The JXN Project, which received Historic Richmond's 2021 Golden Hammer Award for "Best Placemaking", is working to honestly and accurately capture the pivotal role of Richmond, Virginia in the evolution of the Black American experience. The research that undergirds this project has uncovered primary artifacts that revealed that the stain of the Confederacy – a stain that has even tainted the history of something as seemingly simple as a name –extends far beyond the monuments and can be traced to the gerrymandered origins of the city's northern neck, better known as Jackson Ward. It is no mistake that this project began in the monumental year of 2020, and with its hindsight, has taken further shape in the history-making days of 2021. These past few months have illuminated the stark historic injustices that still plague our country, and indeed, our beloved city, which at one point laid the blueprint for hate – but is equally as positioned to provide a restorative and redemptive model for hope and healing. Confirmed by this summer’s city-wide protests and the removal of statues erected to celebrate defeated regents and brutal oppressors, we are in a moment that is calling for swift, genuine, and acute change – a call that The JXN Project is committed to answering.
The JXN Project, also known as JXN, is a reparative preservation non-profit organization that is dedicated to driving restorative truth telling and redemptive storytelling by capturing the pivotal role of Richmond, Virginia, in particular Jackson Ward, in the evolution of the Black American experience. JXN began with a focus on celebrating the 150th anniversary of Jackson Ward by properly contextualizing the origin story of the nation's first historically registered Black urban neighborhood, but has sense emerge as a diasporic model in reparative historic preservation through its work to excavate, elevate, and educate on the hidden histories of Jackson Ward as the "Birthplace of Black Entrepreneurship", an often under-told and overlooked story when discussing the local origins of Black excellence and enterprise in the national narrative.
Jackson Ward is a community steeped in culture and rich in history – a history whose multiple layers have yet to be unearthed. In truth, the origins of Jackson Ward, which date back to April 17, 1871, are complex and ugly. For example, the origins of the name “Jackson Ward” is a long-standing debate that can be traced to as early as 1902, but is generally attributed to one of the following – Colonel Giles Beecher Jackson, James Jackson of the Beer Garden, President Andrew Jackson, or Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. While the first is most deserving of the honor, circumstantial evidence suggests that it may in fact have been named after the last.
At the onset of the Civil War, Richmond was selected as the relocated Capital of the Confederacy because it was the most industrialized northern city south of the Mason-Dixon line. As the Industrial Revolution began to make its first wave in the 18th century, there was a noticeable pivot from plantations to plants in a handful of cities – such as Charleston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Richmond. As part of the urban slavery system, Black Richmonders were exploited as hired-out labor on a daily, weekly, monthly, and|or yearly basis for tasks ranging from domestic work and tobacco processing to carpentry and blacksmithing. There were stark differences between being enslaved in the county versus in the city because, while enslavers generated revenue through hired-out labor, in some instances, the laborer was able to make a nominal profit. Also, since most hired-out laborers were boarded in quarters that were separate and apart from their enslavers, they could enjoy certain liberties such as social activities, civic organizations, and part-time jobs.
As a result of the urban slavery system, Black Richmonders were finding their freedom well before the Emancipation Proclamation, ranging from educators to entrepreneurs, and with the passage of the 15th Amendment, they too realized their collective power as an electorate. The vast majority of urban enslaved laborers resided in the northern edge of the city along with free Black people, as well as Jewish and German immigrants; however, Black residency in the area significantly increased after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era.
While the Reconstruction Era is generally denoted as 1865 to 1877, the Virginia Capitol Disaster of 1870 signaled the end of the era in the former Capital of the Confederacy. The Richmond Mayoralty Case, which resulted in ”The Municipal War” also known as ”The Radical Rebellion”, was a contentious contest between Republican George Chahoon and Democrat Henry Ellyson – also part-owner and editor of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. It was wrought with police brutality and election fraud, to include the burglary of ballot boxes in what would become Jackson Ward. In the end, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ellyson, which began the shift of political power back to ex-Confederate Conservatives – with Chahoon's all-Black special police unit being quailed and its colonel, Benjamin Scott, being jailed.
On October 17, 1870, one week following the death of Robert E. Lee, the City of Richmond’s Common Council established a subcommittee to redistrict its five  political boundaries – which consisted of Clay Ward, Jefferson Ward, Madison Ward, Marshall Ward, and Monroe Ward. The purpose of the redistricting was to revert full political control of the city to ex-Confederate Conservatives by gerrymandering the Black Republican vote – and alas, on April 17, 1871, a new gerrymandered political boundary was introduced called “Jackson Ward”, which originally extended from 18th Street to Leigh Street along the corporation line towards the northern neck of the city.
On the day after the establishment of Jackson Ward, the residents of the neighboring Manchester, which had not yet been annexed as a part of the City of Richmond, proposed to redistrict a 5th and 6th boundary respectively called Lee Ward and Jackson Ward – stating that the new wards would “exist for the purpose of thorough organization to prevent Manchester from falling into the hands of the enemy at the ensuing spring elections” [Richmond Times Dispatch | April 20, 1871]. Also, neighboring Richmond County established the Township of Stonewall in response to the 1870 Underwood Constitution, which required that each county in the state divide into no less than three districts as part of its reconstruction.
Often under-told, but the ward was a gerrymandered political district founded on exploited labor and shaped, over centuries, by systems designed to oppress its residents – an impact still felt today as a consequence of planned destruction through redlining and gentrifying. Also felt, however, especially when understanding the urbanized slavery system, is the pride that the legacy of Jackson Ward conjures up for the Richmond community – particularly Black Richmonders who as residents have built a legacy rooted in ambition, creativity, resilience, and the sheer will to create a better life for themselves, their families, and their city. In that spirit, as we broach the ward's 150th anniversary, there isn’t a more earnest way to capture a more complete and honest picture of the complex history of the city than by sharing the stories of a space like Jackson Ward, where Black Richmonders juxtaposed enslavement and exploitation with entrepreneurship and enterprise – even before emancipation.
Like the rest of this country, Richmond has a decision to make because at this very moment we can confront who we were while also choosing who we will be – and so we as a city must ask ourselves. Are we going to allow our legacy to be forever tethered to a lost cause, with our greatest contribution to the world being the former capital of a defeated Confederacy, or will we use this moment to correct course for a more just cause? Are we brave enough to pivot away from one-dimensional slave narratives that no longer serve us and take the opportunity at hand to elevate the best of our lineages and legacies – while realizing that the historic preservation of the Black American experience is worthy of more than mere markers? Are we bold enough to celebrate the Black excellence that managed to not only survive, but thrive in the face of social and systemic oppression – becoming a north star in the former capital of the south for future generations to come? The JXN Project believes that we are and that the shoulders of Richmond’s truest heroes, like Giles B. Jackson, are rested and readied to carry us the next 150 years.
The JXN Project is informed by a strategic model known as "JXN" that approaches reparative historic preservation through restorative truth-telling and redemptive storytelling. At the core of JXN is a fundamental belief that the preservation of Black American history is worthy of more than mere markers. JXN is guided by a holistic framework with a focus on a set of eight key pillars to include preservation, pedagogy, philanthropy, and proprietorship, as well as public engagement, public programming, public art, and public service, policy, and|or planning.
Through these pillars, The JXN Project aims to help drive the next 150 years through a set of initiatives that will launch in April 2021 – followed by a year-long sesquicentennial celebration that will culminate in October 2021. Currently, efforts are underway in hopes of recontextualizing the historic district in honor of Giles B. Jackson because while the origins of the name of the ward may have been a debate for the last 150 years, and may in fact have been named after Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, The JXN Project endeavors to ensure that it’s not in dispute for the next 150 years because no other “Jackson” is more deserving. The project also aims to rename the ward's surrounding streets, some of which bear the namesake of enslavers and|or pro-slavery sympathizers and soldiers, with honorary designations in homage to notable Black Richmonders with direct ties to the area and who better embody the essence of Jackson Ward – such as Abraham Skipwith, A.D. Price, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Charles Gilpin, Giles B. Jackson, John Jasper, John Mitchell Jr, Lillie Estes, Lorna Pinckney, Lucy Goode Brooks, Maggie L. Walker, Neverett Eggleston, Oliver Hill, Rosa Dixon Bowser, and W. W. Browne. Today, we all stand on the shoulders of many freed and enslaved Black Richmonders, and while the list of giants who undoubtedly helped future generations to see further is vast, The JXN Project hopes that the proposed set of designations are a representative sample of the rested and readied. Additionally, corrections will be submitted to properly contextualize the origins of Jackson Ward with applicable historical preservation entities, such as the National Park Service. In that same spirit, this project will petition to increase the representation of Black Richmonders on the city's commissions and|or committees, such as its official historic preservation body, also known as the Commission for Architectural Review, as well as the Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission. Also, the project aims to include Jackson Ward in the state's investment in historic justice initiatives.
RESEARCH NOTES |  James Jackson was a resident of Jackson Ward who would become one of the city’s first Black pharmacists – operating a pharmacy located at 825 Leigh Street in the early 1900s. Whereas Joseph Jackson, who is the namesake for Jackson Street, was a white resident who worked as a clerk in the city’s auditor office and operated a pleasure garden in the early 1800s – versus a beer garden, which were distinct to German immigrants and wouldn’t generally emerge until the mid 1800s.  The City of Richmond once adopted a ward system beginning with Jefferson Ward, Madison Ward, and Monroe Ward in 1803, followed by Clay Ward and Marshall Ward as early as 1867; however, there is a lack of primary evidence to support the naming of Jackson Ward after Andrew Jackson especially when considering the city’s precedent for naming institutions after its own statesmen – whereas “Old Hickory” maintained no direct ties to the area.
Photos Courtesy of National Park Service Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Library of Congress, Library of Virginia, Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Virginia Humanities, Valentine Museum, and Richmond Times-Dispatch