Toward Healing

One of the city’s best-known activists and scholars talks about what needs to be done to fix systemic racism in Richmond.

As the nation approaches the most critical election in memory, one in which race plays a dominant role, many are wondering how Richmond can move forward from fiery protest to permanent progress.

We asked the Rev. Ben Campbell, an Episcopal minister, author and former director of Richmond Hill Retreat Center, now in his 50th year advocating for racial justice.

He began by explaining the difference between insult racism and structural racism.

“It’s one thing to be called a name, to be stopped by a cop for no reason. Those are degrees of insult racism,” he says. “But we are dealing with this other thing that is so baked into the culture.”

Just as a sore on your face might indicate whether your body has cancer, the Lee Monument is an indication of a deeper problem.

“The big issue of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd is whether [the movement] can go deeper,” he says.

Now approaching 80 years old, Campbell is a vibrant and respected white voice against racism, distinguished by his groundbreaking authorship and untiring activism.

He can still be found at public meetings proposing solutions to unite metropolitan Richmond, whether through new suburban bus routes he champions as chairman and president of the board of directors for Greater Richmond Transit Co., or additional housing for low-income residents as an alternative to the Navy Hill project.

“What we’ve done in the last 50 years in America and last 10 years in the metro Richmond area is to get rid of superficial signs of the underlying cancer,” he explains. “Not in an insignificant way. We have greater racial mixing in employment … in public officials and even in some classrooms, although very slightly.”

He cites the naming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ installation of “Rumors of War,” the contextualized exhibits at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture and the growth of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as signs of progress. He applauds emerging examples of regional cooperation such as new bus routes to the suburbs and the sharing of a health director, Danny T.K. Avula, between Richmond and Henrico, enormously helpful during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most important, in the wake of the summer uprisings “we are going to have some significant results in terms of police accountability,” he points out. But Campbell adds there seems to be “a tremendous rigidity” against changing anything beyond that.

As an example, he cites Armstrong High School in the city’s East End: “In 150 years, Armstrong High School has not moved. In fact, it has moved backward, which is stunning, but that gives you a sense of what we are dealing with. That’s cultural racism.”

Campbell says he would trade four Lee statues for one properly funded Armstrong High School.

“I have made that statement to Black and white friends over the last three years and everyone has always nodded their heads, ‘of course.’”

I first met the Rev. Ben Campbell through the University of Richmond’s Osher Lifelong Learning program. His course, along with his book, “Richmond’s Unhealed History” from 2011, offered a brilliant examination of what the European conquerors and their descendants had done, generation after generation, to seize and retain power on the banks of the James, starting in 1607. From auction block to plantation, Campbell relayed how whites built their thriving pre-Civil War economy on the backs of Blacks.

Perhaps most revealing in Campbell’s six-week course was what happened after the Capital of the Confederacy collapsed in flames, its enslaved people now free. There arose from the ashes the Lost Cause movement, conceived in part by a senior editor of the daily newspaper Richmond Examiner, which brought the Confederate statues to Monument Avenue and more importantly, established a rigid caste of second-class citizenship for Blacks.

The post-Civil War generation wove an ingenious web of laws to gerrymander blacks into jurisdictions like Jackson Ward and strip them, via poll tax and literacy test, of the right to vote. Succeeding generations of whites defunded the schools, segregated the transportation system and destroyed Black neighborhoods through redlining and slum clearance. In place of historically Black neighborhoods came “urban redevelopment” — public housing in tightly configured areas ringed by interstates that acted like barbed wire to keep low-income Blacks inside.

Campbell revealed how much of this strategy — from the Lost Cause to Massive Resistance, championed by the city’s two daily newspapers, was conceived in Richmond for export throughout the South. He outlined how much of it, from segregated schools and public housing to limited public transportation, remains intact today.

Campbell is a seventh generation Virginian, deeply entwined with his state’s history. His great-grandfather taught geology at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington and lived next door to its president, Robert E. Lee. Lee died of a stroke in 1870, becoming the lasting face of the Lost Cause. The Campbells chose a much different path. Ben’s father became a civil rights lawyer who litigated the desegregation of the Norfolk public schools in the late 1950s, the only integration case brought by whites in Virginia. Campbell’s mother, the daughter of a Moravian bishop, served on the Arlington County School Board that voluntarily desegregated its schools in 1956. An angry state legislature soon stripped the board of its charter and reinstated segregation to achieve its goal of massive resistance. Campbell’s father repaid the Byrd Machine by winning the state’s one-person, one-vote case in 1964.

Young Campbell received his undergraduate degree in political science at Williams College and a master’s degree in theology as a Rhodes scholar from Queen’s College, Oxford. Ordained an Episcopal priest in 1966, he arrived in Richmond in 1970 as federal courts were pressing to desegregate its public schools. The courts also struck down Richmond’s at-large selection of City Council members and created the current geographic districts, giving control to the Black majority, something white Richmond had avoided for decades. Many whites voted with their feet for the suburbs and counties soon persuaded the legislature to eliminate the city’s ability to annex additional land and population. That locked the inner city within its present boundaries and limited Richmond’s economic growth. Debt accumulated. Schools quickly re-segregated.

Amid the turmoil over school integration and political control, Campbell determined to play a role. He placed his children in the city’s public schools. He also became an active combatant against construction of the Downtown Expressway for environmental, economic, preservation and transportation reasons.

“I became convinced that you couldn’t talk about Christianity without talking about racial equity,” he explains. “Virginia claiming to be Christian and following racial discrimination was unbearable hypocrisy. I decided I had to work as a servant of Christ for the healing of the community.”

This mission immediately proved difficult. Appointed to the board of the not-for-profit Historic Richmond Foundation, Campbell says he recommended integrating the group and was bounced as a director after his term expired. Over the ensuing years, Campbell helped to form two community groups – the Richmond Urban Institute and Home Base Inc. – to bring whites and Blacks together to improve education, housing and transportation. While the report he produced on redlining in 1985 proved to be groundbreaking, other efforts met with only mixed success.

These setbacks were accompanied by personal challenges – divorce and a battle with alcoholism. Campbell was feeling at the end of his rope. He says that he appealed to God to grant him a pass on his public commitments. God refused, Campbell says, and told him to get back to work.

Campbell does not know how, exactly, but his personal crisis resolved itself and he was instrumental in raising $11 million to create the Christian interracial group, Richmond Hill. Over the next decades, this residential community and spiritual retreat center would begin to help heal the city’s racial injuries through prayer and action. Campbell and his interfaith allies mobilized thousands of volunteers to aid Richmond’s public schools through the Micah Initiative. It created grassroots support for regional public transportation now known as RVA Rapid Transit. Perhaps closest to Campbell’s heart, Richmond Hill formed the Armstrong Leadership Program to mentor, tutor and financially support young leaders in the area’s most challenged high school.

“It was quite remarkable the things he championed,” says the Rev. Joel Blunk, who is now Richmond Hill’s co-pastoral director. “So many times it looked like they were going to fail. But Ben is a unique person with a lot of energy and perseverance.”

Campbell retired in 2016. Today Richmond Hill carries on the programs he founded, and the community continues to pray daily for the city’s healing. Campbell believes that complete healing will not occur until the entire metro region – 1,200 square miles and 1.2 million people – share the greater city’s common problems and common wealth. In Campbell’s perfect world, metro Richmond would be one political and tax jurisdiction, governed by one set of political leaders, responsive to all residents. He understands that structure is currently prohibited by state law and will not happen soon, or perhaps ever. But the people within those separate jurisdictions – rich and poor, Black and white, urban and suburban – must find ways to ameliorate the “systemic racism (that) is like an enormous dam that has been built around the races.”

Together, leaders must find ways to heal the city.

Six Ways to Reduce Structural Racism in Richmond

First, Campbell would challenge the funding mechanism for public education.

“The amount of money necessary to support equitable public education is inversely proportional to the income of the persons receiving it,” he explains. “That’s because income is a direct indication of literacy.” Campbell would require a portion of the property tax in all metro Richmond jurisdictions go into a common pool and be distributed by need. It is separate tax jurisdictions which, Campbell says, enshrine inequality.

Second, Campbell would develop a fully effective network of public transportation – 120 to 150 miles in all – across all major metropolitan arteries.

“What that does is enable effective economic sharing without jurisdictional change,” he says. Campbell posits that public transportation is worth $5,000 a year to a low-income employee by eliminating the need to own and maintain a car. That could increase take-home pay by 20 to 30%, he asserts. Bus expansion opens both education and economic opportunities.

“Do you know that until this [recent] Chesterfield [bus] line was put down Jefferson Davis Highway, that our major community colleges were not accessible by public transportation? And those [institutions] are created to help people get their first job. But it’s Catch-22. You can’t get there. I’m saying this stuff like it’s normal – but it’s criminal!”

A third goal for Campbell would be housing. He cites federal housing policy from the 1930s through the 1980s that provided whites with capital through favorable home loan programs while subjecting Blacks to redlining and urban renewal. Today, the national median wealth of a white family is 13 times that of a Black family, according to the Pew Research Center, using figures from the 2016 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

“That’s what we are talking about when we talk about structural inequity. We have to find some way to deliver housing equity to this generation of Black folks.” Campbell would advance affordable housing by requiring that all jurisdictions mandate builders to include low- and moderate-income dwellings in exchange for multiple unit building permits.

“You just can’t build middle and upper income [housing]. You have to build something else as well and try to mix it in.” Citing a deficit of 20,000 units of affordable housing in the Richmond area, Campbell insists: “This is a public need. We can’t afford not to do that.”

A fourth Campbell proposal directly concerns the state as a Richmond landlord.

“I would make the State of Virginia pay the equivalent of property taxes in the City of Richmond. To have your largest employer pay no taxes is “just devastating.”

Though acknowledging that the state does make a payment in lieu of taxes, Campbell argues “that’s under 5% of the equivalent, for police and fire. It’s not a serious contribution – and nobody thinks it is.”

Fifth, Campbell would transition Richmond’s overflowing prison population to productive work.

“I honestly believe that at least 50 to 60% of the people we have in prison, if they were employed tomorrow, would be no public issue,” Campbell says.

He envisions a group of public or nonprofit programs as bridge employers, targeting a public purpose. They could incorporate training modules to transition people to the next step. “We’ve got to find ways to help people lead a straight life and a decent life when they come out,” he says.

Finally, Campbell says that we need to build a major museum to the downriver slave trade in Shockoe Bottom.

Over the years, Campbell has supported the Richmond Slave Trail Commission’s work, including the excavation of Lumpkin’s Jail where thousands of slaves were held before auction. Campbell believes that not only is a museum at the Lumpkin site needed “to tell the truth about the Constitution and the ideals of this country and its failing, and the need for redemption,” but he believes it will be a major tourist attraction and good for the local economy.

This summer Mayor Levar Stoney committed between $25 million to $50 million in seed money to advance the museum. Writing in the Sept. 15 issue of Style, Campbell proclaimed: “Monument Avenue has had its day. Monument Valley (Shockoe) is Richmond’s future.”

All this begs the question: Would Campbell advocate for reparations?

“The business of reparations is misstated,” he says. “We don’t need to hand money to people. But we do need to find some way of building a more equitable context.”

Surveys show the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic have made Americans more dissatisfied with how Blacks are treated in this country.

But has it convinced enough of us, especially those who are white, to “penetrate the dam” that Campbell sees separating the races?

Despite the Democrat-dominated Virginia legislature’s progress on police policy, the city has yet to fulfill Campbell’s expansive vision, expressed in “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” of a metropolitan city with “the power to claim its destiny in the world as a laboratory of racial and social justice – a city of once-great division and injustice where the races were reconciled by honesty, integrity and truth.”

There is a great deal of work left to do, he admits.

“So many white people spend so much time trying to prove they’re not racist. But we are embedded in this [racist] system … this sickness” that “is part of our history.”

Citing the work of author Ibram X. Kendi, who grew up in Prince William County, Campbell advises that the only question is whether you’re opposed to racism or not.

“It takes risk to help change it,” Campbell says. “You have to be prepared to get beat up if you want to do anything of value, and you have to know it may not have anything to do with you. Black people have had to learn that or they wouldn’t have stayed with it.

“White people have to learn that, too, and not be so upset about it, because it’s a nasty deal and it’s bigger than all of us.”


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