After the American Civil War, previously free blacks joined freed slaves and their descendants and created a thriving African-American business community in the area of Richmond, Virginia, later called the Jackson Ward. Located less than a mile from the Virginia State Capitol, the area became known as the “Black Wall Street of America.” Leaders included such influential people as John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper, and Maggie L. Walker.
As a center for both black commerce and entertainment, Jackson Ward was also called the “Harlem of the South”. Venues there were frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown.
The district was central to the Civil Rights movement in Richmond. It housed the law practice of Oliver Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III, the plaintiff attorneys in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, one of the cases that was part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in public schools as unconstitutional, and later attorneys Samuel Wilbert Tucker and Henry L. Marsh.
View of the neighborhood of Jackson Ward, in Richmond, Virginia. Photo Credit: Morgan Riley
Ironically, after desegregation, as black Virginians became more widely integrated into Richmond’s other business and residential areas, Jackson Ward’s role as a center of black commerce and entertainment declined. In addition, during the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (today Interstate 95) in the 1950s, Jackson Ward was split in two, much to the detriment of the neighborhood. Like most older urban neighborhoods of a similar era, the housing stock of Jackson Ward deteriorated as absentee landlords took over from single-family households.
The Leigh Street Armory, in Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia. Photo Credit: Morgan Riley
In the late 1980s and 90s, the district was again on the upswing. The National Park Service helped bring renewed vitality to the neighborhood by restoration of the Maggie L. Walker House and the listing of the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and as a National Historic Landmark District in 1978. Subsequently, the neighborhood became a Richmond Old and Historic District. In the 1980s, historic tax credits by the federal government aided the restoration of dozens of houses on Leigh, Marshall and Clay Streets. Today, Richmond residents continue to buy houses in Jackson Ward to renovate and restore in order to live in an historic area and revive the cultural character of the neighborhood.
For more information on the Jackson Ward Historic District, check out these resources:
- Museum Collections, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
- The Historic Jackson Ward Association
- Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary, National Park Service
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