City in Denial
by F.T. Rea
Thinking of black history calls my attention to certain renowned black Richmonders -- Maggie Walker, Oliver Hill, Arthur Ashe -- and it always reminds me of what I know about Richmond and race. Rather than mince words, here it is: Richmond’s woeful lack of progress on matters racial has been its worst problem for a long time.
At its heart, Richmond has a tastefully restrained style about nearly everything it does. Those of us who know this town from the inside out probably take some of its enduring physical charm for granted. Yet, we do so knowing that our fair city’s pretty surface has an ugly story beneath it.
Richmond’s best-known street, Monument Avenue, with its stately mansions and row of statues, has been a lightning rod for acrimony in recent years, stemming largely from Richmond’s knee-jerk uneasiness with racial issues.
One hundred thirty-seven years after the end of the Civil War one is left to wonder what it would take to convince Richmonders on the two sides of Broad Street’s imaginary divide to recognize their common ground and let their dry-rotted expectations go. Perhaps, in the long run, absorbing the tragedy of 9/11 will eventually have that effect on us. Then again, around here if you bet on stubborn habits to win again tomorrow the odds will be with you.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when honest people of the Deep South saw the stark pictures -- in national magazines and on television -- of the shocking violence associated with desegregation, the hideous truth hit them in the face. For those who could manage it, change must have seemed vastly preferable to posing for more pictures of hell on earth.
Apprehensive white people who had been brought up as bigots had to agree with their restless black neighbors that change was inevitable and necessary. They might not have become pals overnight but they, blacks and whites, must have seen that they just couldn’t keep having riots in their streets.
However, in Richmond more restraint was evidenced. While that surely seemed like a blessing at the time, it may have come with a price.
Although the local white establishment stood fast in the shadow of the banner of Massive Resistance, it was less bombastic than it might have been in that time of stirred passions. Meanwhile, the determined black reform movement pinned its hopes on building a political organization with real clout -- the Crusade for Voters; formed in 1956.
Typical of Richmond, both camps weren’t as demonstrative and overtly confrontational as their counterparts in other areas. Thus Richmond got through the volatile Civil Rights era without having to witness, firsthand, a lot of bloodshed in its streets. The most telling public confrontation was an orderly economic boycott, rather than a nightstick-wielding and open-fire-hose melee over access to schools or transportation.
Downtown lunch counters in the five-and-dimes and the big department stores actually had set policies in those days that denied service to blacks. Amazingly, this they did while inviting the very same people to shop freely in the rest of the store.
In 1960 a group of 34 black citizens -- many were students -- was busted for having the temerity to ask to be served lunch at Thalhimers’ lunch counter. The action was called a “sit-down strike” in the vernacular of the times. The group was charged with trespassing.
Subsequently, a picket line was thrown up around Thalhimers, organized by the Richmond Citizens Advisory Committee, a group working under the NAACP’s auspices. After months of stalemate, the store caved in and downtown lunch counters 86ed their whites-only policy.
Perhaps the success and civility of that boycott deluded Richmonders into thinking that they didn’t need to search their own hearts and minds for the prejudices that cloud vision. Although official policies were changed by the Thalhimers boycott, ironically, it may have failed to clearly dramatize the genuine need for people in Virginia’s capital city to go out of their way to see the other guy’s point.
A few years after the boycott, Virginia’s elections began to be watched over by the federal government because of the Voting Rights Act. Court-ordered busing soon followed. Eventually district politics, also ordered by the federal courts, took root in Richmond in 1977. But with the nine districts came the narrow vision of the ward heeler, as well.
Those developments did little to soothe ruffled feathers because the changes were being dictated from the outside. Members of the City Council, always split along racial lines, bickered constantly over minutia throughout the ’80s. With payback being heaped upon payback, progress didn’t stand a chance.
Now, every time a controversy that touches on race pops up the oh-so-familiar cries are heard: “Oh Gawd! Let’s hope this business dies down before it makes the national news.”
Like a dysfunctional family in denial, we don’t want the rest of the country to catch on that Richmond is still trapped in yesteryear’s snare. Well, take it from me dear reader -- they already know. Everybody knows. Even in other parts of Virginia they know Richmond is frozen in time when it comes to race.
The negative expectations that linger in so many quarters, like bad air, simply have to be identified and challenged. This would certainly mean that Richmond’s leaders -- political, community, church and business -- should be taken to task whenever they fan the embers of old grudges for their own short-term gain.
Perhaps the simmering debate over public art is the perfect platform for having meaningful discussions -- group therapy? -- that could help clear the air. Rather than trying to muffle the headline-making rhubarbs over old statues and proposals for new ones, people of different backgrounds ought to take turns listening to one another.
Let’s hash it out; put the debate on television every week for a year, however long it takes. When the dust settles, let’s put some new statues on Monument Avenue that don’t ask the viewer to pick sides in the Civil War.
How about banking pioneer Maggie Walker and Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. to get it started? Richmond has a wealth of history that has little or nothing to do with the events of the 1860s.
Let’s look for the best in ourselves and we may find it.