Navy Hill

Opponents of the proposed replacement of the Coliseum and other changes to Navy Hill demonstrated on the steps of Richmond City Hall in December.

By Ben Campbell and John Moeser

The real Navy Hill was a close-knit, mixed-income, mixed-use African American community, much like its western neighbor, Jackson Ward. Navy Hill School was particularly noteworthy. Despite discriminatory funding, its academic performance rivaled the city’s best white schools. One former student at Navy Hill was Maggie L. Walker, the bank founder and civil rights activist who fought white segregationists long before the appearance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Navy Hill included the law office of some of the greatest 20th century civil rights attorneys. Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and played leading roles in the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Henry Marsh, Richmond’s first African American mayor, became a partner in the firm.

Navy Hill, like Jackson Ward, was partly destroyed by the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, now Interstates 95 and 64. But one assault after another during the period between 1950 and when the Greater Richmond Convention Center was built led to the wholesale destruction of the once thriving community — a veritable city within a city.

The destruction of Navy Hill was a colossal injustice, but it was not alone. Three more black communities — Apostle Town, Fulton Bottom and Penitentiary Bottom — were wiped off the map. Randolph was cut in half by the Downtown Expressway. Fulton vanished because the ruling class needed the land for a never-constructed industrial park.

Thousands of displaced African Americans were forced to find other places to live. Many wound up in public housing. The vast majority were concentrated in the East End of Richmond, intended to be isolated within a wall of six-lane expressways.

Not one stone of Navy Hill remains in place. To be clear: 50 years of expressways, urban clearance and public housing were done to the African American community of Richmond, not for the community.

Today, developers smell big money in the desolate remains of Navy Hill. They say there is a major market for a hotel, housing, retail, office and commercial development where a neighborhood of families and shops once graced the streets. Along with development in 80 blocks of the downtown area, they say, cashing in Navy Hill will enable Richmond to float $350 million in public bonds for capital investment.

Finally, 50 years after the destruction of Navy Hill and Jackson Ward, the land is valuable enough to make the destruction pay off for the community that was destroyed.

But how will the Navy Hill wealth be used? The money could construct the schools and the mixed-income housing which the city fathers ignored for the past 50 years. But it won’t.

The developers want Navy Hill’s money for themselves — to build another, bigger Coliseum. Wait 10 or 20 more years, they say to the community.

The message sounds hauntingly familiar: Our money now; your money later.

Richmond Public Schools are needed now. They have been starved for 50 years. Two-thousand units of genuinely affordable housing are needed now. Thousands of units were torn down 50 years ago. Injustice now will not build justice later.

We can build a new Navy Hill High School for Government and Equity, sharing a campus with Reynolds Community College at Jackson Street, establishing first-class internship programs with city and state government and supporting full opportunity for dual-enrollment college classes. Downtown retail can be built on the old Coliseum site, connecting the old and new parts of Jackson Ward. Offices, housing and commercial development can take place as developers assess the risk and opportunity. The convention center’s new hotel does not need to wait.

If non-resident investors are eager for a new Coliseum, they can build it somewhere else. They can use their own money instead. They can build the parking decks, promote the events and assume the significant risks of failure.

Will private investment occur on Navy Hill if the Coliseum goes away? Will there be enough development to support the bonds needed for housing and schools? The developers’ consultants certainly promise there will. They claim the Navy Hill development market is enormous. We hope they are telling the truth. If they’re not, the whole conversation is fantasy anyway. But if the demand is there as they say, the proceeds belong at long last to the people whose sweat and blood formed the city. This is about moral development, not absentee profit.

The community’s needs must no longer come second. Richmond does not need the massive debt of another developer’s fantasy North of Broad. Navy Hill’s resources belong to the community who built Navy Hill. The wealth of the community must be used to remedy the lasting shame of its destruction. Schools, housing, hope. Now. Finally.

That is the message of the real Navy Hill.

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Ben Campbell is pastor emeritus of Richmond Hill and the author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History.” Contact him at benjaminpva@gmail.com.

John Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University and the co-author of “A Separate City: African American Communities in the Urban South.” Contact him at jmoeser@vcu.edu.

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