Nearly four years after his death, a prominent Richmonder's considerable estate remains in limbo. A forged signature on a mysterious will has something to do with that. The long-standing enmity among his three heirs also helps explain it. The lawsuits the heirs have filed against each other offer another rationale. Whatever the reason, the real estate mini-empire he built in Jackson Ward hangs in the balance. Key among the properties Neverett Alexander Eggleston Sr. owned on Second Street in the heart of the north Richmond neighborhood is the Eggleston Hotel. Since his December 1996 death his heirs have squabbled and sued each other over it and the rest of his estate. Meanwhile, his hotel which hosted black celebrities from Louis Armstrong to Muhammad Ali has been condemned. Court records and some close to the dispute estimate the value of Eggleston's estate at more than a half-million dollars. But for many, its value also includes the past pride and faded promise of what once was the lively center of Richmond's Harlem. Some continue to see a renaissance ahead for the neighborhood's mostly black-owned establishments. Construction pounds away on the convention-center expansion nearby. But at the site of what used to be the area's heart, the most visible signs of the future are the Day-Glo orange "Condemned!" notices posted all around the once-proud hotel at the corner of Second and Leigh streets. Crouching on the corner, the Eggleston Hotel is, with its moderne-style aluminum, still something to see. But the orange signs, posted Aug. 17, are everywhere. One of Eggleston's three children, Aurelia Eggleston Ford, hobbles up and peers through the dirty glass window of her late father's hotel. "All gone now," she says cheerfully in her little-girl voice. "All gone." She is elderly now and is accompanied by her nephew, Neverett A. "Sugarfoot" Eggleston III, grandson of the man who owned the hotel and most of the other properties on this side of the block. Sugarfoot shakes his head at a question. "Naw, man. I'm not on either side," he says. "I don't get involved." Ford looks up, smiling. She has not heard the question or the answer. But she smiles anyway, because Sugarfoot is the only member of her family who will have much to do with her since she and her lawyer claimed her siblings and their spouses tried to cut her out of their father's will. Out of this hotel. And she won. But what? "Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy wrote.
"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Meet the Egglestons. Their unhappiness is remarkable because the Egglestons were for a long time one of Richmond's most prominent black families. Also remarkable is how they stopped being one of Richmond's most prominent black families. Most importantly, the fate of the Egglestons and their properties will, to some degree, determine the future of Jackson Ward. They've certainly had an important role in its past. When N.A. Eggleston Sr. died in 1996 at the age of 101, his conspicuous obituary called him the "patriarch of a family whose businesses became synonymous with a vibrant Jackson Ward." Eggleston Sr. opened his namesake hotel in the late 1930s, when Jackson Ward was Richmond's Harlem, and it stood at "the heart of a bustling strip that, during its heyday, was a hub of black commerce." It was one of only three hotels for blacks in Richmond, the Times-Dispatch noted. Hank Aaron, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Redd Foxx, Billie Holiday, Joe Louis, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson slept there. Muhammad Ali ate there. As a young man, Eggleston Sr. had been a supper-club cook in jazz-era New York, then returned to Richmond in the 1930s to run the kitchen at Lakeside Country Club. In 1939, he leased and later bought the 30-room hotel at the southeast corner of Second and Leigh streets. Eggleston ran it full time until his children took over for him in the mid-1970s. Even then, nearing 80, he stayed on, baking his puddings and pies, until he fell ill in 1996. By then, he also had acquired other Jackson Ward and North Side properties. His children daughters Aurelia and Jane, and son Neverett Jr. did well. Eggleston Sr., who joked he was a graduate of "Second & Leigh University," pushed them to go to college. Aurelia earned a doctorate in psychology. Jane married Willard H. Douglas Jr., one of the city's first black prosecutors, who was to become one of the state's first black judges. And Neverett Jr. took over the family businesses. Neverett Eggleston Jr. had
an auspicious beginning. In a 1988 profile, the Richmond News Leader noted that he had received a business degree from a college in North Carolina, then returned to Richmond in the 1950s. He became one of four founders of the city's Metropolitan Business League, a black chamber of commerce. The News Leader put him "among the leaders in the city's business community." The newspaper continued: "He owns the Eggleston Motel, a block north of his father's hotel, and a service station farther north along Second Street. From his office, across the street from his service station, he operates a bulk petroleum delivery service. He owns a motel on Midlothian Turnpike, is chairman of a janitorial service company, and is a partner in a New Orleans-based polling service. He was part of the partnership that put together the renovation of the Jefferson Sheraton Hotel" - now just the Jefferson - "and has been involved in half a dozen other business ventures in Richmond. In the early 1960s, he became the first black member of Richmond's Jaycees and ran for a seat on City Council. That was before the ward system concentrated black voting power, but he missed winning a seat by about 100 votes. He has been involved in development projects like the Jefferson with white investors." [image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly) By 1988, however, some things had slipped. The News Leader noted that the Eggleston Hotel had "long since ceased being a gathering place for the black elite. Its 30 rooms are rented by the week and month." The 1990s were to be even less kind to the Egglestons. When the decade began, the family still held considerable clout. In 1991, the Eggleston men Sr., Jr. and N.A. "Sugarfoot" Eggleston III were profiled in a Father's Day issue of Style. Eggleston Jr. boasted of building the city's first motel for blacks in 1956, and Eggleston III said he looked forward to continuing the family businesses. In 1992, however, a public and racially charged debate arose when Eggleston Jr., backed by some Richmond officials, proposed that the city buy some of his Jackson Ward property, pay him to build a city health department building on it and then rent the building from him. He called the project essential to revitalization in Jackson Ward. Opponents charged that the multimillion-dollar project for which Eggleston Jr. would have faced no competition was a case of favoritism, if not political bribery. In any event, it turned into a five-year controversy with charges of racism leveled against white council members and the Times-Dispatch for opposing the project. In the tumult Eggleston Jr. lost the project. But he fought back. In the 1994 elections he worked hard to defeat four City Council members who had opposed it. But his integrity was challenged again after he took part in a failed 1995 effort to build a private prison in South Side. In 1997, the year Eggleston Sr. was inducted posthumously into the Greater Richmond Business Hall of Fame, Eggleston Jr. was reported to have solicited a $4,500 contribution from the prison company to a political group he represented. The political group later was investigated for allegations of illegal campaign contributions and influence peddling. It became clear afterward that Eggleston Jr. had been in a financial bind since at least the early 1990s. If he was relying on the health department building and his other ventures, including the South Side prison, to pull him out, it didn't happen. In 1998, the Richmond Free Press reported that Eggleston Jr. defaulted on the mortgages for his Jackson Ward properties. "For five years, Neverett A. Eggleston Jr. waged a fruitless crusade to develop a new health center for the city to replace his shabby auto repair station in Jackson Ward," the paper wrote. "The final chapter of Mr. Eggleston's effort was recorded in the city courthouse this week: Consolidated Bank & Trust Co. reported that it had taken the repair center and several nearby properties from Mr. Eggleston to satisfy about $200,000 in debts he could not repay. Mr. Eggleston's loss includes a closed motel next to the station, a shop at 603 N. 2nd St. and a three-story office at 615 N. 2nd St. The 64-year-old businessman could not be reached for comment. But the familiar figure is gone from the station, along with his dog, Missy." Astonishingly, the bank's chairman told the Free Press that the loans had been extended more than six years earlier and "we worked with him as long as we could." That wasn't all. A week after the Richmond Free Press article, attorney Larry Wilder Jr., the son of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, filed a claim on behalf of the bank against Eggleston Jr. for another $120,570.52. Eggleston Jr. had defaulted on his home mortgage. Little is publicly known about N.A. Eggleston Sr.'s third child, Jane Eggleston Douglas, but her husband, like her father and brother, made quite a name for himself in Richmond. Former Richmond Juvenile Domestic Relations District Court Judge Willard H. Douglas Jr. was one of the city's first black prosecutors and, when the Virginia General Assembly chose him in 1974, the state's first full-time black judge. Like his brother-in-law Neverett Eggleston Jr., Douglas seemed destined for great things. According to the Times-Dispatch, Douglas was born in Amherst County and served in the Marine Corps. Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2