20th Century

Segregation shaped Richmond’s development well into the twentieth century. In late 1901 and early 1902, Virginia’s powerbrokers drafted and ratified a new state constitution that sanctioned segregation.

Learn More

The Commonwealth’s constitution not only authorized the use of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep most blacks and poor whites from the electoral politics; racial segregation guaran­teed that white elites would maintain control over public and private life in Richmond for most of the twentieth century. By the mid-twenti­eth century, years of urban redevelopment and disinvestment had left sizable portions of the so-called city underdeveloped. By the 1970s, deep patterns of residential segregation and econom­ic inequality characterized the city’s African American enclaves—which, as it happens, still make up a significant portion of Richmond’s poorest communities.

Yet, in 1977, the city of Richmond elected its first black-majority council in a system created by the Supreme Court. By the early 1980s, the commonwealth’s capital was one of thirteen U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 to be controlled by a black city council, mayor, and administration. By the end of the twentieth century, an increase in African American populations in densely packed enclaves, unremitting residential segregation, and white flight had taken their toll on the city. Richmond has only recently recovered from these trends.

Redlining

In 1937, the Home Owners and Loan Corporation set out to grade neighborhoods around the country. These grades were meant to determine the “credit worthiness” of a neighborhood. HOLC graded racial minority neighborhoods in Richmond D or F effectively “redlining” these neighborhoods, which led to the concentration of poverty in these spaces in the ensuing decades.

Urban Renewal

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the urban renewal strategy in Richmond included highway projects, public housing projects, and economic development projects. Urban renewal aimed to reduce urban blight, but in action these projects further concentrated poverty in Richmond. The construction of Interstate 95 and 195 displaced residents and businesses in minority neighborhoods including Jackson Ward, Navy Hill, Shockoe Bottom, and Randolph.

  • The Dream is Lost by Julian Maxwell Hayter
  • Twentieth Century Richmond by Christopher Silver
  • Richmond’s Unhealed History, by Ben Campbell ch. 8
  • Built by Blacks, by Seldon Richardson ch. 7 & 8
  • Visit the Valentine’s core exhibit, This is Richmond
Civil Rights Struggle

Richmond attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, III argued the case of Dorothy Davis, et al vs. the County Board of Prince Edward County, which was merged with four other cases into the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision, which mandated public schools desegregation.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters was founded in 1956 as African American organization focused on black voter registration and education.

Virginia Union University graduates Wyatt Tee Walker, Walter Fauntroy, Charles M. Sherrod, and Reginald M. Green all figured prominently at the National level during the Civil Rights struggle.

On February 22, 1960, 34 Virginia Union University students were arrested for trespassing when they attempted a sit-in at whites-only facilities in Thalhimer Brothers Department Store on Broad Street in Downtown Richmond. The event is commemorated with a state historical marker and a monument stone at the former site of Thalhimer’s and a monument stone at the campus of Virginia Union University. They became known as the “Richmond 34” and their arrest brought about the campaign for Human Dignity which virtually ended legalized segregation in Richmond. The Supreme Court decision in the case of Raymond B. Randolph, Jr., et al vs. Virginia (1963) overturned their arrest convictions.

In December of 1969, L. Douglas Wilder won a special election in Richmond, becoming the first African American since Reconstruction to serve on the Virginia State Senate. He later became the first African American Governor in 1989.

Printed resources

Belsches, Elvatrice. Richmond, Virginia: Black America Series. Charleston, S.C.; Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Hylton, Raymond Pierre. Virginia Union University. Charleston, S.C.; Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

Peeples, Edward H.  Scalawag: A White southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism. Charlottesville & London; University of Virginia Press, 2014.

Smartt, Elizabeth Thalhimer. Finding Thalhimer’s Manakin-Sabot, VA;  Dementi Milestone Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Wallenstein, Peter. Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict Courts and Change in Twentieth Century Virginia. Charlottesville & London; University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Wilder, L. Douglas. Son of Virginia: A Life in America’s Political Arena. (Lanham, MD); Lyons Press, 2015.

Get Involved

If you are interested in getting involved, check out some of the links below:

Test Knowledge

20th Century

This quiz will test your knowledge about Richmond in the 20th Century.

Faculty and Student Involvement

Privacy Statement