During a time when a Black man in Richmond was more likely to be treated as property than possess it, Abraham Skipwith committed a revolutionary act: He owned a home.
Skipwith, the first known free Black person to reside in what would become Jackson Ward, built the gambrel-roofed cottage in the mid-1790s after purchasing his freedom for the price of 40 pounds.
There, at 400 W. Duval St., historians say the entrepreneurial spirit of what local architectural historian Robert P. Winthrop called “the incubator of Black capitalism in the United States” was born.
The iconic cottage was extracted from its roots during the 1950s when white politicians and business leaders conspired to run what is now Interstate 95 through the heart of Jackson Ward. Seemingly lost to history, the cottage quietly endures as a symbol of the capacity of an oppressed people to exceed the narrow limitations prescribed by white Richmond before emancipation.
As Jackson Ward turns 150, keepers of its flame challenge us to think beyond the current landscape of a neighborhood whose heyday and decline embody dreams deferred, realized and gutted.
The retelling of this neighborhood’s origin story unfolds during a moment of racial reckoning that has Richmond, Virginia and the nation searching the cracks and crevices of history for redemption and belated social justice.
Sisters Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Pritchett-Moon of The JXN Project are deconstructing Jackson Ward amid a revitalization whose gentrifying forces could transform it beyond recognition. As part of their goal to recontextualize the neighborhood, they are advocating for Skipwith and other neighborhood luminaries to be celebrated with honorary street signs in a space whose signposts currently hold the names of enslavers and pro-slavery sympathizers.
That Jackson Ward could become known as a “Black Wall Street” defied pernicious white stereotypes of what African Americans were capable of achieving.
Once freed, these bottled-up ambitions erupted in the form of insurance companies, newspapers and the first Black-owned banks chartered by a man, William Washington Browne, and a woman, Maggie Lena Walker.
The prologue to this success story took place in plain sight and outside the white gaze. Black people honed their crafts, pooled their resources and prepared to flourish when freedom came.
“In a matter of years — in some cases less than a decade — people who were once owned by someone else institute a form of Black capitalism that for all intents and purposes was the rival of any white immigrant community in the United States of America,” says University of Richmond historian Julian Maxwell Hayter.
The urban enslaved, granted more autonomy than their rural plantation counterparts, toiled in the tobacco factories, iron foundries and flour mills of a Richmond that was an industrial hub of the South, working overtime and saving money to purchase their freedom.
More than 400 secret societies formed a bustling Black underground that — interwoven with extended families and church organizations — functioned as what historian Peter Rachleff called “the circulatory system of the Black community.”
The speed of this transition from captivity to capitalism is vividly displayed in the records of the Freedman’s Bureau Bank established in Richmond after the Civil War, which list hundreds of fraternal orders with their own accounts.
“Many freedmen start putting their money away in these banks,” said Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach at the Library of Virginia.
Some of those orders were burial societies that would evolve into insurance companies. All-Black deacon boards gained experience running large-scale organizations and getting a taste of democracy. The urban Black church adjudicated conflicts and dealt with issues of theft, bigamy and divorce, since Black people wanted to avoid the court system, Kimball said.
“So clearly, Richmond really did have this really deep, organized community that had a sense of uplift, starting to think about themselves as a collective in terms of business,” he said. “That’s the root of what you see emerge very, very, very quickly during Reconstruction.”
After the war, a pass system required white people to sign off on the comings and goings of African Americans, restricting the latter’s pursuit of their own trades. Those without a pass were marched to what was called “the Negro bull pen,” creating an alliance between Black freedmen and the formerly enslaved. Black Union troops who had helped liberate their brethren marched the streets in protective militias against white violence, Rachleff wrote in his 1984 book, “Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890.”
Two months after Richmond fell, local Black men petitioned President Andrew Johnson, demanding legal title to their church property and calling for the removal of the pass system and an end to “Rebel-controlled” government, as described by Rachleff.
The petition cited “at least 2,000 men” worth from $200 to $500; 200 who had property valued at $1,000 to $5,000, “and a number who are worth $5,000 to $20,000.”
“None of our people are in the almshouse,” the men wrote. “Comparatively few of us have found it necessary to ask for government rations, which have been so bountifully bestowed upon the unrepentant Rebels of Richmond.” They boasted of thousands within their ranks who could read, write, or both, “and a large number of us are engaged in useful and profitable employment on our own account.”
Their lobbying was successful. The pass system and pro-Confederacy Mayor Joseph Mayo were removed.
Growing Black empowerment did not go unnoticed by white Richmonders unhappy with their change of fortunes — particularly when Black Richmonders paraded the streets on the April 3, 1866, anniversary of their emancipation.
By 1871, Confederate-sympathizing Democrats managed to regain power and had seen enough: They created Jackson Ward as a political district designed to dilute Black Republican political power by gerrymandering the city’s African American voters into one district.
Hayter said the rapid rise of the formerly enslaved suggests that their ranks included highly skilled, educated people “who had amassed a body of knowledge to help them meet the challenges of a system that was designed to essentially preclude upward mobility.”
None more so than Abraham Skipwith, a plasterer by trade, who did something else unheard of for a Black man of his place and time: He executed a will. His home remained in the Skipwith-Roper family until 1905.
During the late 1950s, Mary Ross Scott Reed — who was among the founders of the Historic Richmond Foundation, along with her sister, Elisabeth Scott Bocock, and her cousin, Mary Wingfield Scott — stood in front of a bulldozer to prevent the cottage’s demolition during the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, according to her grandson, Scott Reed.
The cottage was moved to her family farm in Goochland County.
Today, Reed owns the cottage, which has been renovated and has an addition.
Reed — whose business laser-scans such historic properties as Walker’s St. Luke Building — recently hosted visitors at the cottage, which sits on a hill about a half-mile from the James River, preserved but disconnected from its roots. The land was once the plantation of James Sedden, an enslaver and secretary of war for the Confederate States of America from 1862 to 1865.
Reed’s African American visitors, otherwise elated to see the historic cottage firsthand, bristled at it sitting on the former grounds of enslavement.
In an email to Reed after the visit, Pritchett-Moon wrote that The JXN Project’s mission is “historic preservation through restorative truth-telling and redemptive storytelling.” The cottage, she said, could serve as a “model in allyship.”
“We appreciate your grandmother, and her cousin, for not only documenting and saving this sacred space, but also for treating this historical landmark with such a high level of care for all these years,” she wrote.
And then, she offered to return the favor.
“We can ensure the same intentionality with its custody moving forward — as its return to its space of origin and ownership could be a powerful example of righting historic injustices through restoration, reclamation, reconciliation, redemption and reparations.”
That historic Jackson Ward endured to celebrate its 150th birthday Saturday reflects African American resiliency and transcendent achievement …