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A Short History of Richmond


The following is a short history of Richmond, as told by Reverend Ben Campbell: Rhodes Scholar, servant leader, author of Richmond’s Unhealed History, and someone who has done as much as anybody to advance peace and reconciliation in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Jeff Thomas: How was Richmond founded? 

Ben Campbell: When John Smith and Christopher Newport came upriver on May 24, 1607, they hit an island in the middle of what was not yet called the James River. The river was the local highway system, and there were thirty Native American villages along the way. Everybody was watching them as they rode up to what became Richmond two weeks from when they stopped at Jamestown. The Englishmen had a native guide who apparently spoke English – it is an interesting question of how that came to be – and they disembarked on this island in the falls of the river near what is now 12th Street. They took two big sticks and fashioned them into a cross, which they stuck into the ground, and gave a great cheer. The guide asked what this meant, and the Englishmen said that the two arms of the cross symbolized the covenant between King James and King Powhatan. Then they wrote the sign of Jesus, and Christopher Newport put his name on the cross. 

They lied. 

They had no intention of having a covenant with King Powhatan. They considered him less than fully human. They thought they had a right to take his land, and they intended to take it away from him as soon as possible. It was racist, absolute, economic, and political exploitation. Worst of all, in my view, was that they thought that Jesus endorsed this.

What it became was a 90% death rate for Native Americans in Tidewater over the next thirty years. This is not a good start. Don’t tell the story that way, though! 

If they told the story that way, I would tell more nice things, because I do not think this is all just a horrible story. It is a complicated story. It is difficult in relation to the evolution of the world, and not just our own. Hopefully we learn to make things better in the long run. But because our history has been lied about for so long, we can never get to the point where the truth gets told, so we act as if injustice were an exception to our situation. The fact of the matter is things are not right; they did not start right; they have never been right. If we can start from there, then maybe we can make them right. That is the challenge of our time, and that is why history has to be properly told.

JT: Why did you write Richmond’s Unhealed History? 

BC: I had been working in Richmond and Church Hill for some time. I am a lifelong Virginian, and I had these puzzles that were constantly worrying me. I could not figure out why this place seemed so stuck, or why the values people kept stating seemed to have very little impact on what actually happened. The place seemed immobile. 

I began to ask these questions and I had a couple of experiences that opened up possibilities. First, I was walking through Church Hill one night in 1990. A woman I knew was sitting on a bench in Libby Park. I asked, “How are you?” and she said, “I’m depressed.” “Why are you depressed?” She said, “I think part of it is just the mood of this place. We’re eight blocks away from what was the largest slave market on the East Coast.” 

I had been a student of American history, but I had never heard that. I asked her what she meant, and she told me a little more, but she didn’t know much more about it. 

Next, I was standing in Richmond Hill, which we had just purchased and had opened as a monastery retreat center, and I saw a woman walking across the street with about twenty students, so I went out and started walking with her. 

She said she was showing the students some of the unmarked sites of history in Richmond: black history. Her name was Nancy Jo Taylor. She was a Richmond Public Schools teacher for 35 years and an oral historian. Like what? I asked. She gave me a list of unmarked sites. Lumpkin’s slave jail, the cage which was a holding pen for torture in the Shockoe market area. The black hospital that was not there anymore. The Manchester docks where some of the trading in slaves had happened. 

Out of these two events, I began to discover the history that had started from the beginning. 

I began to feel that it was not a question of Richmond being stuck in the Civil War; it was something much deeper. If the Civil War did anything, it simply cauterized the wounds and made them unrecognizable. 

So I began digging and gave four speeches one year, six the next, and ten the next year, and it became the book. 

JT: The book includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted about Richmond in 1854, and he writes that Richmond has so much potential, but is stuck in a cycle of negativity. 

BC: That’s right. Here’s the exact quote: “Richmond… somewhat surprised me by its substance, show, and gardens…. [It] is a metropolis, having some substantial qualities, having a history, and something prepared for a future as well. Compared with northern towns of the same population, there is much that is quaint, [and] provincial…. It is only the mills and warehouses, a few shops and a few private residences and hotels, that show real enterprise or real and permanent wealth…. What a failure there has been in the promises of the past! That, at last, is what impresses one most in Richmond.” Olmsted wrote this seven years before the Civil War.

My current answer to the paralysis of the Virginia temperament that is so exhibited here is that we had a half-revolution in 1781: half the population went into freedom, and half the population went into a totalitarian state. That is an uncompromised and uncompromising statement. Half the population went into something that was not different from the Soviet gulag. People were hanged. They were tortured. They were raped. That threat was there everyday. You had no life of your own. You were owned by someone else and you could not earn an income. It was awful, and there is no way to say it was anything but awful. When the slave market expands further in 1830, you can be ripped up and sent downriver, your family will never hear of you again, and you will be working in the sugar and cotton fields until you are dead.

To proclaim the highest values that had ever been stated in any nation in the world, and to simultaneously practice a horrible level of human oppression is paralyzing to the human spirit. It means you cannot function because you are living with guilt and shame at every moment: moreover, you constructed your society in that way. That paralysis is unadmitted and has continued to paralyze us for almost 250 years. 

It started before that. There was a white slavery of the 17th century which has never been fully admitted either, but which suggests we are dealing with a class system as well as a race system that made us who we are. We are taught the Declaration of Independence as if it is a statement of reality; we practice, as our ancestors practiced, something else. Today, without the same names on it, we live in a society that was formed in this way. 

JT: You’re saying that this is not ancient history, but is happening to our people now. How is this happening in the second decade of the twenty-first century?

BC: I did a lot of work with inherited trauma. I was working with individuals and the ways in which the traumas of their parents or their grandparents can actually be passed down into their lives and can afflict them psychologically. It is real. If you do counseling or prayer ministry, as I do, you find out that this is foundational for people. There is data for it in the Hebrew scriptures where it says several times that the sins of the fathers are passed down to the children through the third and fourth generation. That is an empirical statement in the Torah that describes a reality. They are not talking about you being held accountable for your great-grandparents’ mistakes. They are talking about the fact that we are bearing in ourselves part of what tormented our ancestors. 

I also studied this in other countries, and there was a group at UVA that was studying this in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of their civil war. They were looking at trauma between races and groups that could be latent and reemerge hundreds of years later. 

In 1993, we did a walk through Richmond based on Nancy Jo Taylor’s list of unmarked sites. We had 600 people from all over the world, the Mayor, and others. We began to mark these sites that had not been marked, and out of that City Council started a Slave Trail Commission to try to mark unmarked sites. Still, from 1993 to about 1998, the conversation was about the African slave trade having had some place in Richmond. By the year 2000, we began to become aware that there was no ‘upriver’ African slave trade in Richmond. In fact, the transatlantic African slave trade had been ended in Virginia in 1774, immediately before the American half-revolution. Richmond had not really been substantially established until 1781. We came to the awareness that this had been the largest downriver market on the East Coast, and 300,000-500,000 people had been sold in a trade that we knew nothing about in a valley in the middle of the city slung between “All men are created equal” at the Virginia Capitol and “Give me liberty or give me death” at St. John’s Church. 

In a city that claimed to worship history, this piece of information was in books all over the world. How did you not know that for a hundred and fifty years? Black people did not talk about it, white people did not talk about it, and the Virginia university system certainly did not talk about it. 

JT: What role do media like the Richmond Times-Dispatch play in propagating this fake history? 

BC: We are in a time of very distressing crippling of media, and I think the Richmond Times-Dispatch, like most media in our time, is crippled. The finances that produce the possibilities of significant news coverage have been severely depleted. The money and the energy has been taken by electronic media and television, which prioritizes presentation over substance. If CNN has a half second of news and then 28 minutes of uninformed commentary, that is standard, and Fox is just bizarre. Now the internet has taken on the character of informing people by uninformed people.

This happens at the Times-Dispatch, as well. It is a topical publication that has four of five significant locally-generated news stories per day from a small group of reporters with a couple really good people. 

The Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader, which were owned by the same company and the same family, the Bryan family, both operated here during the time of Massive Resistance and the last great public fight over segregation. They were instrumental in holding this place down. 

The strange allegiance between racism and money in Virginia and the South is very apparent. Virginia’s establishment is as established as any in America. It has a heavy investment in a hierarchical system that places persons of color at a low level, but it is also the most hidden in its articulation of its prejudices. It pursues its control in an extremely veiled fashion. 

The actual contract really starts in the 17th century in Virginia, when we had white and black slavery coexisting here for about sixty years. White people were dragged off the streets of London, thrown into tobacco fields, and fifty percent of them died the first year they were here. And they just kept bringing them in, throwing them in tobacco fields, dying, throwing them in, dying. Every time a landowner brought one over, he would pick up fifty more acres from the King and make a thousand percent profit on the slave’s labor. You had a horrible class system where the ‘great men’ – a hundred or two hundred Virginians – basically owned the state, they were the House of Burgesses, and that was our democracy, and these absolutely pitiful folks like you and me were out there dying in the fields. 

That finally began to fall apart with Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. When Bacon’s army surrenders, it was half white and half black. The bonded persons of Virginia were fighting together. So the landowners formed the Virginia Slave Code to put white people slightly above black people to control them. It was a codification of white privilege: no more money, but racial entitlement. In the fields, whites and blacks were working together; we had the same work; we had no money; we could be pushed around. You could not be beaten without cause if you were white, but you could be beaten without cause if you were black. If a white person worked long enough, perhaps, eventually, she or he could be free, while a black person could not. Poor whites could go to court, blacks could not. These differences were made by law. The ‘great men’ relied on poor white people as a buffer against what thereafter becomes an enormous influx of African slaves beginning in 1705. 

The use of racism as a way of maintaining control continues to this day. It was used in our presidential election, and is all over the country today. And it is basic to Virginia, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. 

The Richmond Times-Dispatch played this game for a long time, though they do not do it as much now. There are some good things happening at the Times-Dispatch today, but generally it is hampered in two major ways. First, it is extremely underfunded. It does not have enough reporters and struggles to keep people long term. Secondly, it is very vulnerable to the white business establishment, and cannot write stories that embarrass anybody who has money, unless they are black. 

JT: You note that “this relatively small number of large and influential landowners, numbering no more than several hundred, controlled the economy and composed the House of Burgesses,” and this continues to today. How have things changed?

BC: The number one change is that few know who they are today. It was very obvious who they were in colonial Virginia, and it was very obvious who they were up until about forty or fifty years ago, because the same families had always controlled things. This has changed as the economy has changed, as the metropolitan cities of Richmond have sprawled so we have different jurisdictions, as the sources of money have become so unusual in this society. You used to actually have to own something or work for somebody to have money; nowadays, you may just be linked up with some hedge fund and you can control an election. 

We clearly do have a few people calling some big shots around here. Most people who work with the legislature know who they are because they find out. But there is little or no press to report on it. We know that Dominion has a lot of control over the state, but that is just because they are so out there that you can’t help but know. You can’t talk about it, mostly. 

JT: What happens if you talk about it?

BC: There is no place to print it. The attitude of many ‘great men’ in Virginia is that the only thing more shameful than being black is being a white liberal. That is poor taste, they think you are weird and wild, and they discredit you. It is very, very frightening to break ranks in this divided society. That goes straight back to race and the concept of a race traitor: to be a white person who just plain believes in human equality is wild to them. They disrespect you: you stepped off the cliff, and you frighten them.

I think there was something in the Bible about human equality, as I recall.

How does a society emotionally and psychologically hide from the fact that it had the largest slave market on the East Coast, and forget it for one hundred and fifty years? That requires a tremendous level of denial, and a tremendous amount of fear. 

Why do white people in metropolitan Richmond sprawl out over the countryside faster than any other metropolitan area in Virginia? We had a study about twenty years ago where the Chamber of Commerce went to Richmond’s peer cities in the mid-Atlantic – Memphis, Charlotte, Greensboro, High Point – and found that of the cities they studied, Richmond had the lowest crime rate and the highest fear of crime.

This is just me, growing up in Virginia, but I think that if you are busy keeping other people down and making a lie of the values that you state, that basically you are afraid of them, because you know that the people you are harming want to get you, or you think you know they might want to get you. If you read the stories of Richmond, there is constant fear of black people. There should be, because whites are chaining and selling them. On the one hand, whites practice this facade of everything is all right on the surface, and we’re all buddies, but actually, they are terrified. That kind of thing is still present, which means that Chesterfield County will hardly even allow a bus to come across the county line in the year 2018. We have one of the smallest footprints of public transportation of any city in the world. Something is really bizarre and deep-seated here. The problem is that you can see its power, you can see its continual work, but you do not know how to break it. 

JT: When I was growing up in Richmond, these attitudes were never directly transmitted to me, never explicitly, but they were there, and I could never put my finger on them. 

BC: That’s itVery effective! That is so descriptive: the majesty of Virginia. When we were going through the Civil Rights Movement, Virginians would sneer at Mississippi because they used nasty words and pulled out firehouses, and we were a lot better than they were. Really? More tasteful, perhaps.

JT: I visited the archives of Collegiate School, the training ground of new money power elite in Richmond, and, to some extent, Virginia, and I asked to see the Board minutes from the 1950s and 1960s. They never told us why Collegiate moved from downtown Richmond to Henrico County in 1953, when Brown v. Board was pending before the Supreme Court, then expanded to three times its size and started accepting men for the first time in 1960. The archivist told me that he had looked at those Board minutes. There was no mention of race, no mention of Massive Resistance, no mention of coming out to the country for any reason to do with desegregation whatsoever. Racist paranoia was the driving force, but it was all implied, even in private internal documents. That denial of history continues to today. Somehow there is an unwritten code that the plainest and most salient fact – Collegiate is a segregation academy – is forever repressed. How are we ever going to get past this?

BC: I believe in the resurrection. I hate to say it, but I’m a priest, and I think it’s a pretty good thing to believe in. I believe that there is a Holy Spirit of God that is in the process of bringing about things that have not yet happened. This is positive, reconciling, bringing justice where it has not been, and opening people’s eyes to things they have not seen. We are not alone in the hope that telling the truth will help us grow and it will help people take steps that they might not otherwise take.

The word repentance comes from the Greek that means to change a way of seeing things. It does not mean to merely feel bad about something. Those people believed you could have a fresh outlook and see more clearly than you had seen before. Whatever we do, we do not need to be hopeless about the fact that people can change and people can see differently. 

It always takes initiative. I am trying to help people get public transportation in Richmond. I think it is the breakthrough issue here, because we can do it without having to change our jurisdictional lines, which were established for racial purposes. It can make a difference for everybody. Every other city in the world has it, and they seem to think it makes a difference. 

My friend Garrett Epps, who wrote The Shad Treatment and is one of the great commentators on Virginia in the last century, wrote that Virginians felt they invented democracy, so they really didn’t need to do much more after that. As I understand democracy, if something is wrong, and you are not doing something about it, then that is your problem, not somebody else’s.

People say, What do you think can make it happen? I say, How about you?

But what I have encountered is this tremendous sense of passivity before human change. I have this image of Patrick Henry standing up in the middle of St. John’s Church in 1775 saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” And everybody else goes back and says, “Well, I think we’ll just stay a British colony.”

JT: Why did you devote your career to healing Richmond?

BC: I didn’t intend to. When I was growing up in Arlington, I had a girlfriend in Richmond, and she intimidated me because of the class warfare stuff that I wasn’t a part of. Everything she was involved in had “The” in front of it, like “The” Country Club. I didn’t really understand all of this; I was just an ordinary suburban boy. 

During the civil rights fights, I came to believe that Richmond was the enemy because they were trying to close our schools. The Bishop made me come here. I was a priest and I had to go where he told me. 

I think this is where the Beast lives. It may be the Beast of America. This is where the whole thing started: within a one mile radius of Shockoe Valley you have four hundred years of American history. You can see it stacking up, you can see it making its mistakes, and you can see what it does to itself. 

We are in a fascinating time where we are looking to the possibility of real change. Things move very slowly, but when things move in Richmond, they really move. You can do something in Los Angeles that only affects the block next to you, but when something moves in Richmond, everybody feels it. 

I feel privileged to be a part of it. I have found all my life that when people attempt to be faithful, to deal with real issues, to deal with the spirit of God, and the true spirit of human beings, and fight those fights with good spirit, they become richer, and you get to associate with some very spiritually rich people. You feel the privilege in the middle of the battle. I would rather be here than doing nothing. 

JT: At the end of the Gospel of Luke the Pharisees ask, how are we going to know when God returns? Christ replies that we are not going to see angels coming down from the clouds because, in fact, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Do you believe that? 

BC: I think that Jesus came and described a transformational process by which the world was gradually becoming a part of God’s kingdom all the time. He told his people to pray: your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. He was not talking about a kingdom after death, which is what everybody likes to talk about, because then we don’t have to worry about death. He was not promoting bus trips to a heavenly city, but was inviting the transformation of human life into effective communion. That is what the Holy Spirit does: it brings justice, it brings truth. It is not going to be finished by the time I have to leave here, but it is a process. I see change around me all the time. 

I really believe in the power of the resurrection, which is why I am willing to be an open critic. I think that people who do not believe in God’s power or the power of the Holy Spirit or the power of human beings to change cannot afford to tell the truth because they think nothing will happen except misery if they do. I think that telling the truth is a step towards health, and it beats the heck out of the alternative.

JT: What do you want to see in Richmond? 

BC: I believe in justice, equality, and a good chance for every human being, kind of like what Thomas Jefferson said he wanted on that strange night when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, though I guess Sally was not there. 

What I care about right now is that we have resegregated schools that are underfunded and get blamed for the deliberate segregation that has been imposed on them. I care that the General Assembly isolated the City of Richmond and made it economically nonviable in the middle of three affluent suburban counties that were created for the purposes of racial segregation. I care that we do not have public transportation in our city. I care that if I work with a kid to graduate from Armstrong High School, he cannot get a job. I care about the fact that 25% of our African-American males have felony convictions. I care about the fact that we seem unable to address these issues of injustice, that we seemingly have to stay defensive about them, or ignorant about them, or run from them. These are the things that matter.

I truly don’t get it. There is no purpose to have a society except to have a good society. Why would you just simply want to make yourself rich, and run off and get a big house in the suburbs? It makes no sense. Life is short and life has to have meaning, and that is not meaning. 

I was on the Capitol steps when Governor McAuliffe announced the voting rights restoration for persons with felony convictions. He asked me to come give a little speech. It was one of the most stunning moments of my life because it was done voluntarily. 

The problem with Virginia that hurts me deeply – and my family has been here since 1760 – is that I actually believe in the idealism and values of this state. I believe in the Declaration of Independence. There are some great things that have happened here. 

And yet, the only times we have been able to live up to those values are when we made the Yankees do it to us. It took the defeat of our people to end slavery, and it took the defeat of our people to make us overcome racial segregation in schools. And as soon as the Yankees left, we did it all over again.

I would love to see us do our own work and be proud to be Virginians. 


Reverend Ben Campbell is a Rhodes Scholar, servant leader, author of Richmond’s Unhealed History, and someone who has done as much as anybody to advance peace and reconciliation in the former capital of the Confederacy.   

Jeff Thomas is the author of Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. He is proud to donate all royalties from his book to Richmond’s public schools.


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