During a performance on the night after Christmas, 1811, fire destroyed the Richmond Theatre, killed many citizens, and left this city in mourning. Those who were left dazed by the sudden horrors they’d witnessed and survived acknowledged the heroic efforts of a local slave, Gilbert Hunt. Standing outside of a window under flames and falling debris, Hunt caught several women who were handed to him by Dr. James McCaw, a local physician. Before the building nearly collapsed around them, Hunt pulled McCaw to safety; miraculously, they escaped.
The city arranged to purchase the site and agreed to bury the victims, many of whom were charred or reduced to ashes, at the site. Their remains were placed in two mahogany coffins. It was soon decided to commemorate the lives of those lost by erecting a church over them.
Robert Mills, Thomas Jefferson’s sole architectural student, laid out the plans of this
Greek Revival structure. Mills later designed the Washington Monument and the White House of the Confederacy. When the church opened in 1814, it was known as Monumental Episcopal Church and remained such until 1965. Chief Justice John Marshall and a young Edgar Allan Poe were a couple of its well-known parishioners.
The names of the dead are engraved on the memorial stone of the portico, as well as on the tablet next to the entrance of the church.
The VCU Medical Center (formerly Medical College of Virginia) has fully developed around the church. However, while standing inside the cast iron fence and the grounds, it’s easy to ignore the massive structures that now encapsulate it as well as the hustle and bustle of Broad Street that pass by.
The area creates a quiet, serene environment, so one is poised to stop and respect the purpose of the memorial. In 1814, the city decided to mark the resting area of those lost so suddenly and violently; today, those grounds continue to direct reverence.
In 1969, the church, located at 1224 E. Broad Street, was noted as a National Historic Landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. It is now owned by the Historic Richmond Foundation.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), believed by many to be the best tap dancer of all time, hailed from Richmond’s Jackson Ward. Also known as Shirley Temple’s dancing partner in such movies as The Little Colonel(1935) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Mr. Robinson left a legacy that extends beyond the cameras of Hollywood. In his hometown, his memory is fondly revered; a statue now stands in his honor at the intersection of Adams Street and Leigh Street in Jackson Ward. Made of aluminum donated by the Richmond-based Reynolds Metals Company in 1973, it celebrated his love for children by marking the spot where he paid for a traffic light to be installed, during the 1930s, to protect those who walked to and from Armstrong High School, located across from the busy area.
The “Bojangles” Memorial Fund Committee of the local Astoria Beneficial Club commissioned John Temple Witt to create the statue. Witt was a local sculptor and art professor at Randolph-Macon College in nearby Ashland. The sculpture captures the engaging image of a smiling Mr. Robinson dancing down a flight of stairs. On the plaque of the sculpture’s front base, Mr. Robinson’s humanitarian efforts are honored with the words: Dancer, Actor, Humanitarian, Native Son of Richmond; Internationally Famous Actor and Dancer Rendered Many Kindnesses to the Citizens of Richmond.
The iconic “Bojangles” statue of a shiny, silver hue is situated on a parcel of land of the intersection designated by the city to accommodate the monument, aptly called “Robinson Square”. In spite of its location in the middle of a constantly active intersection, it’s a welcoming environment featuring brick walking areas,
floral landscaping, and park benches. A water fountain for horses and smaller domestic animals donated to the city by the National Humane Alliance in 1938 was relocated to the area. The committee members who shaped this tribute are also noted on a plaque on the rear base. They are Carroll W. Anderson, (Chairman), Marion Robertson (Vice-Chairman), George Taylor (Recording Secretary), Herbert H. Johnson, (Financial Secretary), J. Carroll Beard (Treasurer), Wesley T. Carter, Richard W. Foster, Willie L. Loving, Reginald M. Dyson, Bernard L. Jones, and Powell B. Williams. Each year, a festival takes place on the fourth Saturday in June to commemorate the unveiling of the statue dedicated to one of Richmond’s favorite sons.
By the time Examiner.com sent their email on July 1, 2016 to the company’s “Examiners” to announce they were shutting down “on or about” July 10, 2016, I had already drifted away quite a bit from my workload as the Richmond Landmarks and Historic Districts Examiner. That stint was a natural choice for me, but I can’t say I really knew it at the time until I had begun. My mom instilled me with quite an interest in my city’s history. I guess as an elementary school teacher, she gave me that sense of nostalgia I still get from past field trips as a kid to various places around here, as well as in current strolls through places I love to share with my children.
It began without much fanfare. One night a few years ago, I’d stumbled on the examiner.com site by way of another site, as you do, and noticed they had a list of openings. I sent my letter of interest to them for the historic districts writer spot and was immediately accepted. I was beyond thrilled. Not only that, I was beyond terrified. That meant writing for other people. I had not yet ventured really into the realm of writing online. As much as I wanted desperately to become a novelist, I realize now that I feared having my writing sent out into the world. I love to read. There’s always a book with me. I went to one of the top colleges known for its strong creative writing programs. But I’d graduated decades earlier and had accumulated enough time to settle into the space of thinking that I’ll just dream of having my books along the shelves with my favorite authors. That I’ll just write and share my work with a selected few if any.
About a week after I got the examiner title – it wasn’t really what one would actually call a “position” – I grabbed my kids, my camera, and we played tourist. We took photos of places around town and I later did research on the spots. I’ve got a collection of Richmond history books already, but I needed others. I’d gotten some from the library and the internet proved helpful in some cases. My first article, “The Aluminum Statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson”, was soon written, then posted, and I was on a roll. When I got to the area where much of my family grew up before I was born – the once-renowned “Harlem of the South”, Jackson Ward – something jiggled my spirit. Voices of relatives long gone began talking to me. Some I remembered hearing firsthand as a child, others I remembered hearing about as a child. I walked through their haunts to hear them clearly and I relished every moment.
Years ago, I had a story come to mind as a result of those voices I’d had the chance of hearing back then. I pushed the tale aside. I can’t say I really ever thought I’d sit down to write it or if it would just be in my head talking to me for the rest of my life. About that time I joined a local writing group, Agile Writers, and the story began to form and take an interesting shape. My confidence in writing as a result of examiner.com had increased. I grew comfortable about having an audience for my fiction. My comfort level with writing online developed so much, I joined Twitter and even created an Facebook page for my examiner.com work. In addition to that, I created two blogs: this one and “Goosepimply Allover” – in which I share my personal connection to classic films; and I wrote three novellas, each set in Richmond!
A few years before then, I’d begun working on my Master’s in English. After some time away from my studies for a little while, I returned to my graduate school with a new major. In March of this year, I received my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My thesis is that historical novel based upon the voices I’ve been hearing from my ancestors and their contemporaries in Jackson Ward from the 1930s on. Yay! To make sure I’m my work is as authentic as possible with regards to events and dates and such, important concepts in historical fiction, no doubt, I took the time to scroll through microfilm of old newspapers at the Library of Virginia. That was such exhilarating work! That place is MY Kings Dominion!
I’ll continue to play Peter Parker in my hometown snapping pictures and divvy up research on various spots and areas. The voices of my thesis will never leave me as long as I do this and I crave the connection. In fact, I have another historical novel brewing in my head as a result of all this research. I love learning it and I love sharing it.
So, looking back, while I only earned about $30.00 from examiner.com in my six years with them, I realize that I earned so much more than money. I gained confidence in my writing and even discovered my value as a writer in this world. I always knew it was what I wanted to do. It made me do it and I am extremely grateful to them for that.
To those of you who’ve continued to stick by my Richmond Landmarks and Historic Districts Facebook page and to my new fans of the page – a huge heartfelt Thank You! I appreciate your support very much! The current links to my examiner.com articles are now dead – HOWEVER, I will soon repost my work along with new posts about different areas in town. I’m still an Examiner of my hometown, so the fan page name will remain.
Recently, I finally made it to the Library of Virginia to fill in some of the blanks left in my novel. It sounds like a trek across state lines, but for me, it wasn’t. It’s in downtown Richmond, about a fifteen to twenty minute drive from home. I had to plan the time and the days I made it offered the moments I required. I have to return soon, but for the most part, I got pretty much what I need for this book AND the other historical stories shaping in my head.
I’ve been there before. It had been a while; I had to renew my card. No problem at all – it’s the research geek’s paradise and I fit right in.
My novel has been built upon memory, oral history, and a great deal of imagination. Authenticity is very important to me and with tackling a historical piece set in my hometown, I’m sure there will be readers familiar with Richmond history with equally scrutinizing eyes who will expect a fine sense of some type of accuracy along with my creative license.
Back in the mid-70’s, a pivotal event happens to the main characters. All I could see was the two of them standing on the steps of a particular building. However, I needed to know if the building was indeed there on that particular day. Of all the things you can find online, that was one that I couldn’t. Not even through Wikipedia (which one must take with a grain of salt anyway). So, I approached one of the reference librarians who went straight to a book with the information I needed. Walking around the stacks pertaining to Richmond’s history, which included city directories of oh-so-many years, I exclaimed, “This is a wonderland”. She laughed and agreed. It felt so nice to be understood. Armed with my new information – the building in question didn’t exist then – I had to determine just where their activity on that day would have taken place instead. For that, I simply asked my mom.
A different building in the city that I had envisioned another character driving to in the late 1950’s needed verification of its existence at that time. For that, I decided to search the microfilm for advertisements and sure enough, there it was – a full-page ad in an old Richmond Times-Dispatch. At one point, I needed the name of a building of a college campus. I couldn’t just add it to the book – I needed to make sure it was actually there in the mid-1970’s. I got a hold of the college’s student handbook of that year and found what I needed. This place is AWESOME!
In an important moment of my story set in the 1970’s, a character is watching television. Since dates are noted in the book, it was absolutely crucial that the show she had on represented just what was on the air at that time. I remembered the beloved “Green Section” – the Saturday pull-out television section – of the now-defunct Richmond News Leader (it used to be our evening newspaper) and jotted it down to locate in my research. Through my search across those scores of the newspaper’s microfilm, I, again, found just what I was looking for.
In the late 1930’s, there’s a horrific event that I penned. In order to make sure I tackled the reporting of the incident the way I imagined it to be in a particular newspaper, I combed through headlines of the old Richmond Planet, the black newspaper, of that period. I was on par and therefore relieved. There’s no better way to research history than to take a look at what was going on during a certain era. History books have been helpful, even some documentaries along with my memory and oral history, but those direct resources and contemporary materials triggered additional memories of more things, along with questions about subsequent and even earlier events. Such research wound up offering suggestions as to how I could settle my folks around those times as well as settling those moments around them. It also delivered a lot more meat for other stories shaping up in my head. So even if I don’t use all of it for this one, the information and my time aren’t wasted.
I sincerely do hope that my story teaches a bit of history and culture of an earlier time to my readers, the way historical novels enlighten me. I am actually blessed beyond measure to be so close to a spot with so many of the details I need to fully tell my stories. The internet is not enough for me. I knew it wouldn’t be. I can certainly visit there more often. I made excellent use of a good three hours there each day, so once a week or so will be easier than I thought. Parking is free there too!