Libraries’ participants reflect on Walking the Ward tour

February 10, 2022
A mural in Jackson Ward.

In fall 2021, more than 30 VCU Libraries faculty and staff participated in Walking the Ward with ambassador and advocate, Gary Flowers. The walking tour of historic Jackson Ward provided attendees with a history of our community’s center of African-American life in Richmond. With stops at residential, commercial, spiritual, educational and cultural landmarks along the way, many participants found new insights about Richmond past and present. 

Catalog Librarian Ngoc-My Guidarelli said, “There was so much I did not know, such as the real namesake of the neighborhood. It was not named after Old Hickory or the oldest house in Richmond which I passed by on my daily commute. Most of all, as a survivor of the Vietnam war, a fratricidal war, I came to Richmond with the misconceived idea that I was going to call home the capital of another defeated nation. The recent movement for social justice and the walk through Jackson Ward made me realize that a Cold War conflict has nothing to do with one to defend what has been known euphemistically as the ‘peculiar institution.’” 

During the tour, Flowers explained the role of benevolent and burial societies in Jackson Ward. Black benevolent societies were organized in the 18th and 19th centuries to ensure proper burial for family members, assistance at times of illness or financial hardship, and also sought to provide moral training in addition to mutual aid.

Humanities Research Librarian John Glover was able to apply that new knowledge to his work in Academic Outreach. “As I was leading a library instruction session not long after going on the tour, and a student had a question about Black fraternal organizations that I was able to answer more effectively because of what I learned at Walk the Ward.” 

The big thing that stood out for Erin White, head of digital engagement, “was how white people actively used their access to and control of government bureaucracy to maintain white supremacy–from naming streets after confederates in a primarily-Black neighborhood, to building an interstate highway through a thriving Black community, to literally paying Black students to go to graduate school outside of Virginia through the Dovell Act. On the flip side, through the deep resistance and community commitments, Black Richmonders created mutual aid, insurance agencies, social programs and "double duty dollar" economic support systems.”

In addition to being an excellent tour, the groups enjoyed the warm reception Flowers had for all of them and community members along the route. Research and Education Librarian Talicia Tarver shared that “Our guide took time to greet residents he met along the way, and you definitely saw the Ward as peoples’ homes -- not just a historic district.” 

Head of Innovative Media Eric Johnson noted that while he “was broadly familiar with Jackson Ward's history as ‘the Harlem of the South’ and I knew a little about some of the important figures in the community's history. But Walk the Ward expanded and deepened my understanding of that history and wove those individual stories more closely together, and perhaps most importantly, grounded them in the neighborhood in a way that made it all much more tangible and personal than reading books can do.”

Coordinated by the Libraries Inclusion and Diversity Committee, the event deepened the knowledge and connection of VCU Libraries attendees and Jackson Ward. 

Deputy Director of the Health Sciences Library Emily Hurst shared that “Gary Flowers provided information to help me better understand the complex, evolving and unique history and community of Jackson Ward.” 

Tim Siegel, enterprise systems librarian, said, “It was amazing to hear about all of the accomplishments of local entrepreneurs, and the devastating news of how that history has been tried to be stripped away. It further illustrates the resilience of this city and its residents. While I knew Richmond was full of history, the tour really made it come alive in ways I had never experienced before. And to think that it is so close to all of us here at VCU Libraries.”

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