Second St. Festival awakens spirit of historic Jackson Ward

Second Street Festival in Richmond from Kamilah Brown on Vimeo.

Saturday, that rich history of Jackson Ward came alive once more, as it does annually, at the Second Street festival in Richmond, Va.

For a split second when you step onto the street, affectionately called “Deuces,” in historic Jackson Ward, you can see the 1930s night street filled with Friday night fervor; women, clad in heel and skirts, men wearing zoot suits, all searching for solace from the pressure of the prior week.

From the legendary Hippodrome Theater, home-away-from-home for many of African-America’s legendary thespians, musicians and artists, you can hear the mellow rhythm of Louis Armstrong’s horn accompanied by the scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald, packed audience echoes of “Hi-de, hi-de, hi-de-ho” for Cab Calloway and the click-clack of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taps as he step dances on the stage.

This weekend, Richmond’s jazz legends were honored by musicians from near and far, like jazz bands Cloud 9 and G7 Jazz, the First African Baptist Church Youth Choir and locally known DJ Kirby who took their turns on 2nd street’s various festival stages.

Sisterly Grace Dance Ministries and Sharon Baptist Church’s Youthful Praise duo performed, an annual tradition for the churches whose history is as much interwoven in Jackson Ward’s history as the Bojangles Monument gracing the neighborhood’s center.

Vendors selling everything from incense, to jewelry—hand made, one of a kind pieces by the master silversmiths of Third Generation Jewelers—to multimedia art and on the spot, sketched selfies.

Featured Jackson Ward restaurants fried everything from catfish and mac ‘n’ cheese to Oreos, quenched thirsts with smoothies and sweetened teeth with handspun shakes and soulfood ice cream.

Alive were the sounds and atmosphere that has kept the spirit of Jackson Ward alive since its birth in 1871. Back then, it was a haven for German, Italian and Jewish immigrants.

It became the same for post civil war freemen who came to begin anew.

By 1900, the neighborhood was primarily run, owned and frequented by African-Americans; “a city within a city,” it had its own barbershops, boutiques, restaurants and entertainment avenues.

Born there were Maggie Lena Walker, the first female millionaire, bank president and local black business owner whose home still sits on 2nd St., and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, often ostracized by blacks for what they deemed “blackface buffoonery,” but, later, hailed as one of the pioneers in bringing darker hues to the big screen.

Its inviting atmosphere and African-American presence made Jackson Ward a go-to spot for many legends of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Hailed as “the Harlem of the South,” the Jackson Ward area of Richmond flourished until the 1950s when reconstruction displaced many of its homeowners and forced public housing into its walls.

Today, the neighborhood, reduced in size, still stands with many of the same quaint nuances that once made it famous. The Hippodrome Theater, refurbished in the 1990s, features not only African-American artists, but also many other little known, yet talented newcomers.

Beside it sits the only remaining structure of black architect John A. Lankford, once a home for Rev William Lee Taylor, founder of the fraternal organization True Reformers and The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, the first black owned bank in the United States. Today, it serves as a restaurant, Mansion Five26.

On Monday, Jackson Ward will settle into the hustle of the weekday workers. This weekend, though, it was reminiscent of a time when neighborhood unity flourished and the Harlem of the South reigned supreme.

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