News →

Fifty Years After Richmond’s Urban Renewal Plan Destroyed Fulton, Neighborhood Elders Honored

 Spencer E. Jones III, Leonard Washington and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille at the recent ceremony to honor Jones and Washington's father Earl Robinson
Spencer E. Jones III, Leonard Washington and Councilmember Cynthia Newbille at the recent ceremony to honor Jones and Washington's father Earl Robinson. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

The City of Richmond recently recognized residents of the East End with honorary street signs. Two of them came from Fulton, a neighborhood destroyed by the City’s urban renewal plan nearly 50 years ago. WCVE’s Catherine Komp reports.

Learn More: Listen to WCVE's 2016 audio documentaries on Fulton: Part 1 Indelible Roots: Historic Fulton and Urban Renewal and Part 2 Indelible Roots: Preserving Fulton’s History.

Transcript:

Off Williamsburg Road, not far from Stoney Brewery and right in front of the new solar home development is Fulton and Goddin streets.

Cynthia Newbille:  Good morning everyone….

Richmond City Councilmember Cynthia Newbille welcomes a crowd here for a long-awaited celebration.

Newbille: Too often in our community, we don't take the time…

Newbille pauses as a heavy construction truck rolls past to a new housing development on the hill. The neighborhood is changing, but today the City is recognizing what it once was.

Newbille: Too often in our community, we don't take the time to recognize, to thank and appreciate unsung heroes, and sheroes, who are often just hidden figures to the broader Community. But today we get to do something about that. Today we get to say, thank you. Thank you to Spencer Jones, thank you to Mr. Earl Robinson, for not just laboring for a few days or a few years or multi years but decades in this community to make sure that the history is preserved and even more to make sure that it's memorialized.

The City marked these streets with honorary signs for Spencer E. Jones III and the late Earl A. Robinson. Generations of their families lived in Fulton, before the 1970 Urban Renewal Plan changed everything. Historic Fulton Foundation volunteer Regina Chaney said the signs are about much more than the two visionary men.

Regina Chaney: It’s about a community that was strong, vibrant and at one time self-sustaining. It’s about a community that’s the true definition of the word community…

The neighborhood was home to thousands of Richmonders, encompassing Fulton and the community next to the river, called Rocketts.

Chaney: It’s Rocketts, it wasn’t Rocketts Landing (laughter). It’s about Grubs Supermarket, it’s about Dutch the corner store, it’s about Simmon’s Department, do you remember Frozen Delight?...

 

There were churches, family-run businesses, a school, community center, open air dancing and a trolley line.

Chaney: It’s about Webster Davis Elementary School and the teachers who taught there, it’s about the Bethlehem Center, Mr. Crump, Jim Perry, and Jim Christian who seemed to coach everyone in every sport. It’s about Admiral Gravely, the first African American Admiral in this country…

A lot of this history has been preserved through the efforts of Robinson who passed away in 2011 and Jones, who got the Fulton Oral History collaboration with the Valentine and VCU off the ground.

Spencer Jones: Fulton! Historic Fulton! That Fulton you knew, ain’t no more, it’s historic!

Jones holds out a map, he carries it with him to all public events. It shows the boundaries of Fulton and Rocketts under the 1970 Urban Renewal Plan.

Jones: That is still going on, the boundaries have not changed.

He reveres this land and its rich history as the birthplace of Richmond, where in 1607 Captains John Smith and Christopher Newport met Powhatan Indian leaders.

Jones: We have never been given the recognition that we so richly deserve, but we going to get it. I will not stop and I will make sure that each of your stories are told.

Jones tells the crowd to make sure to stand on the ground across the street, the future home of the Fulton Memorial Park.

Jones: Walk your feet on it and claim it that it’s yours, that’s what we did this for…

And then - as his sign was unveiled, he raised his fist in solidarity. (Applause)

Marion McNair: We thank god for life to be alive to see this day.

Marion McNair is Jones’s mother. They were born in the same house, in the same room, delivered by the same doctor.

McNair: Fulton was a close-knit, family oriented neighborhood. Anyone who came from Fulton were die hards for Fulton.

Jones fought the destruction of Fulton in the 1970s, through the courts and with his body. He stayed in his family’s row home at 702 Denny Street even after demolition crews came to knock down the already vacated houses at the other end. After everything else was gone the one house that remained belonged to the Robinson family, a brick rancher built in 1965.

Leonard Washington: This day means a whole lot to myself and my family.

Earl Robinson’s son Leonard Washington said it was an emotional day.

Washington: It hits right here, excuse me…Like I said it means everything, it’s hard to really put into words someone you admire, you respected, you love, you  grew up with. Everyday, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it.

A few steps away, under the shade of two trees planted decades ago on the Robinson property are Earl’s brothers, both named Charles. More than 50 years ago, they helped their dad build this sturdy brick home.

Charles Robinson Jr & Sr.: He said this is the greatest thing this Fulton area could have had, he’s felt honored by being legacy here with the rest of the family, so the Rogers, the other people, the Jones. My father would be honored.
To have the house he built in Fulton and to have Earl’s name recognized, keeping this history in Fulton, he would say this is one of the best honors he could ever receive.

Eric Robinson: I’m Eric Robinson, I was born and raised in Fulton.

Eric Robinson’s family owned a dry cleaning business on Louisiana Street.

Robinson: And Earl Robinson was my first cousin and I grew up here. I live on top of the hill, but I come down here everyday. For 67 years you know, it’s been my home.

The street signs and future memorial park are one reminder of Fulton and Rocketts. So are the people, like Eric Robinson and other elders who’ve continued to gather on this land every day for more than 40 years. Their latest  spot at Gillies Creek Park doesn’t have much, some bring their own chairs. Robinson says they’ve been waiting for a shelter, some lights and better tables.

Robinson: We were over there yesterday, it rained. You didn’t have nowhere to go if you didn’t have a vehicle to get in. The tables are broken down, seem like the city don’t want to support them and I work recreation and parks 15 years, I never saw anything like that, they always had the carpenters come…

While the Fulton elders at Gilles Creek park wait for basic amenities, many are also waiting for the City to break ground at the foot of Powhatan hill - the future home of the Historic Fulton Memorial Park. It was envisioned by Earl Robinson many years ago and a project Jones and others have worked on for more than seven years. The City put out a call for construction bids in late May, but determined the ones that came in, between $1.3-2.3 million, were too high. As of Thursday, a new request for bids hadn’t yet been posted. Catherine Komp, WCVE News.