Historical Context

Race Relations in the City of Richmond

The racial climate in the city of Richmond was greatly altered by World War I. Integration of former slaves began slowly during the Reconstruction Era.  World War I would shift the racial dynamics in the city as many black soldiers returned from fighting alongside their white countrymen, still painfully aware of their status (Smith, 41).  In order to maintain the social separation between blacks and whites, many Southern states, including Virginia, adopted a set of written and unwritten laws called Jim Crow Laws (Smith, 41). Jim Crow encompassed a set of behaviors, attitudes, boundaries that attempted to “keep blacks in their place.” This included things like creating mandates for separate but equal facilities, placing restrictions on public interactions between whites and blacks, and restraints on civic behaviors such as voting and employment (Smith, 41).  

Despite the restrictive nature of the social structure across the U.S., Virginia was a site of contest, where many of the communities in which Jim Crow functioned were also sites of collaboration between whites and blacks, especially amongst Christian communities (Smith, 47). The inter-racial cooperation continued during the turbulent political battle over universal suffrage; blacks were further marginalized and continued to serve in subservient roles at institutions that proclaimed to fight for equality (Smith, 68). Whites continued to dictate the direction and strength of interracial cooperation; in theory they supported the advancement and integration of African Americans into society, yet in practice they often fell short of living up to the ideals for which they advocated. (Smith, 69).

Understanding the history of race relations in the state of Virginia helps us to contextualize the experiences of African-American Staff members at the University of Richmond. The themes of Christian advocacy for racial equality and cognitive dissonance that blocked progress, pervaded throughout the experiences caputured by the materials collected in this exhibit. While there are attempts to elevate and praise staff members, they are simultaneously constrained to subservient roles in campus life. This duality in representation speaks to the ways in which Virginians often supported African-American advancement in theory while failing to continue to support it in practice. 


Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Historical Context