Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Richmond Crusade for Voters: a book talk and signing by author Kimberly Matthews, Wed., March 21, 2018, VCU's Cabell Library, Room 250.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters: a book talk and signing by author Kimberly Matthews

Portrait of Kimberly Matthews, a black woman with glasses and short curly hair. She's smiling next to her book, The Richmond Crusade of Voters



James Branch Cabell Library, Room 250
901 Park Ave., Richmond, Va. 23284


Kimberly Matthews, Ph.D., presents her book, The Richmond Crusade for Voters (Arcadia Press, 2017). The book details a comprehensive history of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, an activist group created to fight voter suppression. A book-signing will follow the talk.
The event is free and open to all. Parking is available for a fee in the West Broad StreetWest Main Street and West Cary Street parking decks. For special accommodations, or to register offline, please call the VCU Libraries Events Office at (804) 828-0593.

About the Author

Kimberly Matthews, Ph.D., serves as a professor in VCU LEAD, a living-learning program at Virginia Commonwealth University for undergraduate students interested in leading professional and civic organizations. She is also active in the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a voter education and registration organization founded in 1956 in response to efforts to suppress minority voter turnout. During a stint as editor-in-chief of the organization’s newsletter, Matthews loved to delve into the group’s history and shine a light on overlooked figures who had fought for voting rights.

About the Book

The Richmond Crusade for Voters, founded in 1956 to directly oppose Massive Resistance and the Stanley Plan, has served the city of Richmond for 60 years. Despite efforts to suppress minority voter turnout, the Richmond Crusade for Voters thrived at motivating voters to participate in local, state and national elections. The organization was skilled at mobilizing African American voters, and its purpose, then and now, is to increase the voting strength of the citizens of Richmond. The Richmond Crusade for Voters provides a pictorial history of one of the nation's most influential voter education and voter registration organizations through vintage and contemporary images.
Read more about Matthews' research for her book.
Image: Portrait of Kimberly Matthews, courtesy of VCUNews, The Richmond Crusade for Voters book cover, courtesy of Arcadia Press.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Look Inside Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Building

People who regularly travel through Richmond on I-95 must wonder about two buildings that stand close beside the highway, which seems to carefully thread its way between the two.  On the south, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church practically overhangs the interstate, while on the north side of the road the derelict St. Luke’s Building is an inexplicable survivor of its otherwise destroyed neighborhood.

Sixth Mount Zion not only survived but has thrived despite the assault of what was then called the Richmond - Petersburg Turnpike which misses the church by a few feet, leaving it defiantly on the brink of a cement cliff above the interstate traffic.  In contrast, the St. Luke Building has languished for decades beside the same concrete ditch that almost consumed it. 
Many neighborhoods of Richmond that were veritable trash-blown deserts and impassive industrial buildings have become attractive for renovators and innovators.  This was never so true as the effort to revive the part of Jackson Ward north of I-95.  It included Maggie Walker’s St. Luke building at 902 St. James Street, and a recent story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch describes a new effort to renovate the building.
….so it would probably be a good time to take a look inside before renovations and the conversion to apartments forever change the structure Charles Russell redesigned and Maggie Walker once knew.
The original structure of the St. Luke’s building was a three-story office structure designed by John H. White and built in 1903.  After Maggie Walker took the helm of the International Order of St. Luke, the organization moved its headquarters from Baltimore to Richmond.  The original building was quickly determined to be too small.  Richmond’s first black professional architect, Charles Russell, was commissioned to expand and refurbish the existing St. Luke’s Hall structure for Mrs. Walker, adding another floor and expanding the front facade by one bay at the cost of $98,000.  Russell worked with Mrs. Walker earlier, designing the (now demolished) St. Luke Penny Savings Bank for her organization in 1910, and eventually making substantial modifications to Mrs. Walker’s own home in the 1920s.
The resulting four-story structure Russell designed for the Order had offices on the top floor, meeting rooms on the third floor, an auditorium on the second-floor seating 800 and the offices of the St. Luke Herald newspaper on the ground floor.  A meeting room with adjustable room dividers accommodated various size meetings and organizations.  In an era where radio was a luxury and television unknown, social and fraternal organizations flourished, and Jackson Ward was home to several important multi-purpose buildings.  The internal flexibility of the spaces in the St. Luke building reflect the demands of that golden age of clubs and organizations.
The Independent Order of St. Luke staggered on in a much-reduced form until the 1980s, finally vacating their building on St. John’s Street above the highway.  It sat vacant for decades, watching the decline of the blocks around it as the highway strangled that part of Jackson Ward.

The National Register of HistoricPlaces gives an interesting look at the St. Luke Building as it appeared in 1981, almost fifty years after the death of the charismatic Maggie Walker.  The document notes the interior of the building is “remarkably well preserved” and indeed, photographs that accompany the National Register documents show the interior furnished in much the same way as it appeared in the 1917 publication.  “The office of Maggie Walker, longtime head of the Order, is preserved as it was at the time of her death in 1934.  It retains her desk, adding machine, and bookcases.”  Today, the office is sadly stripped, and it can only be hoped that the furnishings were saved. The St. Luke’s Building has been in an accelerated state of decline since the 1981 survey.
This is a photo circa 1917, showing Maggie Walker at her desk in the St. Luke’s building.  Instead of urban prairies and the yawning concrete moat of the Interstate, Mrs. Walker’s westward-facing windows would have looked out onto the roofs of block after block of tree-shaded Jackson Ward streets that stretched without interruption toward Broad Street.  In this photo of her office, note the radiator and window behind Mrs. Walker.
The same scene as it appears today.  Any furnishings or fixtures seen in the photo of Mrs. Walker’s office and that were apparently still in place in the early 1980s are now long gone.

Shown above is the entry lobby and stairs of the St. Luke building.  Among the missing fixtures at the site is this large bronze plaque that was once mounted on the wall to the right.  It proudly listed twenty-six individuals from up and down the East Coast, who were instrumental in the funding, design, and construction of the building.  Surely, the unveiling of this plaque must have been a moment of swelling pride for the people of Jackson Ward when they gathered with Mrs. Walker and her staff and neighbors.

The now-vanished plaque lists Charles Russell as architect and H.J. Moore as the general contractor, and hopefully this marker, this important part of Richmond history can be either found or reproduced.
Traces of grandeur remain of the building that housed the International Order of St. Luke and its thriving headquarters staff, like what was once a beautifully colored pressed tin ceiling in the stairwell, or the large vault that once kept the books and valuables of the organization.

Once in these dusty rooms, ranks of neatly dressed ladies administered the I.O.S.L. “Assessment Office,” headed by the very efficient-looking First Clerk Maggie Maclin Smith.  Other rooms housed the Correspondence Office, Accounting Room, Stenographer’s Office, Press Room Printing Office, Supply Room, Juvenile Office, Composing Room, Printing Office, and the newspaper that bound the whole organization together, the St. Luke Herald.  Today only scraps of paper remain, restlessly blown around the floor by the breeze from the broken windows.

In 2009, students from the college of William & Mary made a remarkable discovery of a large group of records in the attic of the St. Luke’s Building.  This recovery of the documentation of much of Maggie Walker’s organization, its scope and significance, only underscores the importance of the building to African-American history in general and the history of Richmond in particular.  You can read the story here about their discovery.
This is an astonishing discovery which ranks with the recovery of the Southern Aid Insurance Company archives from a Jackson Ward dumpster 20 years ago.  Both sets of records give an unprecedented look into black business and society in Richmond during the same years around 1900 that saw Mrs. Walker’s organization flourish. 
Hopefully, the renovation of Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Building will not only set a high standard for renewal in North Jackson Ward, but will also be sensitive to the remarkable history that took place within its walls.

- Selden

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bird's-Eye images of the 1000 and 1600 blocks of W. Grace Street from the Richmond College yearbook, 1906.

A few Saturdays ago I came across a University of Richmond website that has digitized files of its student yearbooks (thanks to their Special Collections and Archives department). See their site HERE. I was especially interested in looking at their early yearbooks when they were known as Richmond College hoping I would see images of the school's neighborhood - located at what was then the end of W. Grace Street near Ryland Avenue The 1906 yearbook was a home run. It show two very rare views of the 1000 and 1600 blocks of West Grace Street. Richmond College was located in the middle of those blocks.

The 1889 Baist Atlas of Richmond (thanks to VCU Libraries it is online) gives the street and the Richmond College campus some context. Look at all those empty lots. 

University of Richmond, "The Spider - vol. 6, 1906" (1906). The Spider. 5. 

Here's a view looking east from the top of Ryland Hall from the 1906 Richmond College yearbook. We immediately see the 1000 block of W. Grace Street. Most of these buildings were red brick houses built in the late 1880s through the 1890s. Today, the north side of this block (seen on the left) is occupied by the former Safeway grocery store building and a recently built VCU dormitory and classroom space. On the south side of the block (the right side of this image) stands Dominion Place Apartments, the (new) Village Cafe building and two buildings seen in this 1906 image that still stand today.  

This view looks west and we see the 1600 block of W. Grace Street. Many of the houses are still under construction in this image. We see the Shenadoah apartment building (built 1905 according to the Department of Historic Resources) in the distance under construction as well as the Lee Monument to the left. Even Monument Avenue in this images has hardly any houses built on it yet. 

This image, taken from the top of the Chesterfield apartment building, is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 25, 1906. It shows Richmond College's main building, Ryland Hall, facing W. Grace St. The article on the far right of the page discusses the construction of buildings taking place in the city at that time. These sections (shown below) of the article discuss the construction along W. Grace St.:

Another view - slightly annotated.

A postcard published ca. 1910 showing Ryland Hall, originally built in 1855 with major additions in 1873 and 1876. The building was nearly demolished by fire in 1910. By then plans were already underway for the school's move to the Westhampton suburb of Richmond where the University of Richmond has it campus today. 

Another early postcard view looking west from Ryland Avenue. Both Ryland Avenue and Ryland Hall were named for Dr. Robert Ryland (1805-1899), the first president of Richmond College. He also served from 1841 to 1865 as the first senior minister for the First African Baptist Church of Richmond. An excellent article about Ryland and First African Baptist Church was published in the Virginia Cavalcade, vol. 47, no 1, Winter 1998, entitled: "And All These Things Shall Be Added Unto You: The First African Baptist Church, Richmond, 1841-1865," by Charles F. Irons. There is a "new" Ryland Hall (built 1913) located on the present University of Richmond campus named for both Robert Ryland and his nephew Charles Ryland. 

The 1600 block of W. Grace St. looking west from
Lombardy Ave., postcard image circa 1910.

A rare postcard image showing the 1000 block of W. Grace St.

One of the survivors.

The first floor of building at 1039 W. Grace St. houses the "What's Happening" laundromat. There are apartments on the second and third floors. 

1039 W. Grace Street, corner of Grace St. and Ryland Ave. 

1011 W. Grace St. is another building that survived. 

It is very possible that the "new" Village Cafe building, located on the corner of Grace and Harrison Streets, was originally built in the1890s but with many modifications through the decades. If so, it lost its top two floors.   

More images from the 1906 Richmond College (University of Richmond) yearbook:

The library of Richmond College, 1906.

Richmond College's Art Hall. I wonder where this art is now?

Please view the Richmond College (University of Richmond) yearbooks HERE.

- Ray

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Floating Fraud Comes to Richmond: The Convict Ship Success Arrives in 1913.

In the cold winter of 1913, tall, bare masts appeared above the trees along the lower James River. Gliding silently behind the dripping tow line of a Norfolk tug boat was “The Convict Ship Success,” an old slab-sided sailing ship with a lurid history of punishment, torture, and all manner of sadistic delights. It was also billed as the oldest ship afloat, older than the 1797 USS Constitution in Boston. The Success was said to have had a hand in the Titanic tragedy, relaying radio signals from the stricken passenger ship in April 1912 while trudging across the Atlantic. 

There was only one thing amiss with this intriguing history of the Success: none of it was true.

According to The History of the Convict Ship ‘Success,’ and its Most Notorious Prisoners, a book sold on board the ship, the Success was launched in 1790. The old ship, it claimed, was 135 feet long and 30 feet in width and first sailed the world as a freighter, traveling the exotic East in high style. “Her decks were trodden by the silken-slippered feet of Indian princes,” intoned the ship’s history, “…and nabobs of rank and quality, and by merchants trading in ivory, silk, and precious stones…”

The history recounts how, after plying the seas for years, the ship was pressed into service as a transport to ship English criminals to Australia. Economic disruption during the Industrial Revolution combined with a skyrocketing population encouraged England to send the majority of its criminals on ships to Australia.  The Success served as a transport ship for a comparatively short time, and certainly not in the sadistic fashion that it later promoted.
The long history of the Success took a very different turn around 1890 when the ship was converted from an old but fairly conventional freighter into a floating prison museum and equipped with all manner of lurid tortures and punishments for its inmates.  Promoted as a “weird old craft...this devil ship…this ocean-hell,” the Success began to tour the world as a museum devoted to this dreadful part of British history.

The owners of the Success equipped the ship with all manner of solitary confinement cells, engines of torture, whipping posts, and chains and cast-iron balls, designed to lure crowds on board at 25 cents a head. In the age that gave us P. T. Barnum, the “Convict Ship” Success was a seagoing museum of curiosities and sensational vignettes. It was all beautifully described in the official history sold to visitors – but was entirely fictional. 

The Success became a roving side show and a carnival midway under sail, with provincial visitors crowding on board to view mannequins of convicts undergoing exotic tortures. It was a more gullible age, where crowds were attracted to a sea-going fraud like the Success and fascinated by tales delivered in a matter-of-fact manner by her uniformed crew. As an entertainment enterprise, the ship was apparently quite lucrative for the ship’s owner, Captain D. H. Smith.

Richmond turned out to be worth the long tow up the James. A full-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 15, 1913 proclaimed: 
Aboard Her Are Now Shown, in Their Original State, All the Airless Dungeons and Condemned Cells, the Whipping Posts, the Manacles, the Branding Irons, the Punishment Balls, the Leaden-Tipped Cat-o’ Nine Tails, the Coffin Bath and the Other Fiendish Inventions of Man’s Brutality to His Fellow Man. 
In that bitter winter of 1913, while Captain Smith lived with his wife at the Hotel Rueger (today’s Commonwealth Park Suites, at the foot of Capitol Hill), the crew of the ship entertained through the cold and rainy Richmond Christmas season. Richmonders flocked to the fictional “ocean hell” parked at the foot of 18th Street. Admission was 25 cents, which was a high price considering a skilled carpenter made about 50 cents an hour in 1913. The Success was able to keep its gangplank open for business from 10 am to 10 pm since it was “completely illuminated by electric light.” 

The Success tied up in Richmond’s Great Ship Lock in 1913 and the same scene today. 

On December 15, 1913, a delegation of about 100 of Richmond’s leading citizens and city and state officials trooped aboard, including Richmond Mayor George Ainslie, most of the City Council, Delegates, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Sheriff and the president of the Richmond Businessman’s Club. A Richmond newspaper reported the guests emerged from below decks “…shaken by the concrete evidences of a barbarity which exceeded all knowledge, emerged from the cell rows into the bright light of the deck with a sigh of relief.”  

The “concrete evidences” ogled by the Richmonders included the solitary cells, vignettes of floggings, the ball and chain, a steel gag, beatings, torture with cayenne pepper, condemned cells, the “bath” where freshly whipped prisoners were vigorously scrubbed with salt water, and branding. The book sold on board detailed the mutinies, revolts, hangings at the end of a yard arm, a revolt onshore where prisoners worked in quarries, and always the leg chain, either attached to a giant cast-iron ball or a string of other prisoners.

It was not exactly a field trip consistent with the holiday season, but was apparently judged an important character-building exercise for the children of the Belle Bryan Day Nursery when Captain Smith sent them a ticket for admission on December 20.  “The educational value of the Success…has been a source of constant comment by local school teachers” noted a Richmond newspaper, perhaps leading Captain Smith to open the ship to all 20,000 Richmond school children for free on Christmas Eve. Smith promised, “The guides who conduct parties about the ship will be instructed to pay particular attention to the young people….and to be sure that the children understand all the explanations given of the interesting points about the Success.” 

When the students of Mrs. J. R. Gill’s Richmond Male Orphan Asylum were invited aboard, Mrs. Gill herself “seemed just as impressed and just as much thrilled by the ghastly relics of the Success as any of her charges.” 

The ship also interested Miss Emma Hay, who lived at 2910 East Broad Street. In a writing contest published that winter in a Richmond newspaper, Miss Hay repeated the fallacious story about the Success being the oldest ship afloat. Remarking on the lurid tools of torture exhibited on the ship, the number of blows with a whip received by a prisoner were as many, Emma added primly, “as thought necessary.”

The idea of scaring the hell out of Richmond’s youth and thereby preventing them from embarking on a life of crime endured long after executions in Richmond were no longer public events and witnessed by adults and kids alike. As late as 1935, hundreds of Richmonders and their children trooped through two different funeral homes to view the freshly electrocuted bodies of Robert Mais and Walter Legenza, notorious gangsters who were put to death at the State Penitentiary in Richmond. 

In fact, the notion of morality being generated by sheer fright carries through with our current “Scared Straight” programs, where in-danger youth are confronted with jailed and hardened criminals in an attempt at deterrence.  

The new year of 1914 found  by the trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of architect Stanford White and the depredations of revolutionary Pancho Villa in Mexico. The Success finally cast off from her Richmond berth on January 14 and was towed downriver toward the Chesapeake Bay. 

With what was perhaps a publicity flourish for the benefit of the next stop on her tour, Captain Smith said while in Richmond he received an offer of half a million dollars for the Success but felt it an inappropriate amount in light of the ship’s popularity and potential for ticket sales. After a stop in Alexandria, the ship eventually made its way south, through the Panama Canal to the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco where the Success was on display for the duration of that World’s Fair.  

While in San Francisco, the Success gained further fame when it appeared in a 1915 silent movie “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair in San Francisco.” The duo of Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand was a Hollywood staple for early comedy director Mack Sennett and the same Keystone Studios that became famous for the Keystone Kops. Accompanied by the ever-solicitous and neatly uniformed Captain Smith, Fatty and Mabel mugged their way through the Success and various engines of torture, with Mabel jumping in and out of the spike-lined “Iron Maiden” with exaggerated expressions of horror. 

[See the clip HERE - at 9:15 for footage of the Success.]

With the shortage of usable ships created by the shipping crisis of World War I, and with an engine installed, the Success briefly returned to its original purpose as a freighter. Much more profitable as a tourist attraction, it again refashioned itself as a convict hell-hole. The Success lasted long enough to be exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, but soon thereafter was declared unseaworthy. While awaiting scrapping at Sandusky, Ohio, the Success sank at the dock Raised from the waters, the Success was then set on fire by vandals and burned to the waterline in July 1946. The charred ribs and planks of the old seagoing fraud can still be seen in shallow water near the shore of Lake Erie.

More than a hundred years have gone by since the Success tied up at Richmond’s Great Ship Lock and passed in the shadow of the bascule bridge. The bridge, with it’s interesting counterweighted design, remains, although the Great Ship Lock is quiet and the Success is only a distant memory.  The story of the floating fraud called Success reminds us that in 1913, as today, we’re still susceptible to a well-crafted lie delivered in an authoritative manner.

-- Selden. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Have a Happy New Year's Eve and a Great 2018.

A lot more history posts to come in 2018.
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