Richmond’s 19th century African-American armory part of VNG history

The historic Leigh Street Armory in Richmond, Virginia, was originally built in the late 19th century for Richmond’s 1st Battalion Virginia Volunteers. It is now home to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

RICHMOND, Va. — Just a few miles from the Virginia National Guard Sergeant Bob Slaughter Headquarters at Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia, stands an imposing brick structure resembling a medieval fortress in the historic African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward, just north of downtown Richmond.

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

The building, which today houses the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, holds an important part of Virginia National Guard history under its turrets and towers. It’s known as the Leigh Street Armory, and holds the distinction of being not just the oldest armory expressly built for African-Americans in Virginia, but also the entire country.

The castle-like armory was built in the 1890’s to house the 1st Battalion Virginia Volunteers, Richmond’s African-American militia.

“Early militias were the predecessors to the National Guard,” said Sarah Campbell, curator for the Virginia National Guard Museum.

After the onset of the Spanish-American war in 1898, all states were required to assemble volunteer armies. At this time, the 1st Battalion Virginia Volunteers, from Richmond, were mustered with 2nd Battalion, from Petersburg, to form the 6th Virginia Volunteers. The unit was called to federal active duty and trained at various facilities, but never saw combat before being disbanded. Soon after, the historic Leigh Street Armory’s role shifted away from military use.

“In 1899, the state dissolved black militia, in the midst of the Jim Crow era, and this building was immediately turned into a segregated school,” said Campbell. “It has a really deep tie to African-American history today, but the Guard only used it as an armory for about five years.”

Despite the short-lived use as an armory, the history of the African-American citizen Soldiers it was built for is a significant one.

“The fact that there were African-Americans to form a militia ready to defend this city and the state, so soon after the Civil War, is amazing to me,” said Mary Lauderdale, the visitor services manager for the Black History Museum.

The ties to Richmond’s black history don’t end there. Lauderdale explained that the building was constructed by African-Americans, including master bricklayer and contractor Armstead Walker, husband to celebrated African-American educator and business woman Maggie Walker.

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“The fact that money was allocated for this building from the city, the fact it was a black bricklayer and contractor, the fact that blacks now had a place to drill, the fact that it was in Jackson Ward, all of these things are just phenomenal,” said Lauderdale. “That’s why it’s so important to preserve this building and for us to be here.”

After decades as a segregated school, the building again entered into military service in the 1940’s, when it housed African-American troops serving during World War II. During that time, it not only served an estimated 56,000 troops over several years, but it also served the community.

“During that period they also hosted public dances on Fridays and Saturdays, which were a great community service,” said Campbell.

After the war, the building again served as a schoolhouse for Richmond’s African-Americans before eventually being vacated, left to fall in disrepair. After years of neglect, and a fire which destroyed its roof in the mid 1980’s, the building was leased to the museum. Stabilization and repair of the structure began in 2002, with help from a grant from the Save America’s Treasures program.

In 2016, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia moved into the renovated armory. While the structure no longer serves a military function, the building and the museum it houses are still serving the community in a very important way.

“Our mission is to preserve stories that inspire,” said Adele Johnson, the museum’s executive director. “The opportunity for us is to inspire contemporary history makers and future history makers, because we have a lot of students who come in. We want them to see that they’re standing on the shoulders of many great people who have come before them.

“When we’re talking about Maggie Walker and Arthur Ashe, we want people to see that they have made great contributions, and you can too.”

A more modern addition was built onto the brick armory, with care to not detract from building’s history and the museum’s focus.

“The recent glass and steel addition points to the historic building as the focal point without sacrificing the flexibility to fill the old and new spaces with bold exhibitions and conversations about social justice,” said Campbell.

The museum is located in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, just north of downtown. It’s located at 122 West Leigh Street. For information about visiting the museum, visit blackhistorymuseum.org.

For a detailed architectural history of the Leigh Street Armory, click here.

For a more detailed history of the African-American militia the armory was built for, visit https://go.usa.gov/xEU9G.