You can't talk about the built environment, race, and inequality in Richmond without eventually making your way back around to a conversation about Jackson Ward.
Formed after the civil war by urban African-Americans and recently freed slaves, it was an unlikely place for a vibrant black community (Richmond was the capital of the briefly lived Confederate States of America, and still to this day has statues of Confederate war heroes on one of its main streets).
But vibrant it was. The business community there was known as “Black Wall Street” and its social and economic capital earned it the nickname the “Harlem of the South”. Maggie Walker, the first female bank president (of any race) to charter a bank in the US, lived there; a statue of her welcomes visitors to the Ward today. The area was central to the civil rights movement in Richmond and today is honored with US National Park Service historic status.
Jackson Ward began to change during the second World War, when I-95 was planned and eventually built. The choice to build there struck no one as surprising, and even framed as an upliftment project.
“The area on which this slum (northern Jackson Ward) stands will blossom out and always be a symbol of the sympathetic interest shown by those who are willing to help the other fellow,” proclaimed former Mayor Gordon Ambler in 1940. “Here in Richmond, we are conscious of how the other half lives. All of this is a part of a social program for the uplift and benefit of our people.”
In reality, the construction confined hundreds of residents and their families to generations more of poverty and disenfranchisement. It created a ditch through a once-homogenous whole, leaving the northern section to wither and die, and spelled the end for Jackson Ward as a region of cultural excellence. Today, empty lots parallel the interstate, and investment comes in the form of gentrification. Gilpin Court is still 96% African-American, with an average income of only $9357, far below the poverty line.