What is Church Hill, and how has it changed over time?

By Jessica Evans | Photograph by Dezhane Lurk

The Church Hill community slowly grew up around St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech at the 1775 Virginia Convention. While the origins of Church Hill are relatively well-known, the boundaries are still in dispute. Mary Wingfield Scott, a Richmond historian from the 1950’s, defined Church Hill proper as bounded by 20th Street, Jefferson Avenue, and Franklin Street, or the area immediately surrounding St. John’s Church Hill, but it has come to encompass a much larger area with less definitive boundaries.

True to the name of the area, churches and church communities flourished in the early and middle years of the twentieth century. Church leaders like Reverend J. Andrew Bowler and Dr. Evans Payne had influence beyond church parishioners. Reverend Bowler was instrumental in organizing the first school in Church Hill for African American students, the East End School, later renamed George Mason. Dr. Evans Payne served as a minister for the Fourth Baptist Church, derived from the Fourth African Baptist Church founded in 1859. Dr. Evans Payne was the second minister since the church’s founding, and served the community in other ways as well. According to Mrs. Florine Allen, a lifelong resident of Church Hill, “He would run revivals and he would represent you in court when children got into things because they didn’t have lawyers then.”

The demographics of Church Hill have been in constant flux since the early part of the century. According to Mrs. Allen, the neighborhood was roughly divided into sections based on race. Between M Street and Broad Street was a primarily white neighborhood, while the other side of M street was primarily black. Segregation extended beyond neighborhood boundaries, and into the neighborhood’s schools.

Several years later, Church Hill experienced strife as the Great Depression changed the economic environment of the community. According to Mrs. Bessie Bailey Baldwin, a resident during the beginning of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s support of the NRA had some unintended negative consequences. She argued that it meant “if you had a job, it became a part-time job.” While Mrs. Baldwin continued to earn the same pay, she worked only half a day with the expectation of completing a full day’s work. Despite her best effort, she often fell behind. Mrs. Baldwin lost the job in 1933.[i]

As the century continued, a demographic shift began to take place. Speaking generally about the area between M Street and Broad Street, Mrs. Allen notes that “Others started moving slowly and gradually the neighborhood became black.”[ii] In 1950, Scott noted the racial shift from predominantly white to having more and more African American residents.[iii] In an adjacent neighborhood in Church Hill during that same decade, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority opened Creighton Court, a public housing family development.[iv]

Between 1970-1978, crime statistics differentiated Church Hill from the rest of the city. While murder rates decreased in Richmond overall, instances of murder in Church Hill doubled. Similarly, rape and assault increased by about 300% and 250% Census data from 1980 shows that a majority of residents were working in unskilled labor fields and service operations “by more than twice city average.” The higher unemployment could be attributed to the greater proportion of unskilled jobs, which are more quickly lost in a poor economy.[v] Creighton Court was one option for the unemployed or low-income individuals and families, and unfortunately the concentration of poverty correlated with higher crime rates.[vi]

In an effort to combat falling property values at the end of the 20th century, Richmond implemented the Community Development Block Grant, which allowed for massive restoration efforts in select areas of Church Hill. That restoration led to a dramatic increase in property values in the both targeted areas and in some of the surrounding areas.[vii] While census data shows that the average income in Church Hill had increased since restoration efforts, it still remains lower than the city average.[viii]

Despite the increase in local businesses and rising property values, Creighton Court continues to have a high, though falling, crime rate. A concerned citizen reported that three homicides in Creighton Court occurred within the span of a week in 2011.[ix] More recently, a march through Creighton Court to promote the open carrying of firearms provoked resistance from Marilyn B. Olds, long-time resident and vice chairwoman of the RRHA. She argued against the movement citing the high prevalence of firearms already in the community.[x] Current crime statistics show that both violent and property crimes occur in Creighton Court at a rate much higher than the city of Richmond, which is even higher than the state average.[xi]

Plans in the past few years have focused on restructuring Creighton Court from a primarily low-income community to a mixed-income community.[xii] Meetings have been held, inviting residents to participate in the discussion surrounding the plan, and cite goals such as “improvement in schools, safety in the community, resident health, and economic development.”[xiii] Such meetings exhibit a trend in the Church Hill community to address issues as they arise, and to move forward with the best possible solution.

The history of Church Hill extends to before Richmond became a city, and has been in a state of constant change ever since. Active residents flock to community forums like the Church Hill People’s News, the Church Hill Association, and Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, as well as numerous churches and other community forums in an effort to spread information and build relationships.

 

[i]Bessie Bailey Baldwin, interview by Akida T. Mensah, Virginia Black History Archives: Church Hill Oral History Project, October 9, 1982.

[ii]Allen, Virginia Black History Archives: Church Hill Oral History Project.

[iii]Scott. “Church Hill.” 29-48.

[iv]Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, “Public Housing Communities,” RRHA, last modified 2014. http://www.rrha.org/html/public/communities.shtml.

[v]Beverly A Asselstine, “A Community Conservation Plan North of Broad on Church Hill, Richmond, Virginia” (Diss., Virginia Commonwealth University, 1982).

[vi]Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, “Public Housing,” RRHA, last modified 2014. http://www.rrha.org/html/publichousing.shtml.

[vii]Marilyn McAteer, “Redevelopment Plan for Fairmont Avenue, 25th Street and Nine Mile Road and Surrounding Neighborhoods” (Diss., Virginia Commonwealth University, 2008).

[viii]McAteer, “Redevelopment Plan for Fairmont Avenue, 25th Street and Nine Mile Road and Surrounding Neighborhoods.”

[ix]John M, “Murder Week in the Housing Projects,” Church Hill People’s News, last modified September 22, 2011. http://chpn.net/news/2011/09/22/.

[x]Michael Paul Williams, “Creighton Court ‘Open Carry’ Gun March off Target,” Richmond Times Dispatch, last modified October 2, 2014. http://www.timesdispatch.com/.

[xi]“Creighton, Richmond, VA Crime Rates and Statistics,” AreaVibes, Inc., last modified 2014. http://www.areavibes.com/richmond-va/creighton/crime/.

[xii]John M., “Plans Underway to Redevelop Creighton and Whitcomb,” Church Hill People’s News, last modified April 25, 2013. http://chpn.net/news/2013/04/25/.

[xiii]John M., “North Church Hill Neighborhood Transformation Public Meeting Next Thursday,” Church Hill People’s News, last modified July 18, 2014. http://chpn.net/news/2014/07/18/.

 

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