Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Creating a New Segregation


When Richmond combined Jim Crow with urban planning in the 1940s, the result was expressways, the destruction of African-American neighborhoods and white flight.


As a non-Virginian and a non-Richmonder, I am fascinated with the history of both. As one who has lived in the state off and on since 1973, I have been intrigued at how representations of history are handled, what facts are covered, and, more importantly, what is left out.


Therefore, the Valentine Richmond History Center is to be commended for its new exhibit that opened April 4, “Battle for the City: The Politics of Race 1950s-1970s.” This modest show (the size of one big room), has the usual materials – a Ku Klux Klan robe, pictures of sit ins by young African-Americans at bus stations and dime stores, and grainy photos of school children finally being admitted to an all-white city school years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional.


What’s truly interesting in the show is something I did not expect to see. The exhibit takes pains to explain how the most densely populated and, in some cases, the most culturally rich African-American neighborhoods were ripped apart by new toll roads planned by the white establishment because that was the trend in land use planning (or “human settlement patterns” if you are so inclined).


Not only was the highway construction highly destructive of the city’s core, it created the avenues for white flight away from Richmond. Huge political and economic repercussions are being felt today.


To blame are the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, now Interstate 95, that runs through the heart of downtown Richmond and the Downtown Expressway that whisks thousands of white commuters away from the downtown office area to their homes in Chesterfield, Henrico or other suburbs at the end of every work day.


The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike was spawned in 1944 as a way to alleviate north-south automobile and truck bottlenecks that stopped up at Richmond on U.S. 301 and U.S. 1. The war was on, the automotive explosion hadn’t quite occurred yet and attitudes about race and class were typically Old South.


So, planners didn’t think much of it when they ran the 34.7-mile turnpike through traditionally African-American communities, including Navy Hill, Carver, and Jackson Ward. The last area was a pulsating cultural and economic center for blacks in the South. Marquee name jazz groups such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald regularly performed, the nation’s first African-American bank was opened and there were plenty of nightclubs and restaurants. To be sure, some of the neighborhoods were pitiful slums owned by absentee landlords, but there was a strong sense of community, nevertheless.


So strong, the exhibit proclaims, that many African- American residents loudly protested. It didn’t matter. Some 7,000 of them, or 10 percent of Richmond’s black population, were removed to make way for the road between January 1955 and August 1957. The highway opened in 1958.


Ditto the Downtown Expressway. Competing all-black and all-white civic groups debated the plan to rip apart low- income neighborhoods, but, of course, the whites won. This time 900 individuals were forced out of the mostly-African-American Randolph and Byrd Park neighborhoods and mostly working-class white Oregon Hill.   All in all, about 4,700 mostly African-American housing units were destroyed from 1950 to 1960.


Race-baiting politics weren’t the only reason for the property condemnation pogroms. City leaders were following the advice of well-respected urban planners. The chief one was the famed Harland Bartholomew who, with Robert Moses, was one of the most influential planner-engineers in the early to mid 20th Century. Richmond hired Bartholomew’s consulting firm to come up with plans for Richmond and in 1947, the firm came up with the city’s first master plan.


Bartholomew was a major proponent was what was then called “Society First” planning for major toll roads and freeways. The modern city, he argued, needed big, wide superhighways that would whisk residents to and from city centers. Mind you, this was before cars truly exploded on the national scene in the 1950s, but ideas like Bartholomew’s created an environment in which the auto explosion could happen.


His plan called for a “beltway” around Richmond, including the early form of Route 288 which has only recently been completed. Yet, such new roads had an unintended (or intended, depending on your point of view) consequences. They further segregated city neighborhoods. Whites were afforded easy access to suburbs that were kept all-white by redlined mortgages or unspoken rules discrimination. Blacks flowed into their segregated neighborhoods. Downtown stores like Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers died. The first of what was to be dozens of suburban strip malls, started by Willow Lawn, were built.


Bartholomew also did a lot of work in Washington, including developing early plans for the Washington Metro which got underway in earnest in the 1960s. I was a high school student in the area at the time and always wondered why there was no Metro stop in fashionable and white Georgetown. Could it be to keep young blacks out? Hmmm.


What’s curious about the Valentine museum exhibit is that it points out how local African-American lawyers skillfully broke down race barriers in schools and lunch counters through a series of lawsuits in the 1950s. They confronted each barrier the White Establishment erected, such as state “Pupil Placement Boards” which, of course, were designed to deny black students places at white schools.   The big irony is that while the black lawyers prevailed in forcing equality in some sectors, urban planners, willfully or not, created an entirely new regime of successful segregation. Thanks to the Valentine Museum for the thought-provoking display.


-- April 7, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)