East End was established at the tail end of the 19th century by African Americans, who were barred from burying their dead in white cemeteries. During Reconstruction and the ensuing decades, black Richmonders had exercised their hard-won political rights and amassed what wealth they could, pouring those resources into their own institutions. However, by the 1890s, white supremacists had nearly completed their “Redemption” of Southern politics and power, ushering in the era of Jim Crow through violence, terror, and whatever legal means at their disposal.
In 1902, the newly rewritten Virginia Constitution disenfranchised the vast majority of African American men with a poll tax and by permitting registrars to administer “literacy tests.” In 1904, four years after a statute mandating separate or partitioned cars for blacks was passed, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company announced it would enforce segregation in its streetcars. African Americans launched a boycott that helped bankrupt the company, but they couldn’t stop the expansion of racial segregation of transit, public spaces, and neighborhoods.
The 1924 Racial Integrity Act criminalized interracial marriage and defined as “white” a person “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” The architect of the legislation, Walter A. Plecker, complimented the Nazis on their eugenics policies. That same year, Richmond’s new mayor, Fulmer Bright, who had campaigned on the slogan “No negroes on the city payrolls—city jobs for hard working white men,” made good on his promise, barring African Americans from city employment—except for black teachers in segregated black schools.
In the 1950s, Richmond’s white city fathers and state legislators in the all-white General Assembly drove the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike through Jackson Ward, at one time the nation’s most prosperous African American neighborhood. The highway, later merged with Interstate 95, displaced roughly 2,000 families. Across the country, plowing roads through communities of color and leveling neighborhoods was the model for “urban renewal.” The current condition of East End cannot be understood outside of this historical context.