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Storytelling Project Brings Diverse Neighbors Together

Residents gather in North Richmond
Residents gather in North Richmond for the Battery Park storytelling event, part of a documentary project that aims to celebrate the history of the community and bridge cultural divides. Photo: Lauren Licklider

Residents of a North Richmond community are coming together to document and share the history of the neighborhood. “Battery Park Stories” seeks to honor the legacy of longtime residents and bring neighbors of different ages and races together. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Follow updates from the Battery Park Civic Association and learn about the history of the neighborhood.

Transcript:

With its large, affordable homes, windy streets and green space, Battery Park is attracting new residents like artist Michael Lease and historian Kimberly Wolfe.

Kimberly Wolfe: We loved the park, we loved the size of the homes, we loved the diversity of the neighborhood.

The couple didn’t just want to own property in a beautiful neighborhood. They wanted to become part of the community.

Michael Lease: For me, there's a need to be as educated and enmeshed and part of wherever I live as possible.

Wolfe: Learning about the history of where you live and the other people who live here and the people who lived here before you and what was going on in this neighborhood before this was a neighborhood, what it looked like before all these houses were here - knowing that roots you. I almost imagine roots growing and the more that you know about that, the more that you feel like you belong there.

Lease and Wolfe researched past owners of their home, they introduced themselves to neighbors and they joined the Battery Park Civic Association. There, they teamed up another newer resident, Lori Ruffin and launched Battery Park Stories: Reflections of Our Neighborhood.

Lori Ruffin: The neighborhood didn’t just become a neighborhood when I moved in or when my neighbors moved in last week. It’s already been a story that’s continuous.

Through oral histories and storytelling events, the project seeks to bridge the neighborhood's generational and racial divides.

Lori Ruffin: By having a storytelling event, it gives an opportunity for everyone to get context: what happened before I got here in the recent history as well as the past history so that I understand where do I fit and also then also can be a part of shaping it going forward.

Walking through Battery Park, Lease points out where some of the city’s accomplished residents lived.

Lease: This is actually Douglas Wilder’s home, he lived right there...

And just behind it, the home of Willard Douglas, one of the first black judges in Virginia.

Lease: Just a few houses up, that is the former house of AD Price, who owned the funeral home in Jackson Ward.

We pass the historic stone house, built out of reclaimed cobblestones, where the civic association currently meets and walk across the park where Arthur Ashe played tennis.

Ruffin: This is my block. There are current teachers probably in five or six homes on this block...

We’re headed to a home a few doors down from Ruffin’s belonging to one of Battery’s Park longest residents.

Ruth Coles Harris: Hello, come on in...

Ruth Coles Harris and her husband John moved into this home in 1953.

Ruth Coles Harris: We were looking for a house and we drove through Edgewood Avenue and saw this house and my husband said, “Let’s stop and look at that one.” So we came in, as soon as we walked in he said, “We don’t need to look any further. This house is built almost exactly like the house you grew up in. That’s the house we want.”

Harris had just spent two years living with her husband’s parents while he was serving overseas during the Korean War. Now, he was back, she was pregnant and they finally had their dream home.

Harris: We couldn’t wait for the doorbell to ring or the telephone to ring in our own house.

This was an exciting time for the couple, but they were still facing racism and discrimination. The neighbor next door would call her granddaughter into the house when black children were playing outside.

Harris: One day I went to the Safeway, there was a Safeway on North Avenue then, and I saw my next door neighbor and I spoke to her and she turned her back and walked away like she had never seen me before in her life. So I figured okay, if you don’t speak to me in the grocery store, you don’t need to speak to me over my back fence either.

It wasn’t long, says Harris, before nearly every white resident on the block moved out. But the new neighbors that moved in began to build a community of respect, support and love.

Harris: It was a close-knit community. People would do anything for you. All the children played together so you got to know everybody on your block.

Harris’s college friend moved in next door. They both had children who would climb the back fence to play in each others’ yards. They climbed it so many times, the fence fell over.

Harris: And after they broke down the fence, then we put up some hedges. But they just walked through the hedges ‘til they made a path through them too so we just dug them up so we had one big yard.

Neighbors came together, says Harris, in good times and bad. One took care of her children during a family emergency in New York; others provided food and electricity when Hurricane Isabel damaged their home.

Harris: I have really enjoyed living in this neighborhood, it’s been a wonderful experience.

Harris had a nearly 50 year long career as a professor and administrator at nearby Virginia Union University, including serving as the first director of the Sydney Lewis School of Business. One of this year’s Virginia Women in History honorees, she was also the state’s first black female CPA. It was 1962, she recalled, and the two and a half day long exam was in Virginia Beach.

Harris: They sent out a letter. The same letter went to everybody and they just asked you to check the place that you wanted to stay.

Harris knew hotels in Virginia Beach refused service to African-Americans.

Harris: I was tempted to check a place, but I knew that I could stay there so I said no, this is not the time. I’ll call them up and ask them do they really mean this. And then they said no, they didn’t really mean it.

Harris says she felt a little bit angry, but was determined. She asked around until she found a place to stay in Norfolk. She got a map and by herself, drove East to take the test.

Harris: Each member of the state board is coming by my table individually to apologize to me, but that was distracting. I didn’t go there to talk to them, I went there to take the exam and I didn’t want to be wasting my time listening to them, because with the exam, you needed every minute.

Harris not only finished the test, she was one of only 23% who passed and became the first black female CPA in Virginia. She actually found out when a reporter called her while teaching at Virginia Union University.

Harris: He first congratulated me on having become the first black female to pass the CPA exam in the Commonwealth of Virginia and I said well, you know more than I know because nobody told me that I passed it. And he said he went by the office of state board of accountants this morning and they told me that you passed it. And he said I wanted to interview you on the phone because I’m writing an article for the Richmond News Leader today. I was in a state of shock because I wasn’t really sure that I had passed it.

(Ambient: Storytelling Event)

These memories of the neighborhood and lived experiences were shared by Harris and other longtime residents at the inaugural Battery Park storytelling event.

Ruffin: Good afternoon everyone. (Silence) Okay, I'm used to being in a Black church... (Laughter) that means you speak back to me, so let's try that again, Good afternoon everyone...

More than 50 people of all ages, black and white filled the room. Roz Jones remembered when the KKK burned a cross in front yard of civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill’s home. Educator and civic leader Rayford Harris also knew Hill. He shared the story of the risk they took in 1958 when they showed up to Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr’s inauguration - the first people of color to attend the event. Veteran educator Lucile Brown talked about her neighbors: a doctor, counselor, pastor, musician, and bakery owner and the high expectations set for the community's children. And Laurie Hunter, who was delivered by Brown’s husband, remembered tennis and ballet lessons at the park and the value system that developed by neighbors who lived, worshipped and went to school together.

These residents, some who say they never expected to live in an integrated neighborhood, welcome the diversity. They’re happy to hear the sound of children in the streets again and see the pride people are taking in their homes. They want Battery Park to continue to be a place where people care for and about each other. Developing these relationships takes work and commitment, but it starts with saying hi and getting to know your neighbor.

Ruffin: The more I reflect on it, I see what we’re doing as an icebreaker. It’s an entry point to a conversation and once one person jumps in and breaks the ice then everyone can jump in.

Lease: Somehow we need to talk about who we are as people moving in, who the people are who have lived here and where we kind of meet in the center and how we just become neighbors.

Organizers say this is the beginning of a project they hope will continue for years to come, through more events, oral histories and portraits of residents. It’s a way to educate and celebrate the people in Battery Park, to bring cultures together and to continue building the community foundations established decades ago. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.