Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Going to the Rec

Jackson Ward, the more I get to know you, the more crazy about you I am.

While today was officially my second visit to the new Black History Museum located in the former colored troops' armory, it was my first actually taking in the exhibits, although the upstairs galleries were closed because they're installing the next temporary exhibition right now.

A small group of people who'd arrived just before I did joined me to watch a 30-minute film about the neighborhood narrated by people who'd resided, gone to school and lived their full lives here.

Several of them recalled when the armory had been used as a rec center and enlargements of old black and white photos on the wall spoke to the nights it became a destination for mixers, socials and dances, with the women wearing stylish '40s and '50s strapless dresses with full skirts and tulle petticoats.

One woman recalled growing up on St. James Street, skating the block and playing outside all day with the dozens of other children who lived there, while mothers carried out their domestic duties indoors.

Another talked about what a big deal it had been to him when Armstrong High School had gotten a black principal. Oliver Hill, Jr. recalled seeing his mother walking a picket line to integrate Miller and Rhoads' tearoom.

But my favorite source was the man who ticked off where the businesses of life used to sit in J-Ward. He said there were two grocers, one at Clay and Prentice (a street I've never even heard of) and one at Brook and Clay.

Given what I know about Brook Road's legacy as a shopping route for farmers in the county, I wasn't at all surprised that Brook and Clay was also the site of Max's Drug Store (as opposed to Standard Drug at First and Broad), John D's Bar, Cameron's Service Station and Hall's Bar, the latter a tad further up on Brook.

This guy reminisced about taking dates to High's Ice Cream Shop at Second and Clay after church services. Several people mentioned Ebenezer Baptist and Sixth Mt. Zion as hubs of local activity.

Hill, who'd been part of the integration of Chandler Middle School, remembered being appalled at then-Virginia social studies textbooks, which portrayed slavery as a benign institution where everyone was just one big happy family.

Right, except some members of the family were bought and paid for.

Walking out of the auditorium after the film, one of the men looked up at the ceiling and said, "This used to be my old gym."

As I was soon to learn in the galleries, the armory had been converted to Monroe Elementary for colored kids in 1898, used as housing and a recreation center for black troops during WW II and used by various schools for its gym and facilities after that.

Many of the displays are touch screen, using old photographs, prints and drawings along with narrative to explain important eras: Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Massive Resistance and Civil Rights, although being of an age, I'd just as soon look at the objects framed on the wall as on a lighted screen,

Let's face it, few things resonate the same on a screen as the actual object does. Looking at a leather slave collar with metal rings and a lock is a far more visceral (and disturbing) experience and one I agreed was best seen in real life.

Lean in when it gets uncomfortable, that's the advice I took away from the race relations round table discussion I went to at this very building last month.

But photo choices were strong, too, like the one of a black man with his toddler on his shoulders holding a protest sign reading, "President Johnson, Go to Selma NOW!" which spoke volumes compared to the picture of white kids protesting busing on Franklin Street in 1970, looking like petulant racists-in-the-making.

One thing that stood out about the Civil Rights era scenes was how nicely dressed the protesters were. The male VUU students at the sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter wore overcoats and hats. You don't even see that at the symphony or opera anymore.

In the word nerd category, I was delighted to discover that J-Ward once had a resident and business owner (a shoe store at 506 E. Broad) at the turn of the century named St. James Gilpin, whose name wound up both on a street and public housing.

I wasn't entirely surprised to learn that a mailman named Victor Green had written something called the "Green Book for Black Travelers," listing out by location beauty salons, night clubs, restaurants, service stations and lodging that welcomed (rather than embarrassed or refused service to) black customers.

That said, I was incredulous that the book was still being printed as late as 1966. Except I shouldn't have been because of a story I'd heard at a history lecture a while back.

When LBJ and Lady Bird moved into the White House, they needed someone to drive their beagles from Texas to Washington and the black staffer they asked to do it expressed concern about where along the route would be safe and willing to lodge a black man, much less a black man with beagles.

So 1966, yea, our ugly past really is as unfortunately recent as that.

But what the galleries at the beautifully renovated Black History Museum really demonstrate is what a rich neighborhood I live in and how important it is to acknowledge the people, buildings and businesses that helped shape the fabric of Richmond.

I may be nothing more than one tiny little thread in that, but hearing the stories and seeing the photographs seems like a most excellent way to begin the leaning-in process.

Jackson Ward for the win.

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