Historic Jackson Ward – “The Harlem Of The South”
Historic Jackson Ward is one of Richmond, Virginia’s oldest and well-preserved neighborhoods. Located east of Belvidere, west of Shockoe Bottom, and north of Broad, Jackson Ward is home to some of Richmond’s most beautiful historic buildings, in addition to being the historical center of African-American culture during the early 1900’s.
While Jackson Ward was settled by European immigrants, the neighborhood has been a predominantly black neighborhood, and home to many influential figures over the years. Maggie Walker, the first African-American woman to run a bank, lived there. Giles Jackson, the first African-American to practice law before the Supreme Court of Virginia, lived and practiced there. We get this information, and much more, from a book found in the Virginia Commonwealth University James Branch Cabell Library’s Special Collections titled Jackson Ward Historic District. While the book focuses mainly on the architecture and political significance of the neighborhood, many other sources refer to Jackson Ward’s rich cultural and artistic heritage – the things that brought the neighborhood to be called “The Harlem of the South.”
The Dementi family made a name for themselves as photographers of the wonders and people of Richmond. Wayne Dementi and a fellow named Brooks Smith put a book together called Facts and Legends of The Hills of Richmond, which is, in essence, a love story devoted to Richmond. In it, the authors discuss Jackson Ward, and confirm what many different online sources tell us – that Jackson Ward was THE place to go for young, hip black men and women in the 1920’s. Just as Harlem was the center for black art and music in 1920’s New York, Jackson Ward was the same for Virginia.
While Harlem had The Cotton Club, The Stork Club, and the Silver Slipper; Richmond had Happy Land, Top Hat, and Shorties. Jackson Ward saw many famous acts perform at these clubs. Cab Calloway performed in town. So did Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, among many others. Robinson was actually a Richmond native who got his start dancing local bars in Jackson Ward and other neighborhoods in Richmond. He became famous all over the United States, appearing in plays and films.
Other Richmond natives that contributed to the cultural boom of the 1920’s were the members of Roy Johnson’s Happy Pals. A swing orchestra, they were 10 Richmond natives – Jackson Ward natives, in fact, who beat out Duke Ellington’s orchestra in a 1929 New York band contest. You can hear their music on Jazz compilations or you can buy their songs on Amazon.com.
Today Jackson Ward is home to wonderful restaurants, grassroots art galleries, and many artists and homeowners who are dedicated to revitalizing one of Richmond’s finest neighborhoods. One woman, Jenni Mennella, wrote about a tour she took of Richmond in 2002 – the point of which was to visit some sites in Richmond that are key to understanding Virginia’s African-American culture. In addition to seeing many of the historical sites, she also ate at Croaker’s (one of Jackson Ward’s fine eateries) on 2nd and Leigh, and heard Jackson’s Ward’s own Soul Fantastic perform.
While Soul Fantastic might not be around anymore, you can still eat at Croaker’s, and you can check out events and exhibits at Jackson Ward’s own Gallery 5, 1708 Gallery, Quirk Gallery, and more. Make sure to visit the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Other restaurants to visit are Comfort, Tarrant’s Café, and Nick’s Market. Jackson Ward is not only full of a rich history and bearer of an even richer legacy, but it also a hub of cultural activity and great entertainment in Richmond, Virginia.
Article by EM Downing Johnson