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Untold History

A local author explores some of our city's architectural ghosts.



The book's title is straightforward enough: "Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, VA." But this freshly conceived and engagingly written history by Richmond historian Selden Richardson could easily have been entitled "Rollercoaster." It's an account of the opportunities and rewards, but sadly and frequently, of the torment and limitations that blacks faced over the decades in Virginia's capital city as they built homes, established neighborhoods and developed increasingly substantial places of worship.

Traditionally, Richmond histories are written with a political, institutional or military focus. Richardson's approach, along with photographer Maurice Duke, is to let the city's buildings, streets and neighborhoods speak. And "if the walls could talk," is not an empty cliché in this 138-page volume. Richardson becomes a shaman in telling often difficult-to-hear stories about sometimes obscure places — the sites and structures where Richmond's underserved black population sought shelter, comfort, dignity and, when possible, expression. The book is modest in size but packs a wallop.

Richardson is aware that he is writing for a contemporary audience, and he layers his considerable knowledge of the area's traditions and landscape (both physical and of the mind) with what is currently happening on a particular site. He becomes an instructive and eloquent guide for time travel. Many of his observations and descriptions are poetic. And the book is far more graphic than many other architectural histories. For example, Richardson compares Shockoe Bottom, a place of weekend revelry or comfortable living in attractive loft apartments, with its pre-Civil War days, when it was one of our nation's major slave markets.

"There is nothing sinister about the Shockoe Valley landscape where slaves were taken to auction," he writes. "It is good that emotion does not leave its imprint on its surroundings, for this area of the city would be forever stained deep into the earth by the gallons of tears shed within the precincts of several city blocks of downtown Richmond. If the cries of those being 'sold down the river,' or 'sold south,' and those who were left behind entered the ground, there would be a reservoir of shrieks and moans below the cobblestones that time can never silence."

He tells us that on sale days auction houses posted flags the color of "blood red" at their doorways.

In contrast, Richardson dramatically paints a picture of a different physical experience at the top of Richmond's considerable hills surrounding Shockoe Valley. Here, comfortable Richmonders lived in substantial houses and some among them presided over lawmaking in Jefferson's classical temple of a Capitol.

Richardson divides his study into 11 chapters that fall into three main categories: the beginnings of the city in the 18th century through the Civil War; the post-bellum period after so-called freedom came to African-Americans until the post-World War II era; and finally, the mid- to late 20th century when modernism, highway construction and population growth created entirely new challenges (including the destruction of entire neighborhoods). He concludes his 138-page text with specific chapters devoted to the architecture of black churches and African-American cemeteries.

If his descriptions of the physical conditions for blacks in pre-Civil War Shockoe Bottom are chilling, his chapter on the Westwood neighborhood's close call with extinction reads like high drama. The area near Willow Lawn (where Arthur Ashe spent much of his boyhood with his maternal grandmother) was eyed in the years after World War II as ripe for white development, not a neighborhood for working blacks.

If the continuity of Westwood marked peaks on the roller-coaster ride of African-American architecture, by Richardson's telling, the destruction of the Navy Hill and Fulton Bottom neighborhoods for redevelopment were low points.

While Fulton Bottom, just east of Church Hill, was once as densely built up as the Fan, nothing remains today: "The fabric of Fulton was so completely destroyed that the area seems somewhat sterile now, as though the extensive community that was once there can be sensed, but not seen."

"House. Home. Community. Church. These are the threads that run throughout the Westwood neighborhood story and bound this unique place to its people," writes Richardson of the West End community. These four things are also what thousands of Richmonders share regardless of race, income or standing.

In "Built by Blacks" Richardson makes the strong case that architecture and sense of place unites us, whether we live at the bottom or the top of the hill. And historic preservation is not a nicety for the few but a common denominator in an American city where, at times, it seems that more separates than unites us.

"Built by Blacks" was published by The Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), a leading preservation group which has been successful in promoting and saving old buildings and neighborhoods locally — not just by advocating restoration, but by communicating how architectural equity is a unique resource that can become a meaningful bedrock in ongoing development. The organization and Richardson's book also stress that even where architectural remains no longer exist, there are still considerable memories embedded in specific sites and larger districts.

Is Richardson's history the definitive last word on Richmond's African-American architecture? No, and I don't think he intends it to be. He realizes that until recently it was a neglected subject that is just beginning to percolate in the general consciousness. But Richardson writes with such eloquence that he will certainly inspire others to do further research.

"Built by Blacks" doesn't go into detail about the specifics of the building trades, unions, or differences between post-bellum architecture for white or black audiences (in fact, he suggests that this can be confusing because white architects often built major buildings for primarily black usage). But he does make the case and set the stage for further study. S

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