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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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.