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Jackson Ward: Glory Days of 'Harlem of the South'

In the years immediately following the American Civil War of the 1860s, thousands of African Americans, including both former southern slaves and northern soldiers, moved into a lively neighborhood in the capital city of the defeated Confederate States.

Richmond is sometimes called the "Monument City" because of its boulevard of memorials to Confederate generals and admirals, as well as world-famous African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe. And in a grittier part of town not far from the Virginia State Capitol stands another, far less somber statue. High on a pedestal, a concrete figure saucily waves a bowler hat above his head as he dances up a short flight of stairs.

This monument honors Jackson Ward's most famous son, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the pioneer tap dancer and occasional singer who dazzled vaudeville and movie audiences in the 1920s and '30s.

During the first half of the twentieth century - when restrictive rules called Jim Crow laws consigned whites and blacks to separate restaurants, bus seats, and even drinking fountains - Robinson and other black celebrities often frequented night spots on the street that locals called "the Deuce." This was Second Street, the heart of the action in Jackson Ward.

Through the eras of ragtime, jazz, swing and be-bop, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, piano master Duke Ellington, and singer Cab Calloway unwound with jam sessions in Jackson Ward after performing at the whites-only Mosque Theater downtown. Black athletes like boxing champion Joe Louis and baseball star Willie Mays stayed at the ward's Slaughter's Hotel.

On the Deuce, Tom Mitchell was a regular customer at the Hippodrome and Globe theaters, and at the Armstrong Athletic Club, which was both a gymnasium and a bar.

"Nobody called it that, though. Everybody called it 'Tat Turner's Place.' There'd be doctors and lawyers, and at the end of the bar was the free trade reserved for special friends and police. And as you know, the police have ears. And that was one of the main ears that they had on Second Street," Tom Mitchell said.

During World War II and the Korean War in the 1940s and '50s, Jackson Ward swelled with black soldiers on leave from nearby Fort Lee. Clubs and restaurants like the Golden Gate Richmond's largest dining room open to blacks stayed open all night.

Memorabilia from Jackson Ward's vibrant days are preserved at Richmond's Black Museum and Cultural Center in an old Jackson Ward mansion, where Carolyn Brown is a historian. She calls Jackson Ward a "city within a city," where blacks formed what they called "benevolent societies" to look after one another.

"The white insurance companies, most of them, would not insure black people. So they formed their own little societies. They saved money in these societies. And when someone became ill, there would be money that could be used for purchasing medication and what not. When someone died, there would be money for that person's burial," Carolyn Brown said.

Jackson Ward is often acknowledged as the "birthplace of black entrepreneurship." In addition to benevolent societies, blacks formed their own banks and savings institutions, and other African-Americans prospered in medicine, law and similar professions.

"There were banks in Richmond that would simply not accept money from African Americans. So they used, as they had a way of saying, 'Miss Maggie's Bank.' This was because of devotion to her, because she was a person who did everything that she could to uplift people in the community," said Ms. Brown.

"Miss Maggie" was Maggie O. Walker, who in 1903 became the first woman of any race to found and become president of an American bank. Three of its branches still operate. Maggie Walker also founded a newspaper and a department store called "St. Luke's Emporium."

Around the corner from the Black History Center, the National Park Service has preserved Miss Maggie's home as a National Historic Site. Visitors begin their tours by watching a short videotape in which Irma Askew portrays Maggie Walker.

"All of these good things - the newspaper, the bank, the emporium - were possible because we put our hands, brains and might together and made jobs for ourselves. There is no reason why any man, woman or child should stand by idly waiting with folded arms, saying there is nothing else I can do. With education and determination, you can do anything."

Celia Suggs is a National Park Service ranger at the Walker house. She says Maggie Walker was one of many black business and civic pioneers who thrived in Jackson Ward.

"John Mitchell ran for the governorship of Virginia in 1921 on what was known as a 'Lily Black' ticket, as compared with they called the 'Lily White' ticket. John Mitchell even led a boycott of the streetcars here in Richmond in 1904. I also like to look at good things. John Mitchell and Maggie Walker were able to work with individuals like the mayor of the city and the governor to try to break across those color lines to pass laws where everyone could vote, and where you could have good educational institutions here in Jackson Ward as well," said Ranger Suggs.

Ironically the civil rights movement and desegregation of public accommodations in the 1960s, which gave a lift to Richmond's black community as a whole, devastated Jackson Ward. As white-owned businesses and entertainment venues opened to blacks, Jackson Ward banks, shops and theaters lost customers. Many closed. The city razed dozens of homes for a highway and a new convention center and creeping blight in Jackson Ward became a stampede.

Today, Jackson Ward is a quiet, slowly improving neighborhood of brick row houses, corner stores, hair parlors, carry-out stands selling fried fish and pork chops and beer, churches on many corners, community outreach centers and a few remaining mansions with ornate but rusted ironwork. The Hippodrome Theater is empty, but there's talk of renovation. The Globe and the Golden Gate and Tat Turner's Place are gone. But at the Black History Center, the Maggie O. Walker Home, and the jaunty statue of Bojangles Robinson, you can still get a taste of the glory days in the Harlem of the South.