The Virginia Historical Society featured “A Manner Which Would Not Have Been Permitted Toward Slaves: Race, Reconstruction, and Memory in Post War Richmond” as part of the Banner series on Oct. 12.
The lecture was offered as part of the Banner series, a free lecture program for the public by authors and scholars continuing since 1988 by the Virginia Historical Society.
“In general we’ve always wanted to put Reconstruction into a one-size-fits-all narrative,” said National Park Service historian Michael Gorman. “Either diabolical northern carpetbaggers coming south for the wrong reasons, or for sweeping social justice.”
The event, presented by Gorman, focused on the Reconstruction era history of Chimborazo military hospital barracks located at what is now Chimborazo Park in Churchhill, at 3215 E Broad St.
“The end of the war caught everyone flat-footed,” Gorman said.
By June of 1865, Gorman said there were 30,000 former slaves in Richmond with no place to live and no way to sustain themselves.
“They were trying to get a job, trying to find a new way of life,” Gorman said. “There was this fundamental narrative of ‘Okay slavery is over. Now go get a job.’ How?”
About a month later, in July 1865, there were 50,000 former slaves in Richmond with no feasible living situation. The former confederate Chimborazo military hospital barracks had around 4,000 beds and offered a viable solution, according to Gorman.
By the end of July, there were 2,571 black and 198 white people living in the Chimborazo camp, according to Freedman’s Bureau documents.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 by Congress to provide food, healthcare, housing and education to former slaves and those left destitute by the Civil War.
“They (the Freedmens Bureau) were asking themselves ‘Do we have money to buy them firewood? Do we have money to buy them food? Do feed them?” Gorman said. “The answer is increasingly no.”
Gorman said he read accounts of entire families sharing one tattered blanket and one sputtering fire at Chimborazo. In response, Gorman said The Freedmen’s Bureau bought people one way tickets north to cities like Baltimore and Chicago.
Left unprotected by police and preyed upon by white gangs from the city, Gorman said the residents of Chimborazo had no choice but to train a militia to defend themselves. This escalating violence brought the Freedman’s Bureau to it’s breaking point.
“This concentrated violence caused the Freedman’s bureau to wash its hands and close Chimborazo,” Gorman said.
According to Gorman, most of the the land was sold off to residents already living there, and schools opened in Chimborazo that were funded by aid societies from the north.
After another riot that escalated from throwing stones to firing muskets, compounded by letters from white neighbors detailing the awful living conditions sent to the Richmond City Council, led to Richmond City annexing Chimborazo, Gorman said.
In 1874, Richmond City bought the 35-acre settlement for $35,000 and forced the residents off the land, and began clearing land for a public park.
Through his research, Gorman said he found an article in an early 1900’s St. Louis newspaper about “Old Braxton,” a Chimborazo resident who had picked up his home at Chimborazo and moved it across the street.
“Thanks to the research we can do now, I can tell you the rest of his story,” said Gorman.
Gorman said Braxton Howard lived with his daughter on O St. until he died. His daughter passed in 1951, and her children moved away from Richmond in 1993.
“I could’ve rubbed shoulders with his descendents. He didn’t know what kind of narrative he was living in,” Gorman said. “His story is one of thousands we can get tantalizingly close to.”
On Thursday, Oct. 20 Banner lecture series presents “On the Back Roads Again: More People, Places, and Pie Around Virginia by Bob Brown and Bill Lohmann.”
“What was so interesting is I’ve been to Chimborazo park several times but I’ve never heard this history,” said attendee Alice Waller.
To watch past presentations, visit the Virginia Historical Society’s website.
“Thanks to the digitalization of Freedman’s Bureau records, this research is ongoing,” said Gorman. “This is the golden age of research.”
Jesse is a junior print journalism major and Arabic and Middle Eastern culture minor. He has walked in the valley with no water and bitten the heads off of snakes.