlottesville and stolen a girl, and into its shadow more than a thousand had rushed with a message of resilience and a mission of recovery. In that response I’d seen the best of what we’re all capable of; a selflessness that unifies and inspires. In that response, I’d found a reason to hope.

Shedding Light on the Past: One Man’s (Manual) Labor of Love

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There’s a place, barely beyond Richmond’s boundaries, where the sun stopped shining long ago.

It’s just off a twisting narrow road pockmarked with potholes and tarnished by the telltale trash of the nearby poor. Few people drive this road, and fewer still turn from it onto an unmarked gravel pathway that brings you here, to East End Cemetery.

Here, countless coffins sink deeper each day into the soft soil, causing the ground to undulate like ripples on calm water – but this landscape is anything but calm. Thick and thorny brambles push past a blanket of poison ivy to snag at shirtsleeves and scratch at skin. Kudzu-cloaked obelisks rise like green-gloved fingers, pointing in futile defiance against nature’s unchecked onslaught. Grapevine grips at weedy trees which grow as much as 15 feet each year, coiling like pythons around their tapering trunks toward a neon canopy so dense that it casts the tombstones below into permanent shadow.

No one knows the dark landscape of this abandoned cemetery better than John Shuck.

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Every weekend, his pickup clatters up that pathway with a bed full of the tools he uses to bring light to this cemetery and its rich history. East End and adjacent Evergreen Cemetery were built in the late 19th century by Richmond’s African-American community in part to rival Hollywood Cemetery, where the city’s most prominent and prosperous were laid to rest alongside such Confederate heroes as Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart.

At more than 70 combined acres atop a bluff carved by twin streams, East End and Evergreen offered every bit as much beauty and tranquility as Hollywood, and similarly became points of pride for Richmond’s most marginalized and mistreated community.

But unlike Hollywood, the new cemeteries were established without any provision for perpetual care. As many of Richmond’s African-Americans moved to the Northeast and Midwest during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century, the graves of those they left behind fell into disrepair with remarkable swiftness.

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By 1970, the graveyards had become not just overgrown, but a haven for utter depravity. Statues were routinely vandalized and often beheaded during parties. When caretakers tried to keep revelers’ cars out by digging a six-foot-wide ditch at the entrance, they found that gap bridged soon after by a span of broken tombstones. A mausoleum mere feet from the family plot of Evergreen’s most famous occupant – bank president Maggie Walker – was broken into several years in a row, with a body once pulled from within onto the adjacent hillside. Today, its gaping hole remains unpatched.

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Shuck sensed an unsettling history upon turning onto that pathway for the first time a little more than six years ago. He had often sought out old graveyards to satisfy intertwining interests in photography and genealogy, but nothing had prepared him for what he encountered.

“I’d never seen a cemetery like that before,” he says, closing his eyes and pausing to find an appropriate descriptor. “It was foreboding.”

But amid the darkness, an enlightened idea had taken firm root. As soon as he returned home, he searched online for ways to restore the cemeteries, and found that the only such efforts were made by a dwindling and increasingly discouraged group of bank employees. Within a few weeks of contacting them, Shuck found himself in sole command of clean-up activities at East End and Evergreen.

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It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely man for the job. He’s not a native Richmonder, having grown up making hay, milking cows and sowing corn on his family’s farm in central Iowa. He only moved to the city in 2001, drawn to its quieter pace of life after years in Atlanta as a software programmer for a bank.

Before a career in programming, he applied his aptitude for languages and technology as a Teletype operator for the Army, working for three years in the basement of the Nixon White House. Retired now at 66, he spends most of his time with his wife in their suburban home, with much of their time devoted to quiet pursuits like gardening and quilting.

And yet to watch him wielding a whining chainsaw, wading through knee-high weeds and chatting up volunteers on a beautiful Saturday morning is to see a man in his element.

“That’s very nice work right there,” he tells a teen pulling ivy from a family plot, in a soft voice that’s retained a flat and distinctly Midwestern cadence. “Have you found any tombstones yet? No? Keep at it; I bet you’ll have some beginner’s luck.”

It’s a line he repeats often to the school groups and college students who comprise the bulk of his volunteer corps. Though typically too few and ill-equipped to make any large-scale immediate change, they’re still a luxury he didn’t have when he began his undertaking.

It was during those first several times, alone in the dense woods, that he saw how fiercely resistant nature is to the changes he tried to implement.  Ivy wrenched from the earth would grow back seemingly thicker than ever within weeks, especially during the summer months when the canopy traps the humidity and transforms the jungle below into an unforgiving hothouse.

But Shuck proved unbreakable, continuing to organize volunteer groups and working throughout the year to slowly clear the cemeteries’ original pathways, using an old aerial photo for guidance. It wasn’t unusual to encounter new and decidedly unnatural impediments to progress – furniture, appliances, and piles of beer cans – discarded by less well-intentioned visitors.

With painful but persistent effort, however, steady progress has been made in the past six years. A small grant from Virginia Commonwealth University enabled Shuck to buy more tools and work gloves to share with his ever-expanding base of regular volunteers, including one who combs through East End’s undergrowth hoping to find the grave of his grandmother. Keith Conley was just a boy when she was buried here in 1963, but his memories of her funeral remain vivid.

“This place wasn’t an eyesore back then,” he says, gesturing toward a pile of tires recently dumped along the side of one of Shuck’s newly cleared paths. “It wasn’t an absolute mess.”

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Conley smiles and shakes his head when asked how frustrating his fruitless efforts have proven. “Every time I find a new grave, to me it’s the same as finding my grandmother’s.” He spreads his hands before him toward the cemetery, eyes wide for emphasis. “To me, these are all my family members now.”

As the tombstones are slowly uncovered – the vast majority of East End’s estimated 5,000 grave markers remain swallowed by overgrowth – so too is a painful but vitally important component of Richmond’s history.

“John’s work is important to the city for several reasons,” says Dr. Ryan K. Smith, an Associate Professor of History at VCU. “There’s a dignity that it will help instill for generations of people of African-American descent who were treated like second-hand citizens for so long.”

Those buried at East End and Evergreen, Smith points out, lived in an era of their city’s history in which African-Americans faced nearly a 25-percent infant mortality rate. Fewer than half of black children old enough to go to school in 1890 were able to, and consequently 80 percent of the black workforce occupied unskilled and thankless jobs in factories, restaurants and hotels.

That the charge to restore their graveyards is led by an elderly white man from Iowa is a source of inspiration for Smith, who often introduces Shuck to his students to encourage their passion for local history.

“I’ll tell them that politicians talk about problems, and academics like me study problems,” he says. “But John Shuck has really been doing something about problems.”

And still, so much about the future of these cemeteries remains unknown. Maybe, as Shuck hears, a lumber company will make good on its old offer to uproot all of the invasive trees. Maybe, as he hopes, more will join his group of volunteers as word of their effort spreads. Maybe Keith Conley will finally find his grandmother’s grave.

But for now the only certainty is that a red pickup truck will continue to rattle up a quiet pathway every weekend. Its driver vows he’ll keep doing this as long as he’s able. And then John Shuck will step out and walk into the woods, bringing ever more hope, ever more light.

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Author’s note: Shuck maintains a blog devoted to his work and regularly tweets information about upcoming work days; his Twitter handle is @findagraver.

Introduction / The Soldiers and Sailors Monument

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From his post 67 feet above Libby Hill, the soldier overlooks all of Richmond. He can see its river and its railroads, its parks and its people, its graveyards and its ghosts. Since his unveiling 120 years ago today, he’s seen his surroundings change in ways we often, in a different sense, also overlook. What follows are my efforts to explore the elements, no matter how obscure, that have helped drive that transformation into the beautifully diverse and deeply complex city I’m proud to call home.

Which brings us back to that soldier.

It’s easy to forget how quickly his perch – the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument – was erected after the Civil War ended in 1865. As context: 29 years ago today, the #1 album in the country was Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. Tens of thousands of Confederate veterans were still alive, and the intervening years had done little to temper the indignity of their defeat.

One such veteran was Wilfred Cutshaw, a former colonel who’d lost a leg in an 1865 skirmish but by 1894 had become Richmond’s principal city planner, already responsible for a comprehensive redesign of the city’s layout during the Reconstruction. As an impressionable engineering student at VMI in the 1850s, he’d learned about Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, and its grandeur – utterly imagined, of course – would retain a curious stranglehold on his vision for Richmond more than 30 years later.

Evidently prominent in that vision was a monument honoring veterans conspicuously like himself. The Monument to Confederate War Dead had already been built in Hollywood Cemetery, and a statue honoring Robert E. Lee was soon to be unveiled on what would become Monument Avenue, but in 1889 he put forth plans before a handpicked committee to add yet another local tribute to the Confederate cause.

As related in the program* from our soldier’s unveiling ceremony, the meticulous nature of Cutshaw’s pitch suggests he’d long anticipated this opportunity. He presented “complete drawings of the pillar, giving dimensions, construction, ornamental details, etc.” which presumably were met with a collective shrug of approval and discreet eye-rolling among the members present. How could they say no to a one-legged veteran, especially one as frighteningly intense as Cutshaw?

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 *My favorite of the numerous ads in this pamphlet, which give you a sense of the stupefying import of tobacco to the local economy, is an endearingly enthusiastic one for Kingan’s Pork & Beef Packers: “Reliable hams! Virginia hams! Choice! Sweet!! Delicious!! The best!!!”

Critical to Cutshaw’s pitch was his insistence that the pillar, atop which a bronze soldier would stand, be comprised of 13 segments – one stone block hewn and provided by each of the former Confederate states. This proved egregiously shortsighted. Two years would pass before Cutshaw’s committee – having heard nothing from anyone outside Virginia about the blocks they’d requested – began timid efforts to contact the requisite governors directly. This did not go well.

Are you really making me spell this out for you?” one imagines the governor of, say, Alabama writing back. “I can barely afford the parchment this is written on. I’m writing this from inside a cardboard box. I ate your letter for sustenance but I remember it saying something about Egypt. You know that’s in Africa, right? Like, where our slaves came from? And you want that to commemorate the Confederacy? What’s wrong with you? Hahaha, GTFO.” The people of Richmond would have to fund their newest monument on their own.

So began a protracted fundraising effort that would culminate in the greatest bake sale in Richmond history. Cutshaw and the city’s elite scrambled in the fall of 1891 to organize profitable events, including a lecture by a Confederate agitator named A.M. Keiley, who had spent years in prisons in New York and Maryland. His experience gave him a platform on which he could espouse his hateful anti-Yankee doctrine through his undoubtedly embellished stories of the atrocities he saw while incarcerated, in much the same way Prison Mike would do more than a century later.

“The lecture was delivered to one of the largest lecture-audiences ever gathered in Richmond, and was pronounced by those who heard it a most intensely interesting lecture,” the program from the unveiling breathlessly reported, adding, “it was, moreover, a decided financial success.”

Another fundraising effort in early 1892 saw the city host three performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore, which would’ve been the modern-day equivalent of booking Jay-Z and Adele for three straight nights at Snagajob Pavilion. Cutshaw’s effort received another unexpected boost when the state legislature donated $3200 to help build the monument. At this point, the pillar was essentially paid for. But the fiscal viability of the statue – for which Cutshaw would ultimately contract local artist William Ludwell Sheppard to build – remained in doubt.

Thankfully, one of Cutshaw’s committee members alerted him to the time-proven fact that women are inherently more effective salespeople than men. Cutshaw saw the man’s logic, and immediately met with the women of the Hollywood and Oakwood Memorial associations to organize a “grand bazaar” for the benefit of the monument fund. It proved, by far, to be the single most profitable event in the three years of fundraising he oversaw; he now had the money to pay for his statue. The lesson, as always, is that Southern women can BAKE.

All that was left at this point was the statue itself – and Sheppard did not disappoint. He delivered a Southern Man not in the guilt-wracked, hypocritical mold described by Neil Young but instead one exhibiting the unbowed, unbent and unbroken countenance of a member of House Martell. Equal parts jaunty and defiant, relaxed and triumphant, the soldier shares the same attributes – not to mention an uncannily similar posture – as another underdog sculpted centuries before:

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 The most eagerly anticipated day of the year in Richmond these days is, quite justifiably, the day each winter when Hardywood releases its Gingerbread Stout. But even that can’t compare with the kind of excitement that attended May 30, 1894, as city officials planned a 2-mile parade ending at Libby Hill for the dramatic unveiling.

The morning broke raw and rainy, but it didn’t matter. An estimated 100,000 brought their umbrellas to witness the ceremony, which of course is nearly unimaginable to reckon today – but even moreso when you realize that the city’s population in 1894 was scarcely above 80,000. In other words, the vast majority of Richmond residents were crammed around Libby Hill this morning 120 years ago, along with thousands of people who had journeyed from elsewhere just to be a small part of something that must have felt incredibly important to them.

The monument’s backstory is also merely a small and mostly-forgotten part of this city’s broad history. Its fundamental themes of passion and collaboration, however, echo throughout that history in ways as overlooked as they are inspiring. I’m looking forward to unveiling those stories.

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