“Unhealed History”

From segregation to suburban sprawl, why the past still haunts Richmond's future.

The following is an excerpt from the Rev. Ben Campbell’s book, “Richmond’s Unhealed History.”

The history of Richmond is the founding history of the nation. There are other founding histories, to be sure. But here at the falls of the James, in a unique way, you can trace the seeds of the nation from its very beginning. Without moving from the spot, you can identify each layer of the nation’s physical, social, racial, class, and religious development. The original sins, the great ideals, the failures, and the achievements are here to be seen in a single classroom.

Before 1970, many people in the city at the falls may have believed in racial equality, but it had never been practiced on a widespread basis, and it was actually prohibited by law.

Since 1970 metropolitan Richmond has had the opportunity to practice racial equality. The initial changes were dramatic. A black man became mayor of the former Capital of the Confederacy, and thirteen years later, another African American became governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The racial transitions are still going on throughout the metropolitan city. Nearly every school, every major place of employment, every place of public accommodation, and even many faith communities are now at least slightly integrated by race.

Many of the institutions of the metropolitan city, however, may still be viewed as either black-culture or white-culture. This is true of almost all the churches; it is true of most schools and universities; it is true of neighborhoods and many places of employment or job categories within places of employment; and it is true of the jurisdictional governing bodies, political leadership, and administrations.

The city of Richmond’s political leadership culture is more black than white, and its administration’s leadership is nearly all black. The political leadership culture of the three major surrounding counties is mostly white, as is a significant portion of their administrative leadership. To make observations of this sort is to invite reaction, criticism, anger, or guilt — and therein lies much of metropolitan Richmond’s current problem. There are significant issues still to be dealt with from the metropolitan city’s strange history, but they are difficult to talk about. We suspect one another’s motives, we are certain of one another’s blindness, and we doubt the commitment of anyone, including ourselves, to work toward the best ideals of our best ancestors. White people are uncomfortable with the issue of racism, and black people are wary of racism. White and black persons — all of us — are congenitally blind to the experience of the other. The years of close association have brought us familiarity, but not understanding. We have been in one another’s territory, but for different reasons, under different conditions, and with different experiences. The differences are vast.

Forty years of mandatory desegregation have not only brought integration to metropolitan Richmond — they have also brought disintegration. The great, comprehensive mixing of black and white that the white supremacists feared was averted not by massive resistance, but by urban sprawl. Laws permitting racial segregation were struck down. But laws establishing jurisdictional boundaries were firmly reinforced. The result was an explosion of the city across the landscape of central Virginia. The city’s first 200,000 people needed sixty square miles. Its next 800,000 people needed an additional 1,000 square miles. The population density of the three newly urban jurisdictions is only twenty-five percent as great as the original jurisdiction.

During the first forty years after full integration of Richmond’s public schools, and the thirty-three years after the establishment of a black majority government in Richmond, metro Richmonders erected massive new retail centers in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and constructed more than $1 billion worth of highways to circumvent the central city. Major office and industrial development located on the new roads capitalized on the booming economic development of the nation, and bled the economic base of the older, central city. Sprawling development of new subdivisions, whose housing cost excluded modest wage earners, reconfigured the population map.

The new suburban development specifically segregated citizens by income category and by physical distance to a degree never before present in metro Richmond. Suburban development followed road construction, paid for by the state and federal governments, and was based on the assumption that households could afford two or more automobiles. The dominant vision assumed no public transportation would be available. None was provided. Economic encapsulation of the “independent city” of Richmond by the General Assembly relieved the new suburban citizens of any responsibility for the massive capital debt of the previous century. It excluded much of the cost burden of the center city’s government offices, universities, churches, public housing, and nonprofit headquarters that were exempt from real estate tax. Lower real estate tax rates established the suburban counties as virtual “enterprise zones,” subsidizing sprawling economic development.

Racial integration was present throughout the new suburban development, in the sense that there was no absolute segregation. But most housing, and most suburban schools, were highly concentrated in one racial group or another. Other minority ethnic groups began to concentrate in the older parts of the suburban counties.

By 2010, with the completion of the circumferential highway around metropolitan Richmond, development was increasing on the periphery of the four-jurisdiction city, involving the exurban counties of Powhatan, Goochland, Charles City, and New Kent. The pace of sprawl was greater than in any other metropolitan area in Virginia.

The four jurisdictions making up the central portion of metropolitan Richmond reported they were spending $2.8 billion each year to provide governmental operations and services for 900,000 citizens who were spread across 1,200 square miles, an expenditure of $3,234 per citizen. The population was nearly the same as the population of Virginia’s most populous single jurisdiction, Fairfax County, but the population density was less than one-third of that jurisdiction. Metropolitan Richmond’s governments were dependent on the Commonwealth of Virginia for thirty-five percent of their income, while Fairfax County was receiving less than eighteen percent of its income from the state.

Many commuting patterns, and nearly all retail shopping patterns, bypassed the central city of Richmond. The core industries of government, finance, tobacco, medicine, law, and education still drew workers downtown, but an increasing number of citizens of metropolitan Richmond had no knowledge of the central city. They knew nothing of the tumultuous years from 1607 to 1970, either because they were born afterward or because they had just moved from another city to a Richmond suburb. The paved parking lot covering Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and the Negro Burial Ground in Shockoe Valley meant little to them. Racial integration had already occurred so far as they were concerned. The struggles of Richmonders with their history seemed quaint and inexplicable. If the new generations and newcomers were submerged in the history of the place, they did not know it.

The Common Wealth

What makes a great city is its common wealth. A city is a concentration of human beings of different races and professions, religions and occupations, which provides an integrated economy and enables excellence. The city can develop culture at a higher level, because of the specialization and the concentration of interest that is present, as well as the ability to pool resources for different purposes. Every city is a laboratory for human justice as well. It provides opportunity for evil and destruction; and it provides opportunity for persons of faith and vision.

Metropolitan Richmond is a wealthy city. It is wealthy in experience, history, culture, diversity, and idealism. Some of the greatest leaders of our nation — Native American, European, and African American — have been born here, lived here, and led here. Metropolitan Richmond is also financially wealthy. If it were not wealthy, it could not have supported the extraordinarily expensive and sprawling capital investment of the past forty years.

The great cities of the world accumulate a common wealth, however, and this wealth is ultimately built not by sprawl but by complementary investment. By investing together in the same physical area, and addressing an inclusive body of citizens, people increase the quality of life for all. The investment and effort of each citizen benefits not only himself or herself, but also those who live in the same city with them.

Unquestionably, Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, and Richmond — the central metropolitan city of Richmond — will never again see greatness without full economic and political cooperation with each other. Under increasing pressure from many diverse geographic sections, the state will do nothing to help Richmond city without the unanimous advocacy of the surrounding counties. It is also unlikely that it will continue to fund four jurisdictions in metropolitan Richmond with twice the funding it gives Fairfax County. But the resources of the four-jurisdiction city of metropolitan Richmond are sufficient for its needs, even for innovative strategies to help those who have been locked in an economic prison by Richmond’s unhealed history. And the greatness metropolitan Richmond has longed for is available, perhaps for both the first and last time, by facing its original sin.

The next decades will not permit the level of unrestrained sprawling development that occurred in the last four, if for no other reason than that the Virginia Department of Transportation is out of money. Metropolitan Richmond has already built a basic infrastructure that can support three times its present population. In the coming decades, the task of focused leadership will be to fill in, restore, and strengthen the communities around that basic infrastructure. The result of such policies would be to increase the common wealth, while maximizing individual opportunities. The increase in common wealth is then a bonus to all citizens.

Substantial economies are available to metropolitan Richmond by taking advantage of the infrastructure already built both in the older city and the newer suburbs. Substantial economies are also available in government. No corporation in the American economy would have survived the last forty years if it had insisted on retaining eight separate and identical headquarters operations for one million people living adjacent to one another. But that is what metropolitan Richmond has done. The economies available from consolidation of governmental services are obvious, and the cost of separation is a luxury — or a liability — no longer affordable.

But the penalty for divided jurisdictions and governments is vastly greater than the bill for maintaining separate operations. While metropolitan Richmond’s leaders were busy over the last forty years fighting among their fragmented jurisdictions, vying for businesses, abandoning and opening massive shopping centers, trying to keep poor people in other jurisdictions, struggling to build four identical balanced sub-economies, and worrying about race and income levels of citizens, other middle-sized cities in our region stole our entire banking industry, built light rail systems, renewed their downtown areas, acquired major league sports teams, and developed public education systems far more competitive than either metropolitan Richmond’s suburban or urban systems. They built the same highways, suburbs, and shopping centers as metro Richmond, but the resulting common wealth was much greater and the larger city prospered.

For the poor, the common wealth is not peripheral but essential. It may be a matter of choice or convenience for a middle-class person to have access to a bus or light rail system; but to a person earning minimum wage, public transportation is life and death. It may be a matter of preference for some people to locate near a public school of their choice or to send their children to private school; but for many wage earners and single parents, there is no choice. The education that is at hand is all that is available.

The economic and political isolation of central Richmond from the healthy, growing economies of the surrounding counties is a recipe for moral and economic disaster. It has the effect of deliberately excluding the poor from the benefits of economic development, locking them up in a no-growth, no-job zone. It forces the creation of special systems of transportation and education exclusively for the poor, systems that are costly and which are never fully funded — systems that increase isolation and contribute to the repetition of poverty over generations. When low-income persons are primarily African American — as they are, due to Richmond’s racial history — the economic segregation is de facto racial segregation as well.

The moral vision of metropolitan Richmond must be inclusive. We cannot discriminate by race or family of origin — unless we want to lose our own moral core. If we give up the struggle for our moral core, no matter how conflicted we have been in our history, we will disintegrate and ultimately destroy the metropolitan city of Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover, and surrounding jurisdictions.

The economic vision of metropolitan Richmond must be inclusive. Only a healthy, integrated economy, without artificial boundaries of jurisdiction and tax district, can efficiently allocate resources, create good public systems, and make it possible for all to have mobility within the system. Moral necessity and economic necessity reinforce each other. Deliberate discrimination and division will destroy us. These truths are self-evident.

Metropolitan Richmond needs an effective vehicle for good citizenship. It needs a way in which people who care about healing the past and care about the common wealth of the metropolitan city can seek both their own welfare and the welfare of the entire community. Our committed citizens should not be forced to choose between responsibility for the needs of the city and the energy of urban life on the one hand, and sociological balance and a good child-rearing neighborhood on the other. It is tragically destructive. Metropolitan Richmond needs vision, and the vision needs a vehicle for greatness.

For 370 years the leaders of Richmond skillfully manipulated the structures of government — sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. Great visionaries who established the United States of America met, and many of them lived, here in this metropolitan city. Because they believed in liberty and democracy, and a combination of local government and collective strength, they fashioned governmental structures to carry these ideals out. Having formed a collective vision, they rallied one another to make it happen. They also fashioned and maintained, in most ingenious fashion, a demonic culture of slavery and segregation that took nearly four centuries to begin to dismantle. Central Virginia’s leaders have been some of the greatest governmental innovators of the world for four centuries.

But the silence of the present moment is deafening. The frantic suburban sprawl and the despair of the central core of metropolitan Richmond mirror one another in a macabre dance. The common wealth of centuries is allowed to drain away, squandered in denial of common vision, duplication of resources, multiplication of uncoordinated efforts, and professions of helplessness by powerful people.

The economic crisis of the twenty-first century’s second decade provides great opportunity for timely innovation. Metropolitan Richmond is in an ideal position to step forward. But there must be vision, desire, determination, a sense of greatness, and for those who can do so, a commitment to prayer. The time is short, but the rewards can be magnificent. The big picture — a dynamic metropolitan city able to direct its energies to its collective moral and economic strength — is the commanding vision.

Metropolitan Richmond must have a political structure that will reflect the reality of the metropolitan city. The specifics of the structure can be worked out by persons who share the goal. Without that shared desire among people from the entire metropolitan city, nothing can happen. With it, the particular strategies will emerge.

To stimulate the thinking, it may be helpful to make certain suggestions:

• A university or civic organization should immediately commission a study of the realistic fiscal savings available from consolidation of some or all services of the multiple governments.

• Metropolitan leaders should develop strategies to address the impossible burden of capital debt faced by the city of Richmond so that the ability to maintain a common public infrastructure can be restored.

• Discussion needs to focus immediately on structural changes, not simply cooperation between jurisdictions. The jurisdictions often cooperate very well within the limits assured by the current structure.

• A common and urgent planning effort, based on a single economy rather than multiple parallel jurisdictional economies, should be inaugurated.

• The jurisdictions should commit themselves to common advocacy and a common program in the General Assembly.

• Spiritual and religious leaders must take responsibility for the conversation along with economic, non-profit, and political leaders.

• Common projects — rapid rail from Washington to Virginia’s capital, a light rail or bus rapid transit system along major corridors, a full-scale, university-based, professional training institute for all public school systems, a strategic and honest job training and preparation program for chronically unemployed — need to be identified and designed immediately.

A single elected leadership is essential to a dynamic metropolitan city. The underlying framework will probably be some form of metropolitan “federalism” — that is, the initial consolidation of some major services together with the maintenance of separation in others. Such a structure would permit pragmatic development and negotiation during the years to come as situations change, limitations appear, and benefits become apparent.

Time is short. The economic woes of the next decade have already begun. The metropolitan Richmond jurisdictions are more dependent upon the state government than other jurisdictions, and cuts in state funding will have significant impact. The economic reformation of the nation forced by global movements will reward metropolitan cities that have their act together and fiercely penalize those who don’t.

Here in metropolitan Richmond, black and white and Indian people and others, urban and suburban people, people from north and south of the River, church people and people in synagogues and mosques, can revive the vision of a great city at the falls of the James — or perhaps make it honest and true for the first time. S


The Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell, pastoral director at Richmond Hill, studied political science and economy at Williams College in Massachusetts and was a Rhodes Scholar of theology at Oxford University in England. He received a master’s degree in divinity and an honorary doctorate in divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Reprinted courtesy of Brandylane Publishers Inc., Richmond.

“Richmond’s Unhealed History” is available at Fountain Books, Book People, Chop Sue Books, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and at Richmond Hill in Church Hill. The book also can be purchased online at and


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