August 2, 2019

Preserving History on “Black Wall Street” in Richmond, Virginia

​The future Rosa and Van de Vyver Apartments – photo by John Harrison

​The future Rosa and Van de Vyver Apartments – photo by John Harrison

An adaptive reuse development underway in Richmond, Virginia, will preserve a unique piece of local black history in the Jackson Ward community. The Rosa and Van de Vyver Apartments are converting a historic Franciscan convent and the site of the South's first black Catholic church into new mixed-income homes. The Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) brings extensive experience in building rehab and preservation to this development.

A Redevelopment Partnership

The Rosa and Van de Vyver Apartments are part of a redevelopment partnership with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to build replacement housing for seniors living at Frederic A. Fay Towers. Located only a few blocks from the redevelopment site, Fay Towers in an aging public housing apartment building in need of major capital improvements.

New, high-quality homes for the residents are being made possible through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which allows housing authorities to finance the replacement or repairs of deteriorating buildings.

The new mixed-use development will include 72 apartments for seniors relocating from Fay Towers, 82 mixed-income apartments and 6,000 square feet of retail space. The project broke ground in September of 2018 and is expected to open in early 2020.

The Site: Past, Present and Future

This development will preserve a convent that was home to nuns of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, the first black Catholic church not only in Virginia, but in the South. Bishop John J, Kean of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond established the church in 1884. After a few years, St. Joseph's priests and nuns opened an academic and vocational school next door - called the Van de Vyver Institute – to serve up to 600 predominantly African American students.

The historic Franciscan convent – photo by Maria Dewees

At the beginning of the 20th century, private schools like Van de Vyver provided elementary and secondary education to African American children as public school options were limited. It is estimated that two-thirds of black children did not attend elementary school during this time because there were not enough school buildings or black teachers to sustain a black public education system.1

Van de Vyver Institute
The Van de Vyver Institute – photo courtesy of the Dioceses of Richmond

While the original Church and school buildings are no longer standing, preserving and repurposing the convent will help keep their legacies alive. In a nod to the historical significance of the site, CPDC has named the mixed-income building at the development "The Van de Vyver." The senior building was named "The Rosa" in celebration of Rosa Bowser, the first black teacher in Richmond public schools and an advocate for women, children, and teachers.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church
St. Joseph's Catholic Church – photo courtesy of the Dioceses of Richmond
St. Joseph's Catholic Church
Altar at St. Joseph's Catholic Church – photo courtesy of the Dioceses of Richmond

Preserving a piece of "Black Wall Street"

During the early 20th Century, Jackson Ward was the region's epicenter of black banking and commerce. The area was also home to many theatres, jazz clubs, churches, schools and other institutions that were central to life in this vibrant community. Jackson Ward thrived in part because of the disenfranchisement African Americans experienced in other parts of Richmond under Jim Crow.

African American churches were central to life in Jackson Ward and were instrumental in building black community and wealth. In her book The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, Mehrsa Baradaran describes how black churches served as early financial institutions by creating mutual aid societies and insurance-like funds for African Americans who were excluded from most financial services under Jim Crow segregation. These religious aid societies and fraternal organizations often laid the foundation for future black banking institutions.

This history is particularly salient in Jackson Ward, which has been referred to as "Black Wall Street." Black-owned banking institutions in this community provided loans to African American business owners and prospective homebuyers when they were turned away from other banks. Preserving the convent will help to preserve the unique story of Jackson Ward and the network of institutions that underpinned its thriving black community.

Urban Renewal- Changing the Landscape of Jackson Ward

In the 1950s, federal urban renewal policies to clear blight irreparably altered the landscape of Jackson Ward. In the name of "progress" - but with little regard for residents - city and state planners authorized the construction of Interstate 95, bisecting the neighborhood and destroying hundreds of homes. It is estimated that approximately 1,600 black neighborhoods were demolished by urban renewal during this time.2 While Jackson Ward was not entirely bulldozed, the damage caused by highway construction, among other factors, hastened the community's decline in the 1950s and '60s.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church was not immune to this decline. The church fell into disrepair and enrollment at the Van de Vyver Institute dropped substantially. By the late '60s, the two institutions were closed and shortly thereafter torn down. The old steeple bell is all that remains of the church building; it will be incorporated into the new development.3 Fortunately, the convent was not demolished. Years later, the building would serve as a transitional housing facility called Sean's Place. The Catholic Diocese of Richmond sold the convent to Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 2012. Given the building's history, it is fitting that it will become permanent affordable housing, the cornerstone of all vibrant communities.

​The original steeple bell at St. Joseph's – photo by John Harrison

Footnotes

1. Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of blacks in the south, 1860-1935. p110

2. Fullilove, M. T. (2004). Root shock: how tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it. New York: One World/Ballantine Books. p.20

3. Winston, B. (2009, February 9). Many black traditions are victims of desegregation. Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.richmond.com/special-section/black-history/many-black-traditions-are-victims-of-desegregation/article_3a355e15-3b7e-5a00-9f02-40b602ac7864.html