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Richmond’s Controversial Chesterfield Annexation, 50 Years Later

four women looking at a map of the proposed annexation
Four women look at a map of the proposed Chesterfield annexation in 1970. (Courtesy of Richmond Newspapers, Inc./The Valentine)  

Fifty years ago, Richmond annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County and 47,000 mostly white residents.

While officials publicly said the annexation was about economic development, some of them admitted secretly that it was about maintaining white control over the majority-black city. Much of what we know about this event comes from a book published in 1982 called “The Politics of Annexation.” Long out of print, the book was just re-released in a free digital format by U of R and VCU. 

VPM’s Roberto Roldan recently spoke with authors John Moeser, a professor at U of R, and Rutledge Dennis, a professor at George Mason University and formerly VCU’s first coordinator of African American Studies. 

Roldan: So just to start out, John, can you tell me what the importance is of learning about this annexation that happened fifty years ago, at this point?

Moeser: Richmond has a long and tragic history that deals with race beginning of course, as everyone knows, with slavery. And then there was slavery by another name over the balance of the 19th century and into the 20th century. This particular case though is interesting because of how the white leaders decided to suppress the black vote. What the Richmond oligarchy decided to do was to simply reduce the black population. And the way to do that was to annex thousands, tens of thousands of white people from the adjoining County, Chesterfield County. In fact, when people learn the story about the annexation, they are amazed. They are shocked. I mean, the number of secret meetings that were held.

Roldan: And what were some of the things that were said or done during these private meetings?

Moeser: Well, they didn't, you know, try to dress it up when they talked about African American people. They use the ‘n-word’. They didn't leave anything to the imagination.

Dennis: It also came across in the depositions, the extent to which the white political leaders went to ignore or exclude blacks who were sitting on the city council at the time, [including] Henry Marsh. The secret places that they met were all designed to exclude all blacks from these meetings.

Roldan: Your book also looks at the resistance, particularly from the Richmond Crusade For Voters and the late Creighton Court resident Curtis Holt. How did the Black community push back against this attack on voting rights?

Moeser: I tell you, [a] major institution that played a big role in the Crusade for Voters was the church. Pastors of churches were very much a part of that political organization. In addition to pastors, you had black attorneys, you had black professors. There was a very strong intelligentsia in Richmond in the black community and they joined forces and they were politically very astute. They knew in order to accomplish anything that everybody in the black community had to be included. There needed to be mass mobilization. There needed to be a way to get the word out before election day, who to vote for, and there needed to be transportation. Make sure people got to the polls. So, you had a combination of the bike population growing and, just as important, increasing politicization of the black community. 

Dennis: And Curtis Holt saw himself as he was: a grassroots leader. He came from the people.

Moeser: He resided in Creighton court public housing. In fact, [he] was the president of the Creighton Court Citizens Association. So, he was very low income.

Dennis: And I think he fought the annexation battle for the people. In fact, he told me that. I think he represented not only himself well, but the people for whom he spoke. And I think that he saw himself as venturing on a mission and that mission was to force black inclusion on a city which had heretofore had its claim on black exclusion. And I think that's how he saw his suit against the city of Richmond.

members of city council stand in council chambers with their right hand up to swear in
In the 1977 election following Richmond’s move to a district system, the city saw its first majority black City Council and first black Mayor, Henry Marsh. (Courtesy of the Richmond City Clerk's Office)

Roldan: And Curtis Holt - with his lawyer - took his fight against the annexation all the way to the Supreme Court, right?

Moeser and Dennis: That’s correct, yes.

Moeser: Until that Supreme court case, the elections in Richmond were at-large. There were nine members of City Council. And the way the election works is that the nine people who won the most votes citywide got elected. And what the Supreme court did was to say to Richmond that the annexation was “constitutionally impermissible.” They said to Richmond, ‘Okay, Richmond, if you want to keep this land then you're going to have to change your method of election. You're going to have to go to a district-based system of election.’ And during this time, the Supreme court enjoined Richmond from having any more elections. There weren't going to be any more local elections until this annexation case was resolved. Richmond went from 1972 to 1977 under a Supreme court injunction where there were no local elections at all. I think Richmond went longer without having any local elections in any city in the United States.”

Roldan: The re-release of “The Politics of Annexation” has a new forward by U of R Professor Julian Hayter. In it, he points out that a lot of what Richmond was dealing with in the 1970s still exists today - namely continued residential, underperforming schools where most of the students are black. How could policymakers and advocates apply lessons from this particular historical moment, do you think, to today?

Dennis: I think one of the needed thrusts involves a continuation of the educational agenda. We've seen today how the present superintendent of schools is trying to grapple with that, and it's not easy. As was said in the book, money wasn't the issue. Money is still not the issue. The issue is how do you structure a successful program for schools? How do you do that? How do you structure that? Education is a prime area that we have to continue to deal with in trying to address the problems of poverty.

Moeser: I would add a second point and that is wealth building. I deeply regret that when the Office of Community Wealth building was formed, from that point until now - the chief cornerstone of that office - they have done no wealth building in the African American community. What do we mean by that? We're talking about ownership, ownership of businesses. The important thing is to circulate wealth within neighborhoods. We could still do it, but we haven't done it. Education is critically important but enabling African-Americans to own something. The whole purpose of wealth building is to begin to circulate wealth within black neighborhoods. So schools and wealth building, I think are the two biggest items right now on our agenda.