Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer
Sisters Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon said they made a jarring discovery three months ago while researching the Jackson Ward neighborhood.
“I thought, as with everything, Google would have the answers,” VCU alumna Sesha Joi Moon said. “But it wasn’t that simple.”
According to Sesha Joi Moon, the establishment date of Jackson Ward, one of the country’s first recognized historic Black neighborhoods, is April 17, 1871. The date was unknown until late last year, when she began creating the JXN Project.
Founded with her sister and fellow VCU alumna Enjoli Moon in 2020, the JXN Project seeks to accurately tell the story of Jackson Ward and Richmond as a whole by displaying artifacts online, highlighting iconic residents with landmarks, promoting voting initiatives for residents and utilizing interactive technology, such as QR codes, within the neighborhood.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of Jackson Ward’s founding on Saturday, the JXN Project will host “Illuminating Legacies: Giles B. Jackson Day,” a socially distanced celebration including trolley tours, food trucks, art activities and video projections throughout the neighborhood.
“We have a lot planned, but this is just phase one,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “There’s just so much research here that Jackson [Ward] as a model has a lot more work in the pipeline across several years to come.”
History of the Jackson Ward neighborhood
According to AfroVirginia, a database for the preservation of Black cultural sites throughout Virginia, Jackson Ward was established in 1871 by Civil War general and former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. However, the area became home to both free and enslaved African Americans in the mid-1800s.
Today, Jackson Ward runs along Broad Street, beginning at Smith Street and extending to North 2nd Street. It is also bordered by Jackson Street, West Marshall Street and West Catherine Street.
The neighborhood is named after Giles B. Jackson, who was born into slavery in 1853 and became the first Black attorney to argue in front of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
“This is historic preservation through restorative truth and telling redemptive storytelling. Part of it is to first just educate people on the origin story of Jackson Ward, which most people just don’t know. ” — Sesha Joi Moon, co-founder of the JXN Project
Over the next 30 years, Jackson Ward would grow into a thriving, Black neighborhood with successful businesses lining its streets. The area was so well known for its banking prowess, economic success and cultural influence that it became known as “Black Wall Street” and “the Harlem of the South.”
“If you are going to do historic justice, you have to do justice to the narratives that we’re saying,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “The Black Richmond experience during that time was very complicated, very multi-dimensional.”
Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon’s efforts to tell the history of Black Richmonders has spanned several other projects.
Enjoli Moon is also the creative director for the Afrikana Independent Film Festival and founder of Visit BLK RVA, while Sesha Joi Moon works as a senior talent management strategist at the U.S. Department of Commerce and curates a blog called “Angry Black Female.” During Sesha Joi Moon’s time at VCU, she was the president of the Black Caucus at VCU and a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
In 2018, the sisters launched “A Blackass Field Trip,” which organized and led educational trips centered around the Black diaspora, including trips to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Whitney Plantation in New Orleans, Louisiana. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions that prevented them from planning trips that included travel, the sisters had to reimagine the project closer to home.
One of the main motivations for starting the project is the controversy surrounding the naming and origin story of Jackson Ward. Since 1902, there has been contention regarding who the “Jackson”’ in Jackson Ward is, Sesha Joi Moon said. Four different figures have been proposed — Giles B. Jackson, James Jackson, Andrew Jackson and Stonewall Jackson.
“I was born and raised in Richmond, and my whole career is about being Black and being proud to be Black,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “I found myself kind of embarrassed that I did not know who Jackson is.”
Sesha Joi Moon said her research for the JXN Project included uncovering primary documents and artifacts, as well as talking with Jackson Ward residents about the neighborhood’s history.
“This is historic preservation through restorative truth and telling redemptive storytelling,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “Part of it is to first just educate people on the origin story of Jackson Ward, which most people just don’t know. And helping people understand that in a time where we are so focused on those statues, that the actual stains of the Confederacy bleed far beyond Monument Avenue.”
Jackson Ward was also home to pioneers, such as Maggie L. Walker, America’s first female bank president. The Hippodrome Theater, located on North 2nd Street, hosted musical icons, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
Like a number of other urban neighborhoods throughout the United States, Jackson Ward was impacted by federal infrastructure programs. In the 1950s, construction of the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike of Interstate 95 split the neighborhood, destroying hundreds of historic homes and businesses in the process.
“You can’t tell America’s story without Richmond’s story. And you can’t tell Richmond’s story without Jackson Ward’s story.” — Janis Allen, President of the Historic Jackson Ward Association
Many of Jackson Ward’s streets are named after Confederate or segregationist figures, an issue that Sesha Joi Moon said the JXN Project plans to tackle in their “Unveiling the Vanguard” event in October, which will include honorary street designations to honor Jackson Ward’s residents.
“We don’t want to erase the current streets named after Benjamin Watkins Lee, who was an enslaver and whose son was a Confederate soldier. Keep your sign,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “But what we’re going to do is intersect that with the history of Maggie L. Walker as an honorary street designation, so that when you’re walking through Jackson Ward, you’re forced to tell the truth.”
Sesha Joi Moon said that feedback toward the project has been overwhelmingly positive, and that she is relieved to have discovered the 150th anniversary date before it passed.
“Even any opposition, what can you really say?” Sesha Joi Moon said. “Because we’re not trying to tear down, we’re not trying to erase anything. We’re just not going to exalt it. We’re going to put things on equal footing.”
In addition to her work to retell the story of Jackson Ward, Sesha Joi Moon said she hopes the project can inspire others to uncover the history of other historically Black communities.
Looking to the future
The organization is hosting the JXN Project summer lecture series, beginning April 21, to discuss the project and a public premiere of the documentary “How the Monuments Came Down” at Maymont Park on May 30.
“We were very intentional about using JXN to help other spaces understand the value in reclaiming your origin stories,” Sesha Joi Moon said. “Our long-term goal is to help other spaces and other communities understand how to leverage research to really reclaim and rename, restore and reconceptualize.”
This sentiment was echoed by Janis Allen, a Jackson Ward resident and president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, which strives to preserve the historic boundaries of the neighborhood.
“You can’t tell America’s story without Richmond’s story,” Allen said. “And you can’t tell Richmond’s story without Jackson Ward’s story.”
Allen said her family was displaced from Jackson Ward by the construction of Interstate 95 in the 1950s. She said the neighborhood’s historical significance inspired her to return to the area 10 years ago and become involved in its preservation.
“I often wonder ‘what kind of community would we have been?’” Allen said. “What would have really happened if there was not a forced break in the success of the neighborhood?”
Allen said she finds the self-sufficiency of the historic neighborhood and its ability to thrive, despite discriminatory policies and laws of the era, interesting and inspiring.
“You’ve got the capital of the Confederacy and within that capital, you have the emergence of an extraordinarily strong, Black, self-sufficient community,” Allen said. “It was a group of people pulling together to lift up out of the circumstances and that framework. That’s the part of history that I could just read over and over again.”