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JXN Project examines the history of one of the first Black urban neighborhoods

As much of the US faced a reckoning following the death of George Floyd, towns across the country began to look at racial justice in their own backyards. Led by two sisters, the JXN Project is a new initiative working to preserve one of the first Black urban districts in America. Ivette Feliciano visited the Jackson Ward community in Richmond, Virginia as part of our series, 'Chasing the Dream.'

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last year as the country faced a racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer; states, municipalities, and cities began to ask what racial justice looks like in their own backyards.

    In Virginia, one decision that dominated national headlines was the call to bring down confederate statues that lined the most prestigious street in the state's capital city, Richmond.

    But some in the city say that is only part of their story, one that until now was mostly overlooked.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano recently visited Richmond to find out how one community is organizing to expand the state's narrative and secure the legacy of a historic Black neighborhood.

    This segment is part of the series "Chasing the Dream: Poverty Justice and Economic Opportunity in America."

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Here in Richmond, Virginia's historic Jackson Ward, one of the first Black urban neighborhoods in the nation, knowing where you stand, knowing what this area represents, is important to many residents. And uncovering and sharing its history has become the work of two sisters, Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon.

  • Enjoli Moon:

    When I hear Jackson Ward the first thing I think of is just Blackness and the beauty of it. It is a place that historically, but also in the contemporary sense, is just always has such pride in its people and its culture.

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    I think it's about lesser-known truths, under-told truths. And so why that hasn't been a part of the national story. We don't know, but that's one of the main initiatives of Jackson, is to help everybody understand. One in four Black Americans can actually trace their roots to the rivers in Richmond.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And it's these lesser and under-told truths about the city that motivated the Moon sisters to start the JXN Project, a multifaceted effort to accurately place Richmond's Black community in the pantheon of American history.

    Enjoli, a creative director and curator and Sesha, a Ph.D. researcher and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion were born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. And throughout their lives, Jackson Ward was a place that helped inform them about Black history and culture.

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    Unfortunately the stains of the Confederacy have just kind of been centered when you speak about Richmond. Through the project, yes, it's about a local origin story. But what we found is that it is really a part of a national narrative, or at least it should be. We, too, were a Harlem of the South. We were a little Africa. We were a Black Wall Street.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Established in 1871, the ward was created to concentrate Black political power into one district. This concentration ultimately allowed the neighborhood to grow into a thriving center of Black entrepreneurship. Nicknamed the "Harlem of the South" it was registered as a National Historic Landmark District in 1978.

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    When we were thinking about, well, what's our purpose, we said is historic preservation through restorative, truth-telling and redemptive storytelling.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And their redemptive storytelling began with the name of the ward itself. There were clues that the neighborhood might have been named after Stonewall Jackson, the confederate general. And through Sesha's research exploring the origins of Jackson Ward that supports much of the project, they may have an answer.

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    We've recovered significant primary artifacts that would suggest it is more than likely named after Stonewall Jackson. And so, cool. I mean, it's disheartening, but it's reflective of Richmond. It wasn't a surprise. It like, of course it is.

  • Enjoli Moon:

    The confederate general, you know?

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    Of course it is. Why would we have thought anything else? But that's when we also looked at ourselves and said, OK, well, then let's recontextualize it for the only Jackson worthy of the honor, and that's Giles B.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    That's Giles Beecher Jackson, a formerly enslaved person who became the first Black attorney certified to argue before the Virginia Supreme Court, and the Jackson that many residents already believed was the namesake.

    To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ward's founding and Giles B. Jackson the JXN Project launched a series of year-long initiatives. The first was the city of Richmond officially recognizing the ward in honor of Jackson.

    Last month the day was marked by a gathering of local residents, living relatives of Giles B. Jackson, and historical tours around the ward.

    We headed out with historian and tour guide Gary Flowers who has been running tours of the ward for over five years.

  • Gary Flowers:

    We're standing in front of what was formerly the Leigh Street Armory. Following the American Civil War militia were formed in case the Confederates came back. This is the last building in the south that remains of the colored militia. Now it serves as the home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Along the way we saw the church that was the home to the first African-American congregation pastored by a Black minister in Virginia in 1867, as well as the many Black-owned financial institutions that supported this historic community.

    As Flowers puts it, the reason so much of Jackson Ward's story has been lost to history is where it is located, Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the confederacy.

    People have heard of Harlem in New York, they've heard of what was called Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But not as many people are familiar with the history here in Jackson Ward. Why is that?

  • Gary Flowers:

    There's been a willful suppression of history in Jackson Ward, known as the Virginia Way. In more southern states, there was brutality against people who rose up or dared to be dignified and self-determining. The Virginia Way was something different. It was perhaps, we should ignore them and then the story will never get out.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But one entrepreneur who defied the Virginia Way was Maggie Walker, not to be confused with America's first Black self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker.

    Maggie Walker helped to grow what would become a prominent mutual benefit society in the first half of the twentieth century.

  • Gary Flowers:

    Between 1902, 1920. Mrs. Walker having resurrected the independent order of St. Luke could afford to live in a mansion. Her husband, Armstead Walker, who built the Armory, was the leading Black contractor. So together they were like a Jay-Z and Beyonce.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Power couple.

  • Gary Flowers:

    …of Richmond. True power couple.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 1903 Maggie Walker became the first Black woman to found a bank in America. She went on to run several more businesses. And in 1904 she helped to successfully shutdown the segregated trolley system in Richmond.

    Her statue, the first dedicated to any woman in Richmond, Virginia, now sits in this plaza in Jackson Ward and that night it was part of the larger celebration honoring the 150th anniversary of this area.

    Throughout the neighborhood quiet street corners and even train stations lit up to showcase significant sites and images of historic residents.

  • Enjoli Moon:

    And if we are bold enough, if we are focused and if we're intentional, I think that we can start to redefine what yes, Richmond looks like, but redefine what the blueprint that we provide for the world looks like as well.

  • Sesha Joi Moon:

    Richmond right now is front and center, center because we are tearing down monuments, as they should come down, but when we set out for the Jackson project, we really had to make a decision. What is our goal? Is it to take down these oppressive streets or is it to juxtapose it with the intersecting history where we force you to tell the truth? And we landed on the latter because we did feel like this could be an educational experience.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The Moon sisters say the JXN Project is long-term. But some short-term goals are to highlight the district's prominent historical Black figures, and to get more Black representation on city commissions and boards.

    In fact, in 2019, historian Gary Flowers was among the first of three Black Richmonders to be seated on the public arts commission in its 30-year history.

    And there are also plans to install 15 honorary street designations.

    So for instance, take Jackson Ward's Judah street, named after an enslaver of two people. The street could also become Abraham Skipwith Alley, after one of the neighborhood's earliest Black homeowners who also bought his own freedom.

  • Enjoli Moon:

    We don't understand the full story of the United States. We don't understand, period. Right. And that means in each city, town, state, we do not understand. And so we have to begin to unearth that so we can get to the fullness of it. And I think once we have a clear understanding of what the history is, it will make it easier to have a vision, a clear vision for what a more just and equitable future can look like. But it's impossible to do that when you are looking at half truths and certain falsehoods historically.

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