Bill Butler moved to French Street in Richmond’s Carillon neighborhood as a 21-year-old in 1968. He was afraid at first that neighbors wouldn’t accept him, he says.
“I was like a fly in a bowl of buttermilk,” he says, laughing, of the largely white neighborhood. But the colonial architecture, modest post-war homes and quiet seclusion attracted him to the area west of Byrd Park.
Martha Rollins moved in around the same time. “The real estate agent said: ‘Oh, you don’t want to live there. It’s a changing neighborhood,’” she says. “I was too dumb to know what that meant. I thought change was a good thing.”
Butler and Rollins were among about 30 people who turned out for the unveiling of a historic marker at Rugby Road and Sunset Avenue in October, celebrating the neighborhood’s new designation as a national historic district.
It’s the first in Virginia — and perhaps nationwide — to recognize a social history of racial integration.
“Our neighborhood, like others, had been segregated by covenant, attached to the deeds — specific language that you couldn’t sell the house to someone not white,” says Beth O’Leary, Carillon’s volunteer historian.
The legal system struck down many overtly racial housing practices across the country in the 1960s, but real estate agents, banks and newspapers found ways around the law to maintain segregation and keep housing prices in black neighborhoods depressed.
“This was happening all over Richmond — Barton Heights and Highland Park — around 1966-’67,” O’Leary says. “The Expressway coming through displaced so many African-American families.”
She recalls unscrupulous real-estate agents warning that the house values would be falling. “They’d call, knock on doors, and send people to make noise in the night to make people think the neighborhood was dangerous,” O’Leary says. “Then they buy that house very quickly at a reasonable price, and they’d turn around and sell it to an African-American family at an inflated price. And then they could relocate [the white] family out to the suburbs. It was a trifecta — they were making a killing.”
After about a third of the neighborhood left within 18 months, the Carillon Civic Association formed in 1968 to combat this practice and welcome new people.
O’Leary says the neighborhood got a reputation for being progressive, which attracted a lot of people interested in integration. Rutledge Dennis and John Moeser were among them, both Virginia Commonwealth University professors then, active in housing issues on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, known as HOME.
“Moeser and I, we went out to test,” Dennis says. “He as a white professor and I as a black professor. HOME was successful in threatening to sue real estate companies that were discriminating against blacks.”
In Carillon, they found a neighborhood attuned to these issues and interested in making a change, and came in the early ’70s.
“I was looking for a good community, an integrated community,” Dennis says. “The other important area for me was our association with Cary [Elementary] School. I was PTA president for a year. That, of course, complemented what we were doing in the civic association, trying to maintain a racial balance and become an integrated school.”
Imogene Draper moved in with her husband in the mid-’60s. “Children benefited from it because they grew up accepting each other, not even realizing that it was something unusual,” she says. Her daughter now lives in their Douglasdale Road home and serves on the civic association board.
Residents in Carillon called out the newspapers for continuing to code house listings in a way that indicated the racial breakdown of neighborhoods, and filed complaints against banks that didn’t offer full mortgages in redlined districts. The neighborhood became an epicenter for lawyers and activists working on civil-rights issues.
“We chose to monitor and respond to Realtors’ tactics such as block-busting and redistricting,” Draper says. “We took charge of our future, because we wanted to embrace those values for ourselves and our future.”
She says people often don’t realize how the change came about in Richmond.
Arts in the Park, began in 1972, was crucial to unifying the residents, as were picnics, lectures and social opportunities. “We wanted to do something important together, to get to know each other, to accept each other. [Arts in the Park] was that,” Draper says. “Integration didn’t come with a handbook.”
Many historic districts celebrate architectural merits and uniformity of style. But the Virginia Department of Historic Resources was interested in the unique human story of Carillon between 1968 and 1978, while the association worked to stabilize the neighborhood and encourage an even racial makeup.
O’Leary, who moved in 12 years ago, spent three years collecting oral histories, and her booklet caught the eye of Julia Langan, the department’s director.
“The neighborhood is really quite different from other experiences of neighborhoods in Richmond,” Langan says. “The residents made a conscientious choice that they wanted to be integrated.”
And it sets the neighborhood apart, she says. Historic districts such as Jackson Ward celebrate civil-rights achievements and the neighborhood’s significance to the black community. The Carillon neighborhood is the first in the state — and perhaps the nation — that recognizes collaborative efforts of neighbors to integrate in the face of racial housing policies, whose effects linger today.
O’Leary says that the work of the neighborhood is even more relevant today: “The thing I heard again and again interviewing folks, almost to a person, black or white, they said, ‘It was hard work.’ But they didn’t give up, they kept trying.” S