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The JXN Project Celebrates 150th Anniversary of Richmond's Jackson Ward

Sisters Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Pritchett-Moon sit on steps outside brick building
Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Pritchett-Moon, Ph.D. of The JXN Project (Photo: Jenaé D. Harrington)

Richmond, Virginia has a complicated history as the Capital of the Confederacy, however, it is also home to what has been referred to as the “Harlem of the South.” That nickname is for Richmond’s Jackson Ward, the United States’ first historically registered Black urban neighborhood.

Jackson Ward was established 150 years ago on April 17, 1871. But, that date wasn’t widely known until two sisters — Enjoli Moon and Dr. Sesha Joi Pritchett-Moon — looked into the history of Jackson Ward. They discovered a community rich in culture and complex history that led them to create the “JXN Project.” It’s a research project that works to accurately show the origin story of Jackson Ward. VPM spoke to Enojli Moon about the project.

It all started last year when the Afrikana Independent Film Festival pivoted to virtual due to COVID-19. Moon, the creative director of the festival, wanted to have projections on the side of buildings in different Richmond neighborhoods.

She reached out to her sister, Pritchett-Moon, to help research “10 Black facts” about each neighborhood. When they got to Jackson Ward, Moon and her sister soon realized they didn’t know who the neighborhood was named after. “I thought I knew, but as we did research, we discovered the 'Jackson' of Jackson Ward has been a point of contention since 1902,” said Moon.

The sisters found the name is attributed to one of four men: Colonel Giles Beecher Jackson, James Jackson of the Beer Garden, President Andrew Jackson or Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Though evidence suggests, it’s most likely named after Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, according to the JXN Project.

While the stain of Richmond’s Confederate and tainted past is prevalent, the sisters dove deeper into the research, discovering some “unknown histories” about the community and why it’s the “Birthplace of Black Entrepreneurship.”

Before Jackson Ward was established and pre-emancipation, enslaved Black people lived in the area through the urban slave system. They would live on their own and would be leased out to the city to work at flour mills or iron workspaces in the city.

“So what you end up having is this dynamic of black autonomy that develops even during this moment of enslavement,” said Moon. “And this is actually where you see the birthing of black entrepreneurship...through people leasing themselves out as laundresses, as blacksmiths and...barbers.”

As they learned more about this past, the sisters began to see the importance of Richmond in the national narrative. But, the sisters found it’s a past that doesn’t get a lot of attention. They learned there were Black property owners as early as 1790. After emancipation and the passing of the 15th Amendment, their financial prowess allowed them to have a political impact. “...you see traditional white Richmond, getting very afraid,” said Moon. “So they have to figure out what do we do to quell this.”

The threat of Black people’s success led white people to weaponize the law against them. “They did what they could to try to encapsulate as many of the black voters and property owners into one specific space in that,” said Moon.

Jackson Ward was created and gerrymandered as the city’s sixth ward to dilute the power of Black residents. Even though the area was created around systems of oppression, the sisters also found it became a thriving place for Black businesses.

“When you think about Jackson Ward...it is the embodiment of the saying, ‘They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds,’” said Moon. “We sprouted anyway and thrive in creating a hell of a garden. I am deeply inspired by this history.”

It was this history that led Moon and her sister to start the “JXN Project” and honor Jackson Ward’s rich past with “Illuminating Legacies: Giles B. Jackson Day,” the kickoff event for a month-long celebration commemorating the 150th anniversary.

The event takes place Saturday, April 17 from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. Pre-registration is sold out, but residents can still engage in the celebration by supporting Black-owned businesses across the Historic Jackson Ward District and viewing the illumination show via personal vehicle, bike or on foot from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

VPM is a partner and sponsor of this event.