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In the Old South, A Past
(And Present) of Color

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 1999


I arrived in Richmond wondering what this stronghold of the Old South had to offer a visitor who didn't have much interest in monuments to Jefferson Davis or other relics of the Confederacy, and found my answer amid the crumbling sidewalks and sagging homes of the Jackson Ward neighborhood.

From Clay Street, the three-story red brick house at No. 00 didn't look like much, but inside was a trove of dedications to the city's favorite African American sons and daughters. Here was a photograph of tap-dancing legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, there a plaque commemorating local black volunteer servicemen who fought in the Spanish American War. And then came scenes from past performances at the city's Hippodrome Theater – of Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and others who sang their way into stardom there. After only an hour or so in the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, I already had a new perspective on the capital of the Old Dominion.

A walk around Jackson Ward, a community of brick buildings near downtown, added more lifelike dimensions to the city. After the Civil War this became one of the most vibrant black communities in the country; buildings on these corners provide a glimpse into that era. At 216 W. Leigh St., Ebenezer Baptist is the 19th-century church where the public education of African Americans first started. At Adams and West Leigh, I found the statue of Robinson happily performing his famous two-step.

A block away was the former residence of Maggie L. Walker. A pioneer among entrepreneurs, she founded an insurance company, a department store and, later, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the oldest surviving black-operated bank in the country. An 11-minute video shown in the house, now a National Park Service-operated museum, tells Walker's life story.

Hers is the kind of story that inspires you, makes you want to do something positive. My most immediate response was to go in search of the recently constructed monument to Arthur Ashe, another of Richmond's pioneering African Americans. Located on Monument Row, where other high-profile Virginians are honored with statues, it depicts Ashe with a tennis racket in one hand and a book in the other, surrounded by children.

Buoyed by the depth and vitality of African American Richmond, I decided to spend the next day seeking out other places off Richmond's beaten track.

That search led me to the Shockoe Bottom district, a conglomeration of rundown ware-houses that have been turned into funky music clubs, restaurants and cafes. Along Main Avenue was a hip-hop club blaring Boyz II Men tunes, a Cajun restaurant and a cybercafe. The more I strolled through this neighborhood, the more it made Richmond feel like a city with a present as well as a past.

The area has a quaintness and liveliness to it at the same time. It's the kind of place where twentysomething fun-seekers gather in groups on weekends to drink beer and listen to local bands, but it also has the ambiance of a transitional neighborhood. A few storefronts are boarded up. Some clubs and cafes open with great promise and fanfare, offering tapas and microbeers, only to close two months later, unable to attract big crowds.

"We're trying our best to get an alternative scene going, but it's tough," said Chuck Wren, then owner of Moondance, a bluegrass club that recently closed.

A friend and I followed the sounds of rock music down a side street and into an alley. Eventually, we ended up in Alley Katz, one of the hottest alternative music clubs in town. Alley Katz might not stand up to comparisons with New York's East Village clubs (though there were a few nose rings and eyebrow earrings in the crowd), yet there was a natural, let-your-hair-down funkiness to the place. Pizza was $1 a slice, and the band played encores until the performers went hoarse.

That seemed like a good cue for us to slide around the corner to the River City Diner, a 24-hour joint. Although the waitress offered to bring us the best hamburgers in town, we opted for a very early breakfast of grits and biscuits and gravy.

Though the meal was a show-stopper, we still had some party spirit in us and headed across town to Southern Culture, a restaurant and bar that advertised live Dixieland jazz. Indeed, as we arrived, a raspy-voiced diva was belting out "House of the Rising Sun" as half of the crowd sipped cognac and the rest slow-danced on a polished floor.

I decided to stand against the wall and soak up the atmosphere. As the band played and the room began to shake under the feet of dancers, I realized that I had spent two bang-up days in Richmond without seeing a single monument to the Confederacy.

Ways and Means

Getting There: Richmond is about a two-hour drive from the Beltway via Interstate 95 south. Amtrak (800/872-7245) has several departures daily starting at $58 round trip.

Being There: Alley Katz (804/643-2816), the alternative music club on the alley off 17th and Walnut streets in Shockoe Bottom, always has some funky local or out-of-town band onstage. The beer is cheap, the crowd is young and laid back and there is sometimes a cover of a buck or two. Call ahead for directions and to see who's playing. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (00 Clay St., 804/780-9093, admission $2) is the best place for visitors to find information about the history of Richmond's African Americans, a place full of artifacts and interesting tidbits. It also serves as a good starting point for touring Jackson Ward, the surrounding neighborhood. The Maggie L. Walker National Historical Site (110 1/2 E. Leigh St., 804/771-2017, free) is the former residence of one of the city's best-known African Americans, founder of the oldest surviving black-owned bank in the United States.

Where to Stay: The Linden Row Inn (800/348-7424, doubles $89) is a cluster of quaint town houses built in 1847. Nicely decorated, if a bit old-fashioned, it is on a quiet street on the edge of downtown. The Omni Richmond (800/843-6664) is the sparkling local version of the respectable national chain. It has all amenities and is within walking distance of most Shockoe Bottom attractions. Doubles, at the weekend-special rate, go for $100. The Jefferson (800/424-8014, doubles start at $225) a classic grande dame of a hotel, has much of the luster and elegance of old Richmond about it.

Where to Eat: The Tobacco Company (804/782-9555) might seem touristy at first, but this popular restaurant, in a nicely restored Shockoe Bottom warehouse, serves a sumptuous plate of fresh trout. The pasta dishes and salads are also tasty. The inviting art deco decor also makes it a pleasant stop for cocktails. (For two, with drinks and dessert, my dinner tab came to $70.) The River City Diner (804/644-9418) is the kind of place where the grits come with a lot of cheese and the waitress calls everybody "honey." A Shockoe Bottom favorite, it's great for breakfast (about $8), a burger lunch or a meatloaf dinner. Awful Arthur's (804/643-1700), a raved-about Shockoe Bottom hangout, has mouth-watering seafood in an informal atmosphere. The captain's plate, a smorgasbord of crabs, lobster, shrimp and more, makes for an excellent lunch. (For two, with a beer or two, the tab is about $35.) Southern Culture (804/355-6939) serves the cuisine of its name, and has occasional live-music shows.

Details: The Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800/370-9004 or

The Escapist

Natural Bridge, the 215-foot, Shenandoah Valley stone archway (about four hours from here, off I-81 at Exit 175), hosts a Civil War encampment this Saturday (10 to 10) and Sunday (10 to 2) to mark its new National Historic Landmark status, with men of the 5th New York and 2nd Maryland infantries and 1st North Carolina Battery. Admission to the park and its Cedar Creek Trail is $8 ($4 for children; call 800/533-1410 for details). The bridge was discovered, and considered sacred, by the Monacan Indians – who, not far from here in Elon (on Route 130 between Natural Bridge and Lynchburg), host their two-day seventh annual Monacan Nation Powwow, the same weekend: dancing, storytelling, basketmaking, food and live buffalo and birds of prey. Details: 804/946-0389.

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For more than 75 regional getaway ideas, pick up a copy of "Escape Plans," now available at area bookstores.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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