Mayor L. Douglas Wilder wagged his proverbial finger of blame. Racism, he decried, had a role in the flooding in Battery Park last month.
"Unfortunately, the damage seen in Battery Park is the result of what is commonly termed 'institutional racism' by our City's forefathers, who should have never located a landfill there that could eventually bring damage to a major sewer line," he wrote in his Sept. 18 "Visions" newsletter.
But wait wasn't Battery Park a majority white suburb when the landfill was located near the sewer line in the early 1900s? Vincent T. Brooks, senior archivist at the Library of Virginia, pointed this out in a letter he sent to the mayor Sept. 19. (He sent it as a personal letter, he notes, not in his capacity at the Library of Virginia.)
"The landfill long predates the demographic change to the largely African American neighborhood that we know today, so you're [sic] comments about 'institutional racism' are incorrect," Brooks fired back. "Given the very real racial issues that Richmond faces (both historical and present-day), I think it is irresponsible of you to spread this incorrect information about the causes of flooding in Battery Park."
Last week, Brooks pointed out that he'd recently given a talk on Battery Park, so he had his research fresh on the mind. He decided it was his duty to respond to the mayor's claim of "institutional racism" as the cause of flooding. "There are enough real racial problems in Richmond that we don't need to create any," he says.
Mayor Wilder and his press secretary, Linwood Norman, both responded to Brooks with courteous letters, which mostly skirted around Brooks' primary assertion that history shows the landfill and sewers in Battery Park came when the neighborhood was mostly white, not black.
"You need to know that the cause of the flooding was not caused by anything that was put in Battery Park but, again, as you point out, the landfill was put there 'to serve Battery Park, Barton Heights, etc.' During that time there was no integration of these neighborhoods," Wilder retorted.
Could it have been institutional racism against white people? One doubts that's where Wilder was going in his response, but it's a bit unclear.
"I do not now nor have I ever attempted to inflame the passions of persons relative to racial issues," he continues. "At the same time, I have never retreated from pointing out the need to examine our history."
Or, perhaps, re-examine it. S