Edward Ragan was born in Shreveport, La., and earned a doctorate at Syracuse University in New York, but since joining the Valentine Richmond History Center as a historian in March, he's already discovered that racial issues have long dominated policy-making and day-to-day life in his adopted city.
On a recent afternoon the affable and engagingly intense man pulls up a chair in a lower-level conference room (which doubles as a gallery) to discuss his first major exhibition at the Valentine. Hanging on the walls are vintage photos featured in another show saluting Richmond's trove of architecturally giddy theaters built in the 1920s: the National, Byrd, Carpenter and Landmark (formerly Loews and the Mosque, respectively).
Ragan's soon-to-open exhibit examines a more sober era in Richmond's storied past. “Waste Not, Want Not: Richmond's Great Depression 1929-1940” will explore the effect that the major economic collapse of the last century had on Richmond and its people.
“The thing that strikes the average researcher is the depth that race was a factor in everyday life here,” Ragan says. “But to see the evidence is shocking. By examining residential zoning laws one finds that you couldn't live on a block with people you couldn't marry. And although the National Recovery Act set wages and prices to stabilize the economy, in 1934 Miller & Rhoads, then a major downtown department store fired 50 black women rather than pay them equal wages” to what white women received. Calling such findings “distressing,” Ragan says his first reaction was “to slap people in the face with that.”
“But in the end,” he says, “I realized that these issues were so persuasive they could stand on their own.”
“Waste Not, Want Not” promises to be as rich in images and artifacts as the times they recall were lean. The exhibition will feature some 50 photographs, 15 works of art and numerous objects including clothing and appliances. Most pieces were mined from the Valentine's extensive collection which, operating like a local Smithsonian, is dedicated to the preservation of Richmond artifacts and documents and interpreting the city's history.
To create a narrative that clarifies a highly complex and multihued time and place, Ragan says visitors will find an exhibition organized into nine parts.
The first will look at the city's strong middle class on the eve of the Depression, with an emphasis on material things that could be found in area households. “C&P [Telephone] had installed the first dial phones,” Ragan says. He'll show a vacuum cleaner, a 1922 electric washing machine and a sewing machine.
“And there were some swank neighborhoods for the day,” Ragan says of the 1920s, when 20 percent of the city's 43,000 households employed domestic help — overwhelmingly black: “Domestic service was a No. 1 job.”
The exhibition's second section examines Richmond's relatively stable economy before the Depression, when “Richmond was on-the-move and it was up to date,” Ragan says. “There was the manufacturing of tobacco, paper, chemicals and foil and there was retail such as Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers.” The curator also cites a massive building spurt locally in the 1920s: “People were reveling in that.”
By contrast, Ragan says there also was “persistent poverty that lay beneath the surface” so many people “didn't have far to fall” in the Depression.
“All this poverty affected African-Americans, but it wasn't limited to them,” Ragan says. “The percentage of people here who owned their own homes was lower than the national average.” Inherent poverty is the subject of the exhibit's third section.
The next area, “Richmond Resists Relief,” will show that local leaders, particularly Gov. John Garland Pollard and Richmond Mayor J. Fulmer Bright, were “obstinate,” in Ragan's words, in their initial refusal to accept government funding. “It was believed that relief made people lazy,” Ragan says. “The only thing the state did [during the crisis] was fund rural road construction.”
More encouraging is the section entitled “Self Help.” Here Ragan examines a locally founded organization, the Citizen's Service Exchange. This was established in 1933 as a kind of bartering system. It was recognized by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most innovative and successful relief programs in the country and even received mention in Ladies Home Journal magazine.
Slowly, Richmonders came around to participating in federally funded assistance programs and the exhibition's seventh section is entitled, “New Deal Comes to Richmond.” This examines such major infrastructural programs as Deepwater Terminal, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, construction of Riverside Drive in South Richmond, the establishment of the Richmond National Battlefield Park and construction of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the State Library and Supreme Court Building (now the Patrick Henry Building). An original construction sign, courtesy of the Library of Virginia, has been loaned to the exhibit.
“Art for Everyone” focuses on artists who were working at the time, many of whom were women prominent in Richmond cultural, educational and political life for decades: Willoughby Ions, Adele Clark, Theresa Pollak and Sara Belle November. Even Richmond's history created job opportunities. Local artists were engaged through government-funded programs to build dioramas and vignettes of important and colorful dates in Richmond history.
Despite hardships that caused many to suffer, Ragan found glimmers of hope, even in so racially divided a community. He cites the response in 1934 to a strike against A&P when the grocery chain wouldn't hire blacks as clerks. Other ordinary citizens joined the boycott. “Here was racial cooperation where you wouldn't expect it,” Ragan says. “Just when things seem so bitter, one finds stories of mutual assistance and help that are really empowering.” S
“Waste Not Want Not: Richmond's Great Depression, 1929-1941” opens Oct. 29 at the Valentine Richmond History Center, 1015 E. Clay St. Opening reception 6-8 p.m. For information call 649-0711 or go to http://richmondhistorycenter.com.