Friday, January 25, 2013

Richmond's Black Heritage

We’re at the eve of Black History Month, and many people are looking for informative, interesting and fun getaways. I knew that Richmond, Virginia had been the capital of the Confederacy, but I was surprised and impressed by the scope of its rich African American heritage. First of all, I was taken aback to hear that the city was saved from burning during the Civil War by General U.S. Grant’s “colored” troops. I learned that and more when I recently visited Richmond. The city offers a treasury of sites geared to African American interests. But if you’re pressed for time, I recommend the following five venues.

Located in the historic Tredegar Gun Foundry is the American Civil War Center, a museum that explores the Civil War as seen from three perspectives: Confederate, Union and African American. It’s the first museum to feature all three viewpoints. I discovered so much more there than I ever did in my history classes. Allow at least two hours to absorb the information from the state-of-the-art interactive displays, films and interesting artifacts. 

Experience what domestic servitude was like at a southern estate when you visit Maymont. Tour the extraordinary mansion that’s decorated in the lavish Gilded Age style. After seeing “Upstairs,” be sure to venture “Downstairs” to tour the area where the African American staff worked. An exhibition called “In Service and Beyond” focuses on the actual people who served the household. I was fortunate to meet and talk to Doris Walker Wilson, the daughter of Maymont’s former head-cook. She shared antidotes about her mother, grandmother, the other help and the Dooleys, who owned the house. “I’m proud that they worked here,” Mrs. Wilson said. Their labor enabled her to be the first in the family to attend college.

You will find out which African Americans made their mark in old Richmond as you make your way through the building that’s located in the historic African American neighborhood of Jackson Ward. As you peruse the visual and written records, you’ll understand why Black Richmond became known as the “Harlem of the South” and also as the “Black Wall Street.” While there, view the changing exhibits that feature contemporary African American artists.

“Box” Brown’s Box
Fit yourself into the replica of the box that held the slave, Henry “Box” Brown, as he shipped himself to Philadelphia and freedom in 1849. He became an abolitionist who served as a speaker for Philadelphia’s Anti-Slavery Society. The metal reproduction is located along Canal Walk near the 14th Street Bridge.

Richmond Slave Trail
Walk the Richmond Slave Trail by torchlight. Follow the riverside path where enslaved Africans traveled as they disembarked in Richmond in the dark of night. The route runs from the former port to the place of the former slave market. As you walk the trail, a re-enactor who plays the slave driver shouts and threatens you (the slave) in order to recreate the grim tableau. Even using my imagination, I knew I was well fed, my feet were well shod and the actors were not going to strike me. The experience was enlightening, powerful and tragic. Meet at the Elegba Folklore Society where the adventure begins.

For more information on these and other sites, contact


  1. Beautifully crafted story, I look forward to visiting theses sites for myself.

  2. Very interesting commentary. I visited Richmond several times many years ago, never really aware of the extraordinary history. Thanks for sharing.