Jackson Ward: Where Past Is Prologue
For weeks on end, River City has been bombarded with rainstorms. Throughout the day, flood warnings and tornado watches interrupted the airwaves, while lightning and thunder crashed across the sky at night.
However, on this day, the weather is different. It’s unlike any other, at least in recent weeks. For a moment, the sun peeks through the clouds and sun rays dance upon the concrete streets. Scores of people have taken to the streets to embrace the temporary break in the storm. Everyone is out enjoying the sun. Especially, in Jackson Ward. And today, I am able to enjoy a tour of this historic neighborhood.
“No other place in Richmond is like Jackson Ward,” my tour guide John Green says. “There’s so much honor and excellence all around, here.”
Green is a recent Richmond transplant, who like many of his neighbors, is outside enjoying the sun. He has spent a substantial amount of time researching and gathering information about his new neighborhood and is always eager to share it with anyone who will listen. Today, I’m the only one.
We begin our tour on the corner of 2nd and Leigh Streets. It is here that Green points out some of his favorite places.
“Between the highway and Broad Street, it’s like a little restaurant row here,” says Green. “And the anchor is Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smokehouse.”
Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smokehouse is about as new to Richmond as John is. However, its roots are deeply planted in Jackson Ward. The restaurant is a modern-day rendition of Jackson’s Pleasure Garden, a country beer garden that existed along the entire 100 block of East Leigh Street in the earlier part of the 19th century. It was said that the backyards of the homes connected to create a common area. Small wooden structures sat in corners to smoke meat throughout the day. And performers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced there at night. Today, the Beer Garden serves some of the best smokehouse wings in Richmond. And the famed entertainer has his own memorial statue just a few blocks away.
We continue our tour, walking past the beer garden and head upwards along the historic segment of 2nd Street. Hailed as “The Deuce” in the early 1900s, 2nd Street was the epicenter of African-American culture in Richmond — full of restaurants, theaters, shops and the like.
Apparently, the culturally rich history of The Deuce is why Green moved here in the first place. “It’s very nice to be able to walk around the neighborhood and see the architecture and the history,’’ says Green. “And Jackson Ward is full of it.”
There’s so much history throughout Jackson Ward that in 1978, the neighborhood became a National Historic Landmark for its role in African American history and culture. And Green lives right amongst that history. His new apartment is located
Opened in 1904, The Miller’s Hotel (renamed the Eggleston Hotel in 1943) housed a plethora of Black-American dignitaries, entertainers, entrepreneurs and politicians during their visits to Richmond. According to the Department of Historic Resources, the hotel was one of a handful in Richmond to offer Black customers fine accommodations – a rarity in the segregated south.
The hotel also reflected the entertainment of the time. Just across the street was The Hippodrome Theater, which still stands today. Also known as The HIPP, the theater showcased the finest performers, such as Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, all of whom stayed nights in the hotel. The excitement and energy of The Hippodrome Theater caused its residents and visitors to nickname the neighborhood “The Harlem of the South.” It’s a title that is often still heard today.
But Jackson Ward consisted of much more than music and dance. It was also an epicenter for black politics, commerce and entrepreneurship. The neighborhood was home to several businesses and banks that were owned, operated and patronized by Black Americans.
One of the most notable is businessman and civil rights advocate John Mitchell Jr., who edited the Richmond Planet. The newspaper covered local, national and international news, while it denounced racial prejudice and injustices. Another was Maggie L. Walker, who was the first woman of any race to charter and serve as president of an American bank. Walker operated multiple businesses while retaining a residence in Jackson Ward. Her home, located at 600 N. 2nd St., was designated a National Historic Site in 1978 and opened as a museum some seven years later. Conveniently enough, her home is right across the street from Green’s apartment.
“I love being in the middle of it all,” states Green, proudly.
But in the 1950s, Jackson Ward took a stark turn. After desegregation, many African Americans chose to integrate into areas formally unavailable to them. Several of Richmond’s public infrastructure projects insulted the area’s integrity, including the construction of Interstate 95 that bisected the neighborhood and a housing project that was placed on the northern side of the area. Later, a newly-constructed convention center decimated four more square blocks of land.
It was definitely a tough time that stole the soul away from the neighborhood.
But today, the area is slated for a financial resurgence. Brand new restaurants, stores and salons open up every day, breathing life into the neighborhood, reawakening a vibrant soul. Fresh, new, yoga studios, coffee shops and boutiques now line the streets. Art galleries and studios host viewings almost every weekend. And slowly, celebrities have begun to make their appearance. R&B groups like Xscape and recording artist, Tamar Braxton (sister of Toni Braxton) have both been spotted enjoying dinner at the popular soul food restaurant, Mama J’s. And Stokley, lead singer from the band Mint Condition, performed at the 2018 2nd Street Festival.
My tour with Green comes to an end just in front of Saadia’s Juice Box & Yoga [402 1/2 N. 2nd Street]. It was there that we part ways. But before I went inside to order my delicious Lavender Latte, I turn to Green to thank him for the tour. His response was simple. “When I tell you that the energy and the soul of Jackson Ward is alive, I mean it!”
It is, Mr. Green. It definitely is!
JACKSON WARD DIRECTORY
If you’re looking for a day of fun, why not spend it in Jackson Ward! This National Historic Landmark District is full of fantastic restaurants, museums and theatres. There’s no shortage of things to do.
Big Herm’s Kitchen | 315 N. 2nd St., 804-643-0202
A Jackson Ward staple, Big Herm’s delicious seafood and soul food can be spotted at almost every major Richmond event. And though his restaurant is takeout only, the line for his orders routinely extends far outside the door.
Fighting Fish | 317 N 2nd St., 804-308-1729
Fighting Fish is an intimate restaurant that boasts robust flavors. Savory sushi, poke and sashimi don the menu. And while each entrée is delicious enough to write home about, you most definitely wont want to share.
Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smokehouse | 538 N. 2nd St., 804-447-0030
Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smokehouse is making history as Richmond’s first beer garden, which means it’s a great after work spot to sit outside with friends and trade jokes over a cold brew. When you need some food to go along with the drink, order the smokehouse wings that are slowly smoked to juicy perfection.
Jamerican Market and Restaurant Take Out | 400 N 2nd St., 804-402-6815
For extra large portions of authentic Jamaican food with an American twist. Our favorite dish is the oxtail and sautéed brussel sprouts. And of course, the curry chicken is delicious, too.
J KOGI | 325 N. 2nd St., 804-225-8734
J KOGI offers customers a taste of Seoul with a little bit of soul. Their saucy Korean grub includes bowls and kimbap with options like Katsu chicken, Bulgogi and Pork Belly.
Max’s On Broad | 305 Brook Rd., 804-225-0400
Modern Belgian and French fare is served in this beautiful restaurant that overlooks the Maggie Walker Monument.
Mama J’s | 415 N. 1st., 804-225-7449
Mama J’s combines traditional southern cuisine and hospitality to create the ultimate soul food dining experience. With a vast array of mouth-watering favorites, the line into the dining room typically extends outside the door. But be patient. A meal at Mama J’s is absolutely worth the wait.
Pumpkin’s Kitchen Café | 219 E. Clay St., 804-997-2989
Come in anytime and you just may find Pumpkin in the kitchen prepping food or in the dining room greeting her guests. Her beautiful personality is infectious and translates into her addictive places of soul food. A single helping of macaroni and cheese, cabbage, candied yams, or anything else on the menu is hearty enough to last you through dinner and well into breakfast and lunch.
The Speakeasy Grill | 526 N. 2nd St., 804-308-2913
Adjacent to The Hippodrome, The Speakeasy Grill sits inside the historic Taylor Mansion and hosts one of the best Sunday Brunches in the city.
Rogue | 618 N. 1st St., 804-477-3456
This boutique restaurant serves innovative modern French cuisine and ever-changing craft cocktails. At Rogue, food and drinks are served with clear dedication to flavor and the craftsmanship of presentation.
Saadia’s Juicebox & Yoga Bar | 402 ½ N. 2nd St., 804-299-0125
After taking a moment to detox your mind, enjoy a drink from Saadia’s raw juice bar to detox your body. Yoga and wellness go hand-in hand here. And all are welcome to learn more about their holistic approach to life.
Saison | 23 W. Marshall St., 804-269-3689
Defining the term, “New American Food” is a feat that owners chef Adam Hall and Jay Bayer have taken to task. Saison unites both Central and Southern American cuisine together to create exquisite dishes at one of the most popular gastropubs in Richmond.
Lucy’s restaurant | 404 N. 2nd St., 804-562-1444
It’s easy to decide on Lucy’s when you’re hungry for well-prepared steak and chops. This family owned and operated, farm-to-table restaurant really shines., especially when it comes to their beef and chops.
The Hippodrome | 528 N. 2nd St., 804-308-2913
Affectionately known as the HIPP, this historic theatre was once the main stage for popular African-American artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, among many others.
Virginia Repertory Theatre | 114 W. Broad St., 804-282-2620
Across four distinct venues, Virginia Repertory Theatre entertains an audience of over 530,000 people each year, making it one of the largest performing arts theaters in Central Virginia. Sister Act, Mary Poppins, West Side Story and other national favorites all show-out in this theatre.
Coalition Theatre | 8 W. Broad St., 804-332-5857
Are you looking to fill your night with sidesplitting comedy? Or, how about take a performance class, or two? If so, Coalition Theatre is the place for live comedy shows, sketch, improv and stand-up comedy classes.
MUSEUMS & HISTORIC LOCATIONS
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site | 600 N 2nd St., 804-771-2017
Black History Museum | 122 W. Leigh St., 804-780-9093
Bill Bojangles Robinson Monument | Adams & W. Leigh St.
Maggie Lena Walker Statue | Adams St. and Broad St.