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African Americans

African Americans In Richmond

Richmond's history encompasses the struggles and accomplishments of the city's African and African American residents as they shaped, reacted, resisted and revolted to the laws and cultural norms creating Richmond. The Valentine's collections reflect that history, with a wealth of artifacts ranging from a slave's shackles to a photograph of the state's first African American governor.

A Turbulent History

While Jamestown brought the first Africans to North America in 1619, the falls of the James River soon became central to the expanding slave trade. Richmond developed into the second largest slave trade market in the nation. The city's history exposes a continuous fight to gain freedom, equity, and dignity. African Americans joined in Bacon's Rebellion; Gabriel gave his life when he plotted a slave revolt in 1800; John Jasper preached empowerment and salvation in the 19th century; John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker pioneered economic progress; and the modern Civil Rights movement continued with the election of Governor L. Douglas Wilder.

Richmond's urban population grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the black residents of Richmond, enslaved and free, who cleared the land, built the canals, railroads, and roads, and then erected the factories, stores, and homes. They learned the trades and worked as bateaux men, factory workers, craftsmen, and artisans. The urban economy was a contrast to the plantation and rural economy seen throughout the South. The industrialization of Richmond fueled the growth of a free black and slave community with little class distinction. Blacks developed churches and burial societies and attempted to maintain family units under the bondage of slavery.

The Civil War brought change to the city. The first forces to enter Richmond following the Confederate evacuation were US Colored Troops. The post-Civil War black residents continued to develop a strong separate community as the result of white racism and segregation.

The modern Civil Rights Movement continued the work of previous Richmonders. Richmond attorneys would work within the courts and the community to address civil rights litigation. Marches and sit-ins in the early 1960s forced the integration of restaurants and businesses. Broad Street, once segregated, was the focus of the political action. Equity in Richmond, and Virginia, reached a new level in 1989 when L. Douglas Wilder was elected to serve as Virginia's first black governor.Black leadership was a strong force during Reconstruction. Churches, fraternal organizations, schools, newspapers and businesses thrived and provided a fertile ground for new black leaders. Jim Crow laws crippled black political power in Richmond, and the focus shifted to improving the day-to-day experience of black citizens in a segregated and unequal society. Education and economics continued to be the focus, serving to counter racist notions and foster black pride. Maggie Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, serving as the first female bank president in the nation. In 1915, Walker called Richmond "the historic city of fraternalism, the birthplace of Negro financial progress."

The Richmond community has been shaped by the struggle, experiences and accomplishments of its African American residents resulting in an inequitable and costly history. Today's Richmond is the culmination of the failures and successes of our community's past. The legal reform, fought for since the founding of our nation, continues. 

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