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Black History Museum Reopens in Historic Armory

The new home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, located in the historic Leigh Street Armory.
The new home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, located in the historic Leigh Street Armory. The 1895 structure was built for the African-American First Battalion, Virginia Volunteers. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

After years of preparations, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center is re-opening in the Leigh Street Armory. The building has more than a century of history in Richmond, including a decades-long effort to save it. Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp reports.

Learn More: Find out more about the Black History Museum and Cultural Center. Grand opening events include poetry and music 7:00-9:00 pm, Friday May 6th and free admission 10:00 am-5:00 pm, Saturday May 7th. Regular hours begin Tuesday May 10th.

Transcript:

Richmond Planet Editor John Mitchell Jr. was a key figure behind the Leigh Street Armory. Historian Selden Richardson says Mitchell knew his readers wanted parity with the white community.

Selden Richardson: “They had armories, so should we” and I think quite remarkably, he was one of the driving forces to have this thing built.

Mitchell helped convince City Council to fund the armory for the African-American First Battalion Virginia Volunteers militia. Joining supporters was Confederate veteran and City Engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, who lost his leg in the war. He designed numerous projects throughout Richmond including parks, outdoor recreation spaces, schools and old City Hall.

Richardson: It’s a curious facet; I believe that he thought that a military-based education was good for whites and blacks alike, that discipline and that order was something that needed to be spread and he didn't care what color you were.

With funding secured and the building designed, construction got started on the two-story structure on West Leigh Street, in the heart of the thriving black community of Jackson Ward. The brickwork of the castle-like building was contracted to Maggie Walker’s husband, Armistead.

Richardson: To coin a phrase, it was literally built by blacks.

The Armory is featured in Selden Richardson’s 2008 book Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond. He’s done significant research on the stately red brick building. The exterior incorporates terra cotta details and has four towers, including two circular turrets. Inside, each floor had four large rooms. An outdoor area was designed for military drills. Like many armories at the time, Richardson says the primary purpose was social and educational.

Richardson: The opening ceremony was in October of 1895. At the time there was a wooden gallery on the back of this building which served as an outside stair. Cutshaw stood on the balcony and congratulated the assembled for their devotion to duty and it set off a week-long celebration where they had dances and banquets and speeches and sermons, all celebrating the opening this Armory, for a week-long time, I mean it was a huge deal.

Following the Spanish-American War, many militias were disbanded including the First Battalion, Virginia Volunteers. The Armory was converted to Monroe Elementary school. During World War II, the Armory became the Monroe Center, offering black servicemen a place to sleep, shower and eat. Starting in 1945, the building transformed again.

Tee Turner: I never thought of it as being an armory, it was always the gym.

The school across the street, first Armstrong High School then Benjamin Graves Junior High used the building as an annex, gym and rec center. Tee Turner was in the building pretty much every day.

Turner: You had classrooms and then you had a large gym with seating space and kids running all over the place. It was full, it was safe and to some degree it was very- whether it was organized, organized may not be the right question, but it was structured.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Nicholson ran the place, says Turner.

Turner: They were models for us. They were well-read, they were well-dressed, they were no-nonsense, they cared about the kids and more than anything it was those two men that I will always remember. When I talk to other friends that went through Graves, we all talk about Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Williams because were models for us. They were tough, they were fair, they expected things out of us and got the things they expected.

In the evenings, the building was full of life too.

Rev. Dr. Paige Lanier Chargois: The greatest memory is what we would call sock hops, dances for the kids.

Rev. Dr. Paige Lanier Chargois was also a Benjamin Graves student and remembers the Armory well.

Chargois: Just enjoying after school, being able to go to a dance and enjoy having fun with your classmates and of course, a little boyfriend here and there. It was just a joyous time.

Someone spun records, the Platters, Chubby Checker and of course, the Godfather of Soul.

Chargois: His music carried us right on through the whole season of academia, junior high, high school, college, many of our college years as well.

Chargois and a fellow named Ollie had a reputation on the dance floor.

Chargois: From junior high on into high school, Ollie was one of the best male dancers and I was tagged as one of the best female dancers and I don't care where we were, we would look for each other and before you know it all and Ollie and I were out there on the floor dancing. We never officially dated, but we really liked each other and we loved dancing together.

In the 1980s, the Black History Museum set up in the historic building. But their presence was cut short after a fire on the second floor burned through the roof. The Armory was locked up, but no measures were taken to repair it, says Selden Richardson.

Richardson: As result of it sitting open to the weather ,every wooden member inside of it was ruined, every door, floor, wall, ceiling, everything and very little that could be saved and that was the condition that I found it in.

At the time, Richardson was the archivist for architectural records at the State Library. Someone found the original architectural drawings of the building at the Old City Hall.

Richardson: Being a child of suburbia and unfamiliar with Jackson Ward, I thought this can't possibly still be there. And I drove down Leigh Street and was astonished to find it standing there… Boarded up, vandalized and rotting.

Richardson would spend the next 20 years trying to get the City to save the Armory, the oldest still standing in Virginia and one of three in the country built specifically for the black community.

Richardson: I had attempted every trick in the book that I knew and frequently went down to  City Council and turned beat red screaming about this building. The last card I had to play was putting it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Richardson’s application was successful, and it was added to the Register in 2009. There were continued challenges along the way to rehabbing the building, but today, the lights are on at the Leigh Street Armory.

Mary Lauderdale: Welcome to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia…

Visitor Services Manager Mary Lauderdale points out relics in the renovated 12,000 square foot facility.

Lauderdale: This is one of the original blackboards…

The first floor galleries examine slavery, Reconstruction, Emancipation, Jim Crow and Civil Rights. Stories of Virginians throughout these periods are shared through large touch screens, including a 25 foot long interactive wall.

Lauderdale: This is Carter G. Woodson…

Touch a date and events, people and quotes light up the display.

Lauderdale: Carter G. Woodson was from Buckingham, County, VA. This is one of his quotes. “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world, void of national bias, race, hate, and religious prejudice.”

The second floor is devoted to traveling art exhibits. The first one, “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution,” highlights black animation art from the 1970s. A large gathering room will be the site of poetry readings, music, lectures and community discussions.

Lauderdale: People are becoming a little bit more comfortable talking about race and race relations but there's still a lot to be done. I think that the opportunity here is tremendous, I think that are Carter G. Woodson said black history is everyone's history, it’s American history so it’s not a layer on it, it’s intertwined with history, you can’t tell one story without the other to make it complete. 

Chargois: It is thrilling the way that now it's being converted, not only the physical structure but just the sense of it still being connected with African American history in this community. It's just thrilling, it really is.

Paige Chargois has traveled the world as a minister, scholar and advocate of reconciliation. She had the chance to see building’s renovations earlier this year.

Chargois: It was as though I was walking on holy ground, it was that profound.

As Chargois sat in her car looking at annex of her old school, she was filled with appreciation for all the people during that time that shaped the person she became.

Chargois: It's those seeds that they planted in us, with so few resources, that have bloomed and blossomed in such magnificent ways. When we look back to see how little we had, but how much we did with it, and I’m talking about those teachers and leaders in that time and how much they poured into us. Even when I just think about that on my own sometimes, I just feel blown away.

Turner: When they purchased and renovated the Armory, it was icing on the cake for me.

Tee Turner, a longtime member of the Slave Trail Commission, says the significance of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, located in this historic structure, is important for generations to come.

Turner: I have often shared during Slave Trail walks, stories of how African-Americans fought for their freedom as opposed to it being given to them. When we have facilities of buildings or landmarks to support that, the contributions that African American soldiers have made to this country, it’s not buried or lost someplace. So the significance of it is not only important but it's powerful for people and for our younger kids to understand the contributions that African Americans have made to this country and to the betterment of this country and that we have made equal sacrifices to others that have made this country great as we say. Preserving that building and telling the story of it, support that reality and that's important and it would appear now that that story has found a place of permanence.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.