In a far from literate nineteenth century America, armories were one of a type of buildings that signaled its purpose at a glance. The castle-like appearance of armories deliberately projected a sense of strength, civic order, security and pride. In addition, this building must have been of special significance for the former slaves and children of ex-slaves in Richmond. Here, in the heart of Jackson Ward, stood a promise written in brick and granite—the same promise that had been written in an ocean of blood by a civil war only a generation before. The promise was that there was a people and a society that was equal to all others.
John Mitchell Jr., understood the importance of an armory for Richmond blacks, especially since there were four other white militias in the city, each with their own facility: the Richmond Blues, the Richmond Grays, the Richmond Howitzers, and the Cavalry armories. Seeking political support for an armory for blacks, Mitchell, accompanied by officers from the 1st Battalion, visited every alderman and councilman to explain the importance of the project. Although, many in Richmond opposed funding a “colored” armory, the city allocated $4,000 to buy land in Jackson Ward in 1884. Wilfred Cutshaw, the city engineer and a former Confederate officer, threw his support behind the project.
Building the Leigh Street Armory
Richmond City Council narrowly approved $7,500 for the construction of a new armory for Richmond’s blacks in 1894. His department perpetually underfunded, the frustrated Cutshaw went before the council and secured additional funds. Cutshaw, who oversaw the design and construction of many Richmond parks, markets, schools and armories, apparently felt military experience and training was excellent influence in the life of young men of any race. His designs and influence over armory construction ensured that young black and white men, although socially divided by an increasingly segregated city, could still benefit from the discipline and education of drill and practice.
Skilled black craftsmen and laborers built the Leigh Street Armory. Armstead Walker, husband of bank president Maggie L. Walker, served as the brickwork contractor for the project. Walker’s role drew complaints from the white Bricklayers Union, which claimed that Walker had no right to the project in reference to a decision made in 1887, that only “native whites” could be employed on construction projects. John Mitchell Jr. advocated for Walker and made sure that the Walker and his craftsmen were allowed to finish the project. Walker’s role in construction of the Leigh Street Armory ensured this building so important to black society was, in fact, built by blacks.
“New Armory, St. Peter and Leigh Street”
The Grand Opening of the armory was celebrated with a twelve-day “Military Bazaar,” beginning October 21. Advertisements in the Richmond Planet told of “New and Bright Attractions each Night” including “refreshments in abundance, bicycles for raffle, exhibition drills, and literary and musical entertainment.” Such was the pride in the new armory that Jackson Ward residents were treated night after night with banquets, speeches, drill exhibitions and dances. In 1895, after more than twenty years, Virginia’s black soldiers had an armory to call their own. The crenelated towers on Leigh Street began their long watch over the rooftops of Jackson Ward.
“No Officers, No Fight!”
In 1898, many black militia members and other citizens volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War. White officials stirred racial conflict by refusing to put black officers in charge of black troops, including within Virginia’s Sixth Regiment. For this and other reasons, black militias across the South were disbanded after that war. In support of the troops in the service, John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, repeatedly raised the cry: “No Officers, No Fight!” In response, black officers in Virginia’s Second Battalion, (from the cities of Petersburg and Norfolk), challenged U.S. Army authority by resigning.
Four years after the armory opened, even before the black militia returned from the Spanish-American War, the city agreed to convert the armory into a school for “colored” kids. Monroe Elementary opened in September 1899 with 418 elementary students and 8 teachers. Students who performed exceptionally well were placed on the honor roll and were encouraged by having their names published in the Richmond Planet.
World War II: The Monroe Service Center
Closed after decades of service as a Richmond school, the armory was reopened once again to serve black servicemen. In 1942, the building became the Monroe Center, a recreation center for black troops. The U.S. Office of Civilian Defense converted classrooms to dormitories and built a gym behind the building where the schoolyard had been. For black GIs who were passing through Richmond, the armory became an oasis where they could find a bed for the night, a hot meal and a shower. Volunteering to help at the Leigh Street Armory became for many Richmond blacks was their way of personally supporting the American war effort in World War II.
A Gym for Local Schools
From 1945 until 1981, Armstrong High School and later Graves Middle School used the armory as an annex and the gym for basketball games, events and dances. From 1952–54, the building housed the Colored Special School. In 1981, the city declared the armory surplus property.
Damage and Rehabilitation
A fire in the mid-1980s damaged the second floor and burned a hole in the metal roof, leaving the interior of the building open to the elements. Over the decades, snow and rain gradually destroyed the floors, walls, ceilings and most of the interior woodwork. The building stood padlocked and dark until 2002, when a Save America’s Treasures grant paid for the armory’s stabilization. Masons carefully rebuilt much of the brickwork along the tops of the exterior walls, installed new floors and a temporary roof, and rebuilt the fire-damaged eastern wall.
Like the Jackson Ward neighborhood that surrounds it, the Leigh Street Armory is a survivor. It has survived abandonment, fire, and decades of neglect in order to serve all Virginians and their visitors in its new role as the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Imagine the pride and satisfaction that Richmond luminaries like banker Maggie Walker and publisher John Mitchell Jr. would feel again crossing the threshold into the old brick walls. Their astonishment at what was going on inside would be complete. The energy and pride, the art and performances, state-of-the-art exhibits and state-wide outreach ensure that the Leigh Street Armory is the home of the Black History Museum – Richmond’s and Virginia’s primary center for black history and culture.