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Indelible Roots: Historic Fulton and Urban Renewal

Fulton was one of Richmond's oldest neighborhoods but a 1970 urban renewal plan destroyed more than 800 homes and buildings and displaced thousands of people in the mostly Black community.
Fulton was one of Richmond's oldest neighborhoods but a 1970 urban renewal plan destroyed more than 800 homes and buildings and displaced thousands of people in the mostly Black community. This image from W. Palmer Gray Collection at The Valentine shows Fulton in 1922. W. Palmer Gray Collection, The Valentine

In the 1970s, one of Richmond’s most historic neighborhoods disappeared. The Fulton Urban Renewal Plan destroyed more than 800 homes, churches and businesses. After 46 years, the plan is winding to a close. In the first of a two-part series, Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: Explore the Historic Fulton Oral History Collection and Scott Davis's book The World of Patience Gromes. Read the 1970 Redevelopment Plan for Fulton Urban Renewal Area. See more photos of the neighborhood taken in 1967 by the Richmond Department of Public Works. And listen to Part 2 of our series. 

Special thanks to all of the Fulton residents who shared their stories. Research was assisted by the Historic Fulton Foundation, the Valentine, the Library of Virginia, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Richmond Department of Planning, which provided the 1967 photos.

Historic Fulton had everything: a streetcar, school, numerous churches, a fire station, doctor’s office and plenty of restaurants and stores. The 1951 Hill directory lists A&P Food Store, Henderson’s Grocery, Harrison’s Drug Store, Simon’s Department Store, Walker’s Shoe Store, Johnson’s Auto, Fulton Hardware, the Sanitary Lunch, Fulton Variety Store, John Jay Meat Market, Colonian Stores, JA Sons & Black Furniture, Grubb’s Market and many more. Reverend Mary Perez lived at 530 Nicholson Street where Stone Brewing is now.

“And then you could go to the movies, to the Lenox Theater and see everything as many times as you wanted to,” said Perez. “Could buy you a 15 cent box of popcorn, a hot dog for ten cents.”

There were barber shops, cleaners, the Bethlehem community center and across from the ball field, Larcenia “Lollipop” Johnson went dancing at the playground.

“On school nights, if it’s warm outside, it would be about 4:00 to about 6:30 pm and the weekends would be from 4:00 until about 7:30-8:00 pm,” said Johnson.

Residents spun 45s that played through outdoor speakers, says Johnson. Groups like James Brown, the Four Tops, the Spinners, the Delfonics, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.

Seventy-nine-year-old Lula Brady had lots of family in Fulton. Two aunts had 10 children each. She lived in a few places, including 900 State Street.

“It was a pretty house, it was a big house, ten rooms,” she said. “I had to clean up (laughs), had to keep the house clean, okay. And we had a piano and I plunked a little bit, you know.”

Brady’s son James Chambliss remembers rose bushes and a tree house in the front yard, and lots of activity in the back.

“We raised chickens, turkeys, had a little pigeon coup over there,” he said.

A view of houses on Main Street.  (Source City of Richmond, Dept. of Public Works)

Historic Fulton comprises about 350 acres on Richmond’s East Side and includes a section along the James River called Rocketts. Linda Egister Sutton grew up in her grandparents’ house at 208 Orleans, two blocks from the river.

“I always tell people I’m an original Rockett,” said Sutton. “I lived in a big, beautiful, two-story house, big beautiful porch.

It was fenced in and had a garage. Inside, they all sorts of amenities, a washer, hot water heater, phone line, black and white TV. There was a piano in the living room, where Sutton says Mr. Brown came over on Saturdays for 50 cent piano lessons. Up 17 stairs, the second floor had a powder room and a separate bath. There were three bed rooms. Sutton had a radio, record player and phone of her own in hers.

“It was a big house and it was a nice house and- (pauses) I get iffy sometimes because I can actually sit here now and I can close my eyes and I can just think about all the fun I used to have in that house,” said Sutton.

The family homes of Linda Sutton, Mary Perez, Larcenia “Lollipop” Johnson, Lula Brady and James Chambliss families are long gone, along with hundreds of other structures demolished as part of the 1970 Fulton Urban Renewal Plan. Sometimes, Sutton drives back to Orleans Street.

“I do it when the sun is shining pretty and I just sit over there and I cry, I do. And then I close my eyes and I can actually hear Velde, Linda, Velde’s brother, Linda’s brother, all of us in the backyard. Me making mud cakes, we sitting out on the porch, laughing and talking, riding our tricycles up and down the street, having fun, just enjoying,” said Sutton. “And I can close my eyes and I can actually open them up and there go my house, just for that moment, there go my house. You know, there go my granddaddy with that cigar hanging out the side of his mouth, going up in the driveway, cleaning his car off, or my grandmomma sitting on the front porch talking to Miss Lady Bug or something, carrying on a friendly conversation.”

Urban renewal happened all over the country and in other Black communities in Richmond, like Carver and Jackson Ward. In Fulton, it wasn’t just part of the neighborhood that was demolished. It was the whole thing. At least 850 homes, businesses and churches were razed (an April 11, 1970 article in the Afro-American cited 1335 properties affected). Several thousand people were uprooted from a place where many generations of families had lived; a place that even during its decline was home to a tight-knit community.

“Oh, it was just like one big happy family,” said Johnson. “A lot of us didn’t have a telephone, but if we did something wrong, [our family] would know what we did before we got there.”

Others echoed these memories. Children were reared by their family, extended family and their neighbors. When walking down the street, they greeted elders sitting on porches. When the floods came, neighbors offered shelter to those in lower lying areas.

“If you was hungry, somebody fed you,” said Brady. “I think we had one neighborhood drunk, he’d come by, clean your yard and everything for you and we would feed him a little bit. All the neighbors helped each other.”

The campaign to demolish Fulton began in the ‘60s, when the area was suffering from deteriorating infrastructure, negligent landlords and increasing poverty. City leaders called it the worst slum in Richmond and its reputation as such was proliferated through news reports. A 1969 article in the Richmond Times Dispatch about Fulton began like this: “Shabby and lonely, it squats dismally at the base of one of Richmond’s prettiest and noblest hills, an ailing community mired in a swamp of socio-economic problems from which there has seemed to be no escape.” Buildings were already being demolished under part of the city’s housing code that gave owners just 15 days to either fix up or tear down substandard structures.

To get tens of millions in federal HUD funding, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority needed community buy-in. The divisions that developed within the community are detailed in Scott Davis’s 1988 book The World of Patience Gromes: Making and Unmaking a Black Community. Some, including those paid by the city, advocated for the urban renewal plan. They had already spent years negotiating with authorities, who originally wanted to make the area all industrial. But even with concessions that included housing and neighborhood amenities, many residents were skeptical. They asked for historic structures and Webster Davis school to be saved. They wanted the plan carried out in stages to avoid rupturing the whole community.

But on April 13th, 1970 City Council voted 8 to 1 to approve Ordinance No. 70-89-97 and the Redevelopment Plan for the Fulton Urban Renewal Area. By that time, it must have been a foregone conclusion. The Times Dispatch reported the vote in a short round-up of City Council activity in section B of the paper.

The lone dissenting vote was Howard Carwile, a white council member. The outspoken advocate for the poor and people of color, Carwile wrote op-eds in the Afro-American.  One, published in January 1967 was titled “The Racism of Urban Renewal.”

“The time has come,” wrote Carwile, “for every crusading citizen of this city to build up a wholesome immunity to all this pusillanimous pussyfooting over the issue of urban renewal housing projects… How in the name of high heaven any person with sense enough to come in out of the rain can see anything progressive or humanitarian about the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and its slave camps, euphemistically referred to as housing projects, is beyond my humble power of perception.”

The measure that passed 1970 also included the Conservation Plan for the Washington Park Urban Renewal Area. But this plan, which affected about 450 properties on 130 acres, emphasized rehabilitation of homes, as well as improving sidewalks, gutters, landscaping and street lighting. The Washington Park plan only called for “spot clearance” of properties, according to the Afro-American.

Under the Fulton plan, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority bought properties up and tore them down. Residents could also apply for $15,000 relocation grants. Some families stayed in Fulton as long as they could, even after flooding displaced dozens of people in 1972. Linda Sutton and her family were some of the last to leave, around 1974.

“It was a ghost town. It was really a ghost town,” said Sutton. “On some of the streets they had already started knocking down houses and condemning houses and had moved people out. Sometimes coming home it was really kind of scary. Because people were moving out, people were upset, people were mad. You’ve been living here all your life. Now you got a bunch of people telling you got to get up and go.”

Historian Selden Richardson, who wrote about Fulton is his book Built by Blacks, remembers driving through the neighborhood in the late ‘70s on the way to his grandmother’s house. In the vast open area, he saw cobblestone roads, some streetlights and signs and just one remaining set of houses.

“I remember distinctly driving through what seemed to be a prairie… Even to a child, it didn’t look right, you just had a feeling that something was amiss here, even a child could see that something icky had happened here,” said Richardson.

By the late 1970s, after most everything had been cleared from Fulton and Rocketts, one family was still fighting to stay. Spencer E. Jones III (named Spencer Armstead at the time) lived at 702 Denny Street. Their home was one of nine, brick Victorian rowhouses built in the 1890s. On a tour of the neighborhood, we stop on Old Denny, Jones pulls out a photo of the rowhouses and points to where his home once stood.

“This was the front room, right behind it was a set of steps with a skyline. Right behind that was the room I was born in and my mother. I was born September 24th, 1950, right there, right there in the room upstairs behind there. I was delivered as was my mother 16 years earlier by Dr. Gallant, a white doctor from up on Monument Avenue.

Jones and his mother Marion Armstead tried to save the homes. In a 1977 News Leader article, architectural historian Dell Upton called the houses “sturdy” and “distinguished” and said “minimal rehabilitation could easily render them superior to any modern structures with which they might be replaced.” He added, “no reasonable argument can be made for its condemnation and demolition.”

As the Armsteads considered their options, RRHA’s then director Frederick Fay ordered six of the rowhouses demolished.

“While I was living in them,” said Jones, “And before we went to court to discourage me from going to court.”

Jones says demolition crews came early in the morning and when the ball and chain struck, the whole row vibrated. Jones called the action “a wake up call to oppression.”

“It’s kind of like stop fighting, that’s what the message was,” he said.

In 1980, US District Judge D. Dortch Warriner issued an emergency order stopping demolition of the three remaining homes. Warriner said Fulton existed since the city’s founding and was a “place of historic significance.” Quoted in the Times Dispatch, Warriner said HUD and RRHA for all intents and purposes “destroyed the area.”

The Armsteads were ultimately unsuccessful in getting the three houses on the historic register. Even after their home was boarded up, Spencer Jones says he’d come back, walk upstairs and sit in the room where he and his mother were born.

“I give the people an example,” said Jones. “Wherever you grew up at, whether it was Wisconsin, Norfolk, Maine, you had houses all around you. Visualize… sitting on the porch and just watching the community disappear in front of your very eyes.”

The stated "general" goals of 1970 Redevelopment Plan for Fulton Urban Renewal Area included the following: “to strengthen Fulton as an urban residential neighborhood, to improve employment opportunities in the community for Fultonians, to provide adequate services to support resident and industrial land uses... and to insure that adequate provisions are made for the social and financial adjustment of people to their new environment.”

Social goals included the following: “to encourage and assist, through subsidy or cooperative programs, purchase of housing by tenant residents of Fulton” and to “assure suitable housing will be available within the community to house families desiring to remain in Fulton.” It called for expansion of affordable housing, educational opportunities for children and adults, and adequate sites for churches, day care centers, stores and a health clinic. The plan included a “village green” where “the Fulton community residents and others can find pleasant and efficient places to shop.” And initially, it included a provision regarding “the encouragement and active support of local black ownership of new commercial development,” although this was struck during amendments either in 1987 or 1998.

A small number of single family homes were built in the 1970s followed by about 300 low-income and public housing units by 1980. In late 80s and early 90s, ranch and split-level homes were constructed on the new suburban-style street grid. Across the new Williamsburg Avenue, the city sold parcels to industrial developers. But much of the land stood empty for decades. And there hasn’t been a grocery store since 1990. TK Somanath, the current CEO of RRHA, says a lot of promises were made and broken.

“Looking back, there was massive relocation of families as well as demolition of some historic, significant homes. There could have been a lot more sensitiveness to really kind of save as many historic buildings and do selective demolition of houses that were completely dilapidated or under the water,” said Somanath. “But the rest could have been saved and also the historic traditional grid pattern could have been saved as opposed to creating cul de sacs and suburban type of development which is not really very attractive. But it was what happened then and [I] hope some of the lessons learned have been implemented in areas like Carver as well as Jackson Ward and Randolph.”

Some former residents, including Larcenia Johnson made it back to Fulton, buying one of the new split level houses. Others resettled in adjacent neighborhoods of Fulton Hill and Montrose Heights. Some went to the suburbs, though redlining limited where families could relocate. Many others passed on including Linda Sutton’s grandfather.

“If you tell me what you told me when I sit with my grandaddy in 1974 and told him, we're going to rebuild this community, and he asked, can we come back? Oh yeah, we’re going to fix it up, just need to give it up lift. Well, he’s dead now so we know that’s not going to happen for him,” Sutton said.

Forty-six years after the Fulton Urban Renewal Plan started, RRHA says it’s in the final stages, with Stone Brewing and 45 solar houses being the last open projects. But there are those still asking, where’s the grocery store? Where’s the school? Where’s the clinic and community center?

Lula Brady and many former Fultonians still go to church at Mt. Calvary Baptist, which was torn down during demolition and then rebuilt in 1979. One of the few remaining signs of the old neighborhood is visible from the church’s back parking lot - stone bleachers for the ball field. When she goes to senior citizen’s group on Tuesdays, she stops to stare at them and remember the old Fulton.

“I miss my neighborhood. I tell anybody I miss my neighborhood and don’t want nobody talking bad about my neighborhood because I didn’t come out of a bad neighborhood, we came out of a neighborhood where everyone loved each other, everyone helped each other,” said Brady.

When asked what he feels when he drives through the neighborhood, Brady’s son James Chambliss says sad. He pauses and begins to cry.

“I just miss home,” Chambliss says. “We just had so much pride about ourselves and when I look over there now I just think about people and their daily commute, wherever they go, Route 5, Montrose Heights, Fulton Hill, they look over there and they just don’t know what they’re looking at and not being able to show or tell people what that was. It just breaks my heart because we were so much more than solar homes and those cracker box houses that they threw up down there, we were so much more than that.”

Many people get emotional when thinking or talking about the destruction of Fulton and the decades of unfulfilled promises. Urban renewal, said the late councilmember Howard Carwile, “destroys the body, crucifies the spirit and sears the soul.”

Listen to Part 2 of our Virginia Currents Radio series when we find out how 46 years after the Fulton Urban Renewal Plan, residents are making sure the neighborhood’s history is preserved, shared, discussed and honored.