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Indelible Roots: Preserving Fulton’s History

Eric "Ricky" Robinson (left) and Melvin Fleming (second to left) play dominoes in "the field."
Eric "Ricky" Robinson (left) and Melvin Fleming (second to left) play dominoes in "the field." These men and other original residents displaced by the 1970 Fulton Urban Renewal Plan have gathered nearly every day in Fulton for more than 40 years. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

A section of Richmond’s East End is transforming with craft breweries, solar homes and riverfront development. But a group of residents, many displaced by a 1970 urban renewal plan, want to make sure Fulton's history is acknowledged and preserved. In the second of our two part series, Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: Listen to Part 1 of WCVE’s series. 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. And see more photos of the neighborhood taken in 1967 by the Richmond Department of Public Works. To contact Historic Fulton Memorial Park organizers, email [email protected]

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.

If you want to visualize old Fulton, a large quilt made by the late Bessie White Haskins for her brother, Norman White Jr., meticulously documents the neighborhood. The quilt is large, about four by seven feet, and detailed. Haskins used a 1951 directory to recreate Fulton’s original street grid, carefully recording the locations of hundreds of businesses, stores and family homes. Using white stitching and paint on black fabric, she outlined trees and playgrounds; Webster Davis School and the Bethlehem Center; Hanks and Simon’s Department Store.

Reverend Mary Perez is the quilt’s caretaker. Her family is also from Fulton, their house was on Nicholson Street where Stone Brewing is now.

“Really you can’t describe it, if you don’t know the love that was in Fulton,” said Perez. “Then when you look at it and see the names and you look at your family, and then you look at people who were kin to you, you can almost feel love coming out of it. And if you knew Bessie, she was so sweet and passionate, you can just feel it. It almost gives you chill bumps, anytime you just look at it or touch. It almost speaks, it just speaks.”

This quilt is so important because none of this exists anymore. An urban renewal plan passed by Richmond City council in 1970 targeted this mostly Black community. It led to the demolition of more than 850 structures and displaced thousands of people. The entire neighborhood was cleared and it took decades for new homes to be rebuilt. It’s had a lasting impact on the people who lived there, including retired military veteran James Chambliss. Generations of his family are from Fulton. His adoptive father was the mail carrier; taught Sunday school and did taxes for black-owned businesses all over the city. He also organized summer trips to Buckroe Beach. Buses lined State Street and it seemed like the entire neighborhood would go. Chambliss’s mother Lula Mae Brady was born and raised there too. He wrote a poem about Fulton in 2014 titled, Porches to Coasters.

“Porches provided a means in which community members communicated, shared, informed and entertained one another. Porches were also a greeting place, a meeting place, a place where the elders kept watch over their youth while they played in the streets and fields.”

Porches held freshly delivered milk, orange juice, and eggs, Chambliss’s poem continues, and porches, were the first victims of the wrecking balls.

“Porches disappeared from the lives of Fulton’s elders and ushered in death to them one by one. They died from homesickness and broken hearts. Porches absence equated to the utter destruction of a proud people and their community, Historic Fulton…”

Love for Fulton led to Chambliss’s poem and Haskins’s quilt. And it led to a group of displaced residents gathering around a barrel in a vacant Fulton lot, everyday, for three decades. After the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority cleared most every historic structure in Fulton, residents kept coming back to share news, reminisce, and just be together.

“You could go up there any day and say, I heard my cousin was sick somewhere on South side [and] somebody up there within a day or so would find out [their status],” said Spencer E. Jones III, a Fulton Native. “We gathered around a barrel, 365, every year, in the snow, rain, hurricanes, everything because that was our connection.”

Seasons changed, babies grew up, elders shared wisdom and passed on, but “the barrel,” also known as “the field,” remained constant. After about 30 years, RRHA sold the property and put up no trespassing signs. The group moved over a block or so to another vacant plot, still visible from Williamsburg Avenue. When they were kicked off that parcel, they migrated to Government Road.

Regina Chaney-Walker isn’t originally from Fulton, but had connections there through friends and church. A few years ago, she got involved in efforts to preserve Fulton’s history.

The bricks-and-mortar have been removed, the neighborhood, the community was taken down or so some people thought. But the spirit of the people remained” said Chaney-Walker. “I remember riding through that area and I remember those barrels with the fire in them and the guys sitting around, and there were plenty stories written about them by the newspaper and different magazines about how these guys would be sitting around, playing checkers and just enjoying each other. But it was really more than that, it was about being on what they considered to be their land. That is just very powerful.”

On a recent hot, Friday evening, former Fulton residents gathered in “the field,” under the shade of trees at the far end of Gillies Creek Park. Around a card table, a group played dominoes, laughed and teased each other. Eighty-two year old Fulton native Melvin Fleming is one of the oldest down here. Friends call him a “dominoes legend.” He was born and raised in Fulton.

“If I come down here, I’m safe. I know everybody, everybody knows me,” said Fleming.

Next to Fleming is 65-year-old Eric “Ricky” Robinson who accompanied his father to the old field where he played dominoes.

“It was friendly relations, everybody knew each other,” said Robinson. “It was almost like a big homecoming everyday because the majority of same people came around there, everyday.”

Eric’s cousin is the late Earl Robinson, a respected elder in the community. The family lived in Fulton for generations and relatives owned a cleaners and barber shop on Louisiana Street.

“You get energy from down here, you see some of the same people you grew up with and that’s a tight-knit bond you have,” he said. “Tomorrow you might not see them but the next day, you’ll see them. And then we start talking about, hey man do you remember when we was going to Webster Davis or do you remember when we went to East End? We always got something to talk about.”

A few steps from the new field is Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, which was razed during urban renewal and rebuilt in 1979. On the second Tuesday of every month, you’ll find Spencer E. Jones III down here, in the same spot he used to play ball as a kid, sun-up to sun-down.

“That’s the field of dreams, that’s where I learned to play football at. Right there,” said Jones standing not far from the old field’s stone bleachers, which still remain in Mt. Calvary’s parking lot.

Sixty-six year old Jones is the Founder and CEO of the Historic Fulton Foundation. His life’s work is dedicated to making sure no one forgets about the 1970 Fulton Urban Renewal Plan. He also wants the area recognized as the “birthplace of Richmond.” He’s spent years piece together the area’s earlier history, from the Powhatan Indians to Captain John Smith’s arrival to its Civil War history.

Historical writings indicate there was a Powhatan village and crops in the area. A 1911 book written by the Virginia Freemasons, History and by-laws of Richmond Royal Arch Chapter No. 3, A.F. & A.M, describes when Captain John Smith first visited Richmond in 1606 and it mentions Rocketts and Fulton: “[Chief] Powhatan sat enthroned on the plantation, now bearing his name, just below Rocketts (I beg pardon, Fulton), owned by the Mayo family. Tradition says it was one of his capitols and he died and was buried there.” Along the south side of Powhatan Hill, there's a plaque designating this as the site where Captains John Smith and Christopher Newport met Powhatan Indians on May 23, 1607.

Jones and others have spent countless hours, days and months documenting the story of Fulton, including working with the Valentine, VCU and other partners to create an oral history collection. Jones is also passionate about telling the broader history of Fulton. He wants it recognized as the “birthplace of Richmond.”

Jones takes me on a driving tour to get a better idea of Fulton's past. We drive the periphery of Rocketts, an important historical port and where Jones believes Abraham Lincoln disembarked before walking into a smoldering Richmond. On Main street, we pass the Woodward house, one of the city’s oldest frame structures that was saved from the 1970s demolition. Then we drive through Sugar Bottom and up to Libby Hill, which overlooks Fulton. There we get out of the car and Jones shows me a plaque put up in 1924 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to commemorate a battle known as Bloody Run.

“It was amazing to me how big of an event this was,” said Jones.

The plaque says near this site, Seneca Indians overcame Colonel Edward Hill and killed his ally Totopotomoy, Chief of the Pamunkey Tribe in 1656.

“Now you can imagine,” Jones says, “the Powhatan Indians tribal was up there at Powhatan Park. Now they said that the creek ran red with blood, that was in 1656, it must have been a major event. Look at that.”

Jones pulls out a laminated photocopy of a map from 1804. On it Old Williamsburg Avenue was called Bloody Run Street. He thinks the spring that fed the creek still runs. Sometimes, you can see water flowing across Williamsburg Avenue, just off 31st Street.

“Even 150, 200 years later, they still talking about it, honoring it,”Jones said. “I never knew anything but Williamsburg Avenue. But when I saw this in the Valentine and I start putting it together, I went, wow. It was such a big event that it permeated hundreds of years, so it must have been something like, we’ve got to commemorate this to make sure that it’s not forgotten, so let’s name a street [after it].”

On Stoney Run Road, we drive along Gilles Creek and see the old stone bridge that used connect Fulton to Chimborazo Hill. We go by Woodcroft Village apartments. Jones says this used to be known as Happy Hollow and was where white residents lived. Then we pull into Sir Moses Montefiore cemetery.

“This is the Jewish cemetery,” says Jones. “When Jews died they had to be in the ground before sundown. They used to parade through Historic Fulton, there were a number of Jewish stores years ago when it was Historic Fulton before the 1970 Fulton Urban Renewal Plan. This is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Richmond.

Jones says there was even a Jewish temple behind his house.

“I think the significance of this is that when you go further over there, it goes back to early 1800s, maybe even late 1700s. But these were some of the more prominent Jewish families in Richmond back in the day and I think that there’s no story about Historic Fulton without Sir Montefiore,” said Jones.

There are so many stories to tell about Fulton. It was the home of Samuel L. Gravely, who achieved many firsts as a Black commander in the Navy. Musician Gregory Coleman was from Fulton; he was a member of the Winstons and created the “Amen” drum break, a beat that’s had international influence. Fulton advocates want more people to know about this rich history, but it’s been challenging getting people to listen, really listen. Getting the geography and names right is one concern. For example, Fulton is different from Fulton Hill. That’s an adjacent neighborhood that Black residents couldn’t go to during segregation; they’d get run down the hill, sometimes chased by dogs. And the section along the river isn’t Rocketts Landing, it’s Rocketts.

Linda Sutton lived on Orleans Street and is part of the group working to get Fulton’s history recognized. Earlier this year, she says she went to a meeting where she felt her history was dismissed.

I was telling them how no matter what they call it, Rocketts Landing, it going to always be Rocketts to me because that’s who I am and I’m going to miss my home,” said Sutton. “And the response I got from them was, well you can’t get it back. I didn’t say I wanted it back, I was just telling you how I felt and what it was always going to be to me. And you can change a name as much as you want, but you can’t take away a history. Because see, when you go back to history, you always find the truth.”

But what happens to that truth when much of the physical evidence is erased? The landscape here continues to change, even street names and numbers have been altered. Stone Brewing went up in less than a year on 14 acres of Historic Fulton and will eventually have a restaurant near the James River. Off Williamsburg Ave, 45 solar houses are almost complete. The city is changing Dock and Main Streets and promising more public access to the water. And there may be more condos off Nicholson and Main on land owned by Rocketts Landing developers. As the area transforms so dramatically, James Chambliss wonders who will advocate for Fulton’s history 10, 20, 30 years from now?

“Eventually the Spencers, the Lula Maes [Chambliss’s mother]..., we’re going into the sunset,” he said. “Who is it going to matter to? Who’s going to know? The people who live in Fulton now, they don’t know, they have no idea what a few of us are speaking of. I just think it’s a tragedy for there not to be some kind of time capsule or whatever we have to do, to honor it.”

At a series of Bus Rapid Transit community design meetings earlier this year, Chambliss, Sutton and others had the opportunity to express the importance of Fulton’s past, why it matters. When sketches of potential improvements to the area were shared, they included residents’ suggestions to make the history more visible and restore some of the old street grid. And by the third meeting, facilitators needed no reminder about how to pronounce Rocketts.

After the final meeting Sutton along with longtime Fulton resident Larcenia “Lollipop” Johnson said they’re excited about positive changes to the area. For many years, this part of Richmond was ignored. But they hope city leaders, planners and developers keep Fulton’s history front and center and finally do something to bring the long-promised amenities to the neighborhood.

“It took some time, but anything that’s going to be good and positive, it has to take time,” said Sutton. “It’s a long time overdue but it’s about to happen. So when it happens, it’s going to be done right so sometimes you have to wait. To just know that the community we grew up and lived in is now being put back on the map and people will actually know that Historic Fulton is really the birthplace of Richmond and all the history that it has, I think everybody who grew up down there and is still in the land of the living, they’re going to be excited.”

Fulton native Larcenia “Lollipop” Johnson moved back to the community in the early ‘90s, into one of the split-level homes constructed on the new street grid. Even after many years of fighting for promised amenities, she says she’s cautiously optimistic about the changes all around her.

“I’m still pushing for that grocery store and theater,” said Johnson. “Everytime I come to one of these meetings, I’m going to bring it up. Also, with the red lights on Williamsburg Road and Government Road. We really need them.”

There is a tiny triangle of land dedicated to Historic Fulton. It’s at the foot of Powhatan Hill and across the street from the late Earl Robinson’s house. For more than five years, Spencer Jones and other residents have been working to turn this into a memorial park. There are plans to integrate Powhatan Indian history and use cobblestones from original Fulton streets. There may be a statue or bust of Admiral Samuel Gravely and the names of those displaced by the urban renewal plan. After a prolonged process to transfer the land, a final review by the City’s Urban Design Committee is scheduled for August. Organizers will still need to raise a lot of funds to make the park a reality. Some, like Mary Perez would also like to see something done for the dozens of men who have held on to the land, meeting on the Fulton field, everyday, for more than 40 years.

“That’s a symbol of what Fulton stood for and still stands for,” said Perez. “Out of every crazy thing that’s happened, these guys, they love each other, they just go down there, they might play cards, they might tell their little stories, they might laugh at each other but if one of them is missing they call and check on each other. They just genuinely love and care for each other.”

Perez, and the guys at the field, aren’t asking for much. A shelter for when it rains. Some lights so they can finish their dominoes game at dusk. Maybe a grill. At the field, Wendell White says people keep coming here because it feels like home.

“It was God’s country as far as I was concerned. It was where I was born and raised,” said White.

White’s sister is the late Bessie Haskins, the one who made the Fulton quilt.

“I’ve never heard or know of any other place like it or like it was. It would be great, if it could back to it right now, it would be fine by me, compared to what we have today. There was a lot of love and a lot of understanding which you don’t have a lot of that today,” he said.

Love for fulton has been sewn into quilt and written into a poem. Love for Fulton is made visible by men gathering in a field, everyday for more than 40 years. Love for Fulton is woven into the many years and countless meetings trying to get a memorial park. And, it’s been put to song. Mary Perez wrote “Fulton, I Love You” one night after coming back from a meeting about the neighborhood.

“It is about stories about Fulton and it’s just talking about how it used to be and it’s about neighbors looking out for you and how the streets were safe and being in Rocketts with the James River flooding and it being torn down by strangers,” said Perez. “But even though it was torn down, it can’t erase my history and it can’t take away my memories. And that’s basically what it’s about and it’s true.”

After she sings a few verses of the song, Perez reflects, anyone who lived in Fulton could say these words. “It could be ‘Fulton, We Love You’,” said Perez. “We love you so.”