Truth-telling and Redeeming a City

Ben Campbell wastes no time in naming hard truths in his new book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. It opens in 1607 with Captain Christopher Newport arriving at the fall line of what is now the James River, Virginia. Planting a large cross in the ground he tells the representative of Chief Powhatan that it symbolizes the partnership between King James and the Algonquian leader. “It was not true. He lied,” writes Campbell. The cross asserted England’s sovereignty and ownership of the land. With this action Newport and his men “planted the seed of a great nation with unprecedented opportunity for all human beings; they also planted seeds of economic exploitation, racial discrimination, a hierarchical class system, and a heretical version of Christianity….”

Campbell tells Richmond’s story, but his book is a model for the kind of honest historical narrative needed in many communities. He makes an unflinching, detailed, and persuasive argument for acknowledging the origins and development of race and class systems that deeply influence the city today.  

English colonists in the Americas followed in the path of Portuguese and Spanish. They claimed divine warrant for their actions. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V authorized colonists to invade, subdue, and capture all goods and possessions of “pagans and enemies of Christ,” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” Cloaked in religious language, the Doctrine of Discovery gave Europeans automatic property rights over any land not already possessed by another European nation.  

While paying tribute to her remarkable force of character, Campbell deconstructs the “dominant American myth” of Pocahontas (Powhatan’s daughter) noting the irony that the painting of her baptism hangs in the state capitol, “the central shrine of a nation that specifically separates church and state.” Ninety percent of Pocahontas’s people were forced from their ancestral lands or killed under policies “that in modern international law would be considered genocide.”

Richmond’s racial history is discussed more freely these days, but Campbell believes that “class is, if anything, even more foundational, seldom acknowledged, and more insidious in its impact.” In the early years, most new arrivals in Virginia – white and black – were in servitude or bondage. By 1662, the small white elite, fearing that indentured whites would make common cause with Africans, began to develop legal structures for racialized slavery.

As a churchman himself, Campbell is always interested in where the church stood on these matters. Significantly, conversion did not mean freedom for Africans. Christianity became a description of white ethnic origin. The 1705 Comprehensive Slave Code specified Christians as White and slaves as Negroes. 

A ray of hope appeared with the spiritual movements of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s followed by the Great Revival that became a source of democratic energy. Evangelical Christianity was “a decidedly multiracial affair.” But by the last decade of the eighteenth century most evangelicals had accepted the status quo insofar as slavery was concerned and the established churches became increasingly outspoken in their paternalistic justification of the institution. 

New waves of immigration brought Scots-Irish and German settlers, famers and artisans. Though poor, they formed a vital buffer between the aristocracy and the enslaved population. Racial privilege muted their class consciousness. The 1791 revolution in Saint Dominique, a nearly successful slave revolt in Richmond in 1800, and Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 just seventy-five miles southeast of Richmond scared the governing class. 

By now Richmond was the leading interstate slave market in the country and consequently the third wealthiest city in America. In 1857 alone, the business of supplying slaves to cotton plantations in the south generated $100 million in present-day dollars. The brutalizing impact on Richmond was noted by Charles Dickens who was struck by “the darkness – not of the skin, but of the mind – that meets the stranger’s eye.” 

Some of Campbell’s most powerful writing focuses on the post-Civil War and Emancipation years: a brief period of black political empowerment followed by decades of exclusion and segregation. In 1867 blacks comprised one third of the Republican majority in the General Assembly and a majority of Richmond’s registered voters – a situation not to be repeated for almost a century. But beginning in the early 1870s, explicit, openly restrictive policies to exclude blacks and to suppress the vote at local and state level reduced registered African American voters by 99 percent. After 1896 no blacks served on the city council until after World War II and by the late 1890s none were left in statewide office. 

Campbell describes in detail the policies employed by white leaders to isolate the African American community, leading to concentrated poverty and contributing to urban sprawl. “The city pursued a plan that destroyed or invaded every black neighborhood” in the name of urban renewal. In the 1950s an interstate highway – twice rejected by referendum but rammed through the General Assembly – bisected the Jackson Ward community. The city’s Master Plan destroyed 4,700 units of housing and replaced then with 1,736 units of public housing. Five public housing projects were built within a mile of each other.

As black political power grew in Richmond following the civil rights movement, the General Assembly was busy changing annexation laws to protect majority white counties from increasingly black cities across the state in “panicked attempts to replace legalized segregation with a new jurisdictionally established separation of race and class.” By the early seventies, Richmond found itself with “its boundaries drawn by the General Assembly, its tax base restricted, its charter subject to state approval…” Even after court-ordered busing, Campbell says the “de facto segregation of schools” continued to be the most powerful element keeping the jurisdictions of metropolitan Richmond separate from one another.” As a result, there is “no effective public vehicle for the collaborative nurture of the metropolitan area’s children.” 


Campbell’s book is an urgent call to action. The final section, which includes numerous graphs illustrating the disparities in the region, serves as an essential toolkit for advocates. He closes with specific and radical proposals that are sure to provoke strong responses and, hopefully, serious consideration. Structural changes, not just cooperation, are needed. Calling for some form of metropolitan “federalism” and consolidation of major services he writes, “A single elected leadership is essential to a dynamic metropolitan city.”

Richmond’s Unhealed History is a sobering read but it is not without hope and vision. Campbell references some major initiatives begun in 1993 to publicly acknowledge the city’s history. In his focus on truth-telling he may seem to underestimate the significance of these developments in which he himself has been a vital player. But he ultimately has faith in the spiritual potential of the city, believing that a “genuine citizenship that serves the common wealth” is the most realistic and moral aspiration for Richmond.