by Martha Harper
If you think Richmond is a small town now, you should have tried to keep your secrets in the 19th century. Interning at Richmond Hill really drove home that point. For instance, I didn’t know before this internship that Maggie L. Walker was born in a house that once stood where Bellevue Elementary is today, and that her mother and stepfather were formerly enslaved persons working in domestic service for the famous Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. Born in Van Lew’s home just fifteen days before the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, baby Maggie, like just about everyone else in Richmond, had a tangential connection to Richmond Hill. There may be six degrees of separation for Kevin Bacon, but Richmonders seem to max out at about two degrees from difficult history and the walled compound that looks over what is also known as the city of seven hills.
Richmond Hill is the name of the organization that moved into the network of buildings at the precipice overlooking Shockoe Bottom on the south side of where Grace street comes to an abrupt stop. The dead end is a Richmond favorite for young lovers and sunset watchers typically unaware of the murmured prayers just inside the brick wall. Founded by an interracial ecumenical Christian organization led by Reverend Ben Campbell who wrote Richmond’s Unhealed History (2011), Richmond Hill has a specific mission to pray for the racial healing of Richmond and to act on that prayer through such efforts as The Armstrong Leadership Program, a mentoring and coaching volunteer organization for Armstrong High School students. Another is The Judy Project, a historic journey centered around the small evidence of one woman known to have been enslaved at Richmond Hill during the Civil War. The Judy Project’s intent is to research the history of Richmond Hill in order to discover the names and humanity of heretofore forgotten people who built the original homes and outer wall of Richmond Hill brick by dusty brick. These enslaved laborers, if discovered by name, have many descendants that Richmond Hill would love to reunite with their history and connection to the land. Five people live at Richmond Hill in a monastic commitment to pray three times a day for the people of Richmond. One of them is my site supervisor and resident historian Ms. Pam Smith.
The majority of my time at this internship was really spent in my bedroom, thinking about human relationships in data. Pam’s goal is to have an accessible and searchable online database of names and/or descriptions of enslaved people who were connected to the property. While some may think the challenge boring, I have a history of tenacity. I hate being defeated by something and will just keep going till I get it. My dad used to say you’ve got stick-to-itiveness. So that is another good description of interning for Richmond Hill, you have to stick to it! My challenges began early when my site supervisor Pam Smith asked me to create a database similar to one she and Gail Pond, archivist for Poplar Forest, conceptualized while Pam was acting as a research consultant for the exhibit team a few years back. Gail went on to design a very workable excel database that Pam wanted to emulate for Richmond Hill on a smaller scale. Like all historic institutions with tourism, Poplar Forest began working on a more inclusive narrative of Thomas Jefferson’s getaway home and the people it took to maintain that luxury. Here’s the thing though. Jefferson, setting aside momentarily that he was an enslaver, did see value in allowing marriage among enslaved people and keeping families together. Therefore the history of enslaved people at Poplar Forest is not only more cohesive and community oriented, for the most part, there was only one family of enslavers to trace!
Richmond Hill on the other hand has a succession of property “owners” starting with First Peoples who likely found the space sacred as it faces the setting sun and overlooks a wide river valley we now call Richmond. At least I got to start a little later with who managed the land when enslaved people inhabited it. William Byrd II, the cruel diary keeper himself, had possession of the land through a grant from King James, and sold parcels to Irish immigrant John Coles shortly after the city was incorporated in 1737. Cole’s son Isaac then sold the undeveloped promontory to Col. Richard Adams, who delayed developing his home on the land until he exhausted his political influence to build the state capitol on the land when it moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780. Sadly for Adams, Thomas Jefferson thought the next hill west was a better location, and so Richard Adams dug a foundation for the first home on his land in the 1780s. Later, his children would build homes all around including a home thought to be built by his son, though there is some research that shows the house may have been built by James Smith, with the support of the Adams junior.
That home, known as the Adams Taylor house, is now the meeting center for Richmond Hill and was likely built by enslaved people. This can be assumed by the fact that Adams Jr. was a known enslaver, and while he may have hired some skilled craftsmen for its construction, the labor would have been freely supplied by the sweat of his human property. Built approximately in 1814, this striking home is on one of my routes as an RVATukTuk tour driver. It inevitably leads my passengers to exclaim, “Who lives there?!” Even though the goal is to show them Richmond’s sunset over the Shockoe Valley, some clients are more fascinated with that walled compound on the left. As I turn the TukTuk around in the marijuana scented night air among parked cars of youth and steamed up windows, I talk about Richmond’s difficult history of slavery and the origins of Richmond’s strong Black community including Maggie Walker born next door. Depending on their enthusiasm and receptivity, I decide whether or not to head back to the bottom on Main Street or roll down Broad for a visit to the African Burial Ground and Lumpkin’s Jail site. It has been an interesting semester. Not only has my side hustle driving for RVATukTuk taken off beyond my wildest hopes for extra income, I have been able to earn big tips by sharing my love of history and particularly Richmond’s history with tourists and locals.
I have to say the most meaningful experience with Richmond Hill has been my relationship with my supervisor Pam Smith, the Resident Historian and Micah Coordinator. Pam’s passion for getting history right and inclusive and highlighting the foundational contributions of African Americans to the Virginia landscape is truly inspiring. Pam arrived at Richmond Hill as a member of Coming to the Table an international group that brings people together to talk about race around the metaphoric dinner table. Through that group she discovered Richmond Hill. Pam is so open in sharing what Richmond Hill means to her and the empathy she feels for enslaved people toiling in Richmond. That sensitivity is most clear in an oral interview she did with Edward Jefferson, senior brick mason for Primoid Restoration Co., the contractors repairing the wall around Richmond Hill. Several parts were constructed prior to the Civil War and most likely constructed by enslaved brick masons.
Pam befriended Mr. Jefferson while he was on the job. She discovered he is a first cousin of filmmaker Loria King, who explored her families’ connection to Thomas Jefferson in a documentary about her grandfather, Once a Man Twice a Child. The interview of Edward is sensitive, provocative and brings to life, through the reserved thoughts and musings of Mr. Jefferson, a tangible sense of the building of Richmond and the experience of the Black community from pride to oppression. If you are interested in an interdisciplinary experience that includes, slavery, religious, architectural and political history, consider reaching out to Pam. She especially needs help with technology and history, building that forever database that we are still figuring out and looking for interns ready to examine Richmond’s difficult past with her.
~Martha Harper received the Certificate in Public History in May 2021.