By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Dust recently settled around the old Leigh Street Armory, the lights were turned on in a special ceremony on Nov. 20, and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is scheduled to open Jan. 15.
But that is not the end of the story. Like the legendary Phoenix arises from its own ashes, the newly renovated 12,000-square-foot armory at 122 W. Leigh St., in Jackson Ward is experiencing new life because of a successful $10 million capital campaign. This means as you stroll past artwork, linger at artifacts and take in recordings and parchments beginning Jan. 15.
You may overlook the fact that you just walked through the collective vision of several generations. Carroll Anderson Sr. launched the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in 1981 in a modest brick home at 00 Clay Street. The museum that will move from Clay Street to the armory at Leigh Street was the brainchild of many including prominent businesswoman Maggie Walker who passed in 1934, and John Mitchell Jr., a former slave turned newspaper editor, who died in 1929.
Most recently, much of the groundwork for the new facility was laid by the museum’s 15-member board and Stacy L. Burrs who stepped down in January 2015 as the chief executive officer, to become deputy director with Venture Richmond.
According to news reports, Burrs was chairman of the museum’s board for eight years before becoming its CEO in 2013. Burrs presided over the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 6, 2014. He also helped to launch the museums $10 million capital campaign.
Tasha Chambers, who became the new museum director on Aug. 24, said, “The armory has been empty for years. As a child, I thought it was a castle. People are excited and waiting to see what is inside of it. We are bringing a new generation to the Amory. They want to see the new vision. And that is why we have set a goal of 30,000 visitors for the first year.”
“This project has revitalized Jackson Ward which was called the Harlem of the South at one time,” Chambers explained. “The area declined with the building of the interstate. But we have been able to raise the necessary funds because it is a significant draw to donors.”
Like a pebble thrown into a pond creates a ripple effect which spreads, the newly renovated museum’s impact extends over a large area. Specifically, the facelift has created jobs.
“This project has hired a significant number of Section 3 workers (welfare to work employees),” said Chambers, 34, a Richmond native who attended Highland Springs High School.
“The project has also employed many minority-owned construction companies,” said Chambers who graduated from Howard University in 2003 with a degree in journalism. She worked with an advertising firm in Richmond.
Chambers added. “So we have already made history that way. We also plan to hire a development officer to raise money for the museum. We will need revenue of $900,000 annually to be sustainable. We are 60 percent there for the first year and donations are still coming in.”
Don’t be surprised if the museum continues to make history. For example, plans call for increasing the number of permanent employees from two to five in the next six months.
And traffic around the newly renovated facility will probably increase since the new museum will house galleries on two floors. The permanent exhibit will be located on the first floor, and a traveling exhibit will be located on the second floor.
Located in a 120-year-old once vacant building that housed soldiers of color, the armory has also been used as a school and a USO for black soldiers during World War II. Neighborhood youth played in the gym. And while a 1990 effort to secure funds to build a museum inside of the armory failed, preservationists and people in the neighborhood kept trying.
This means that while the armory’s roof collapsed and the gym fell apart, others continued to focus on the vision including activist preservationists Selden Richardson, who secured a $700,000 federal grant in 2003 combined with community-block development.
The point is like the mythical phoenix obtained new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor, many in Richmond have performed a similar feat by working to support the new $2.2 million facelift at the armory.
Or as John Donne said of the fabled bird, “Up … fair Phoenix. Be thou a new star that portends.”