How this organization is helping reconstruct a historic Jackson Ward home

How this organization is helping preserve a historic Jackson Ward home
Posted at 5:51 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 10:10:43-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Many in Richmond have probably never heard the name Abraham Peyton Skipwith, let alone know the type of life he was able to carve out for himself as a Black man in the 1790s.

Dr. Sesha Joi Moon and Enjoli Moon, co-founders of the JXN Project, are not surprised by that but they're actively working to change it.

“I think that Abraham Skipwith should be a household name. When we understand the arc of his life, there is no doubt everyone in the country should be aware of Abraham Skipwith,” Enjoli Moon said.

Skipwith was an enslaved Black man who secured freedom for himself and his family in the 1780s, according to research by JXN. In 1793, he became the first Black homeowner in Jackson Ward and built a cottage on a parcel of land on Duvall Street in North Richmond.

The Moons, who are sisters, call Skipwith the “Found Father of Jackson Ward” not just because of gaining his freedom and achieving homeownership in the years just after the American Revolution. During their research, they uncovered his will from 1797, in which he left his house and possession to his family “forever.”

“It’s the things that are in the will. It’s the fact that he left clothes, furniture, silver, and gold. He had a gun,” Dr. Sesha Joi Moon said. “For me though, the most prized possession in his will was the horse and buggy. I just have a very hard time wrapping my head around a Black man riding around Richmond, Virginia, in the late 1700s in his own horse and buggy, not in service to his enslaver.”

“His worldly acumen was just deeply impressive and not something we typically attest to Black people in the South in the 1700s,” Enjoli Moon said.

Jackson Ward was famously known as the “Harlem of the South” or “Black Wall Street” decades after Skipwith’s death, as Black businesses and culture thrived. But like the history of Jackson Ward, Skipwith’s cottage in its original form was destroyed by highway construction.

Skipwith’s family owned the cottage and land until 1905 when it was sold to another family. It remained until the 1950’s when the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Authority forcibly condemned the property and removed the family still living there.

Read Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Paul William's piece on the Skipwith home and the research into his legacy here.

For decades now, vehicles zoom down Interstate 95 at 400 W. Duvall Street, where the Skipwith-Roper cottage once sat. The only sign of a Skipwith is a memorial marker bearing his name.

The Interstate 95 project cut Jackson Ward in half and, along with the practice of redlining, stymied the economic and cultural hub it had become.

“Jackson Ward is both a space of celebration but also a cautionary tale,” said Dr. Sesha Joi Moon.

The highway now serves as a tangible example of what the JXN Project is calling the “Skipwith-Roper Homecoming.” JXN recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation’s “The Monument’s Project” and a land grant from the Maggie Walker Land Trust to reconstruct the Skipwith-Roper cottage on a parcel of land on Bates Street, just north of the interstate.

The plan is to reconstruct the house close to its original state and utilize the space as a historic site and community programming hub.

“Jackson Wardians have these really sturdy shoulders. We know that Maggie Walker, she was standing on the shoulders of an Abraham Skipwith,” Enjoli Moon said. “So as we acknowledge this space of tribute and remembrance and joy, let us forget the reality of why we’re here. Why that home isn’t still at 400 Duvall Street.”

The Moons said for those whose families do not have longtime roots in Richmond, their view of Jackson Ward is limited to the “historic district,” when in fact it originally stretched well north of what is now I-95. The historic site will be designed to tell that fuller picture of Jackson Ward and the history of Black Richmond.

The “Skipwith-Roper Homecoming” is about 40% along with its fundraising goal for the project with the grant and land donation. JXN wants to have the project complete by 2026 when the United States celebrates 250 years since the American Revolution.

“It’s going to help Black America and going to help this country as we are like navigating who we are, who we’re going to be, how we’re going to be. Learning more about here and how it started, we think can help inform so of those answers,” Enjoli Moon said.

“We might also be able to use this project to help even change how historic preservation is handled. How do we identify the Black spaces that are worth saving? You know, our history is more than mere markers along highways,” said Dr. Sesha Joi Moon.

You can learn more about the JXN Project and the “Skipwith-Roper Homecoming” here.

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