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DAY 5: History includes dark days, sunny smiles ยป

The depth of Richmond's history goes beyond St. John's Church, the Civil War and the legacy of being the Capital of the Confederacy. Over the centuries, our city has been home to a thriving slave trade and the "Harlem of the South."

The depth of Richmond's history goes beyond St. John's Church, the Civil War and the legacy of being the Capital of the Confederacy.

Over the centuries, our city has been home to a thriving slave trade and the "Harlem of the South."

It still holds the sixth-oldest Jewish congregation in the country, as well as what is considered to be the only Jewish military cemetery outside of Israel

Most recently, Richmond has welcomed residents of Hispanic, Latin and Asian descent, and those cultures are starting to flavor our own.

Exploring Richmond's cultural diversity is as easy as stepping into a museum or learning to salsa at the 17th Street Farmers' Market.

Doing all of it will take more than one day, but it will definitely be time well spent.

African-American history

The beauty of the riverfront at Ancarrow's Landing is marred by the ugliness of its history.

The landing, on the south side of the river from today's Rockett's Landing, was the first place where slaves set foot in Richmond.

Once off the boat, the slaves walked 1? miles through the woods, over the Mayo Bridge, and up today's 15th Street to the jails where they were held until they were sold.

The route is marked today as the Slave Trail, and it's part of Richmond's James River Park System.

Occasionally there are guided walks, but it's easy to do as a self-guided hike. There are two guides available from the James River Park that provide history and context for the walk. (Call 646-8911.)

Path through the woods

The most authentic part of the trail comes at the beginning, with a hike through the woods on a dirt-and-gravel path. I couldn't help but think of the fear, anger and uncertainty the slaves must have felt as they walked through the night.

It takes about 30 minutes to walk through the woods, and then the trail intersects with the floodwall path next to the I-95 bridge. The path leads to the Mayo Bridge and the north side of the river for the rest of the walk.

(At this point, I recommend retrieving your car and driving across the bridge before continuing. There's not much to see along the floodwall or over the bridge that pertains to the Slave Trail.)

The walk ends at the intersection of 15th and Franklin streets. This parking lot was once the site of Lumpkin's Jail, a slave-holding facility known as "the Devil's Half Acre." After slavery was abolished, its dormitories became the first school for former slaves, and Virginia Union University was started here.

Community thrived

The end of slavery also led, ultimately, to the rise of Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood as the center of black commerce and culture.

The neighborhood was home to immigrants and the free black population before it was designated as a voting district and officially named Jackson Ward in 1871.

With the creation of Jim Crow laws and the onset of segregation in the early 20th century, the black community made Jackson Ward its own, turning it into a thriving business district known as the "Harlem of the South."

The community's history is described in detail at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia on Clay Street. The permanent exhibit, "Banks, Boutiques and 'The Deuce,'" features a 12-minute video about Jackson Ward, along with rooms of artifacts from the banks, barber shops, newspapers, businesses and "secret" societies located in the neighborhood.

There's also plenty of information about Second Street, also called "The Deuce." That's where the theaters and jazz clubs were, and where celebrities could be seen walking down the street.

Largest historic district

The civil rights movement and desegregation ended Jackson Ward's prominence for the black community, as its residents and businesses were finally welcome in other areas of the city.

Today, this 40-block neighborhood just north of Broad Street in downtown Richmond is the country's largest National Historic Landmark district. The preserved homes in the area feature so much cast ironwork that only New Orleans has more than Richmond.

Jackson Ward has also been named as one of America's 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust. The "Banks, Boutiques and 'The Deuce'" exhibit illustrates what Jackson Ward was like in its heyday and the importance of preserving that history.

The amazing Maggie Walker

The National Park Service has pre- served a piece of Jackson Ward's his- tory, in the form of the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site.

Walker, the daughter of a former slave, was one of the first black female bank founders and presidents in America. The park service maintains her furnished home at 110? Leigh St., which is open for guided tours.

The woman was, quite frankly, amazing.

Walker was 14 in 1881, when she joined the Independent Order of St. Luke, a benevolent society that helped its black members during illness and death. In 1899, she was elected as the society's leader and remained so until her death in 1934.

During those years, she started the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and founded a newspaper and a retail store in St. Luke's name.

Walker's Jackson Ward home, where she, her two sons and their families took up residence in 1904, has 28 rooms. The furnishings, indoor plumbing, electricity and refrigerator - all installed by Walker - paint a picture of middle-class life in Richmond.

Until I took this tour, Walker was just a name in stories of Richmond's past. But seeing what this dynamic woman chose to surround herself with, from the artwork to her books, brought her to life. The woman and her accomplishments are inspirational.

Jewish history

The first synagogue in Richmond, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, was established in 1789. It was the sixth Jewish congregation founded in America.

More than 100 years later, in 1898, it merged with Congregation Beth Ahabah. That synagogue now maintains the history of both congregations, and the history of Jews in Richmond, at the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives.

This small museum holds sacred and secular items, from menorahs to ketubas (marriage contracts) to baby books and portraits of congregation members.

The permanent exhibit says as much about life in Richmond over the centuries as it does about the congregation and its members, which is the museum's goal.

Ironwork muskets as posts

The museum's employees can also help you locate the Hebrew Confederate Cemetery at Fifth and Hospital streets, across Hospital Street from Shockoe Cemetery.

The gates are often locked, but the area dedicated to the soldiers is easy to spot. It's surrounded by an iron fence with ironwork muskets used as fence posts.

Thirty Jewish Confederate soldiers are buried here in what many say is the only Jewish military cemetery outside of Israel.

The names of 29 of the soldiers are known and are listed on a plaque that also reads, "To the glory of God and in memory of the Hebrew Confederate soldiers resting in this hallowed spot."

Family story detailed

Another memorial for the Jewish dead in Richmond is the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Its exhibits tell the stories of Jewish persecution by the Nazis in Europe and of museum co-founder Jay Ipson, who escaped from the Nazis and hid under a potato field with his family.

The museum was founded in 1996 and in 2003 moved to an old tobacco warehouse on East Cary Street. Train tracks painted on the floor lead visitors through a self-guided tour of rooms depicting the Nazi atrocities.

The tour begins at a re-creation of the concentration camp at Dachau, showing men sleeping four to a bunk and some of the less grotesque medical experiments performed on prisoners.

Other rooms show Kristallnacht, the night when the Nazis looted Jewish stores and synagogues, and the Lithuanian ghetto from which Ipson and his family escaped. There are also scenes from the Hyde Farmlands in Virginia, where Jewish refugees lived and worked until the United States entered World War II in 1941.

This is a particularly good museum for children, as it will gently introduce them to the horrors of the Holocaust. The tableaus are more atmospheric than graphic, imparting the seriousness of the Holocaust in a way that children can grasp without getting nightmares.

Hispanic and Latin cultures

On the first Saturday night each month, the 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Bottom fills with the sights and sounds of Hispanic and Latin culture.

Salsa bands play, dance lessons are given, and people from Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico mingle with other attendees of the Saturday Night Mercado.

The growing Hispanic community in Richmond's suburbs prompted the creation of the Mercado, in hopes of bringing that population into the city. It's also a wonderful chance to experience the differing cultures that fall under the Hispanic and Latin umbrellas.

The music at the Mercado is infectious, drawing children and the elderly into the dance space in equal numbers. Lessons are often given, but your salsa skills can be basic - the point is to get out there and have fun.

Vendors selling jewelry, clothing and Mexican food add to the street-party atmosphere and won't break the bank.

The Mercado, which runs from 5 to 10 p.m., seems to flavor all of Shockoe Bottom. The music can be heard on every block, and groups of people going to or coming from restaurants were drawn to the event on the way to their cars.

I hated to leave when the time was up.

Asian cultures

Throughout the year, there are plenty of festivals highlighting the culture, traditions and food of varying Asian countries.

But anytime of the year, a taste of those cultures is readily available at the Asian grocery stores near the intersection of West Broad Street and Horsepen Road.

The largest is the Tan A Supermarket, at the corner of Broad and Horsepen. The shelves are piled high with noodles, spices, rice and all kinds of ingredients needed to make dishes from about any Asian country.

It's not as boisterous as Manhattan's Chinatown, but the quantities of produce, fresh fish, teas, bowls and platters, chopsticks, bamboo shoots, woks and shoes reminded me of shopping in that neighborhood. For that alone, this store is worth a visit.

At the Tan A and the smaller stores I visited on Horsepen, I felt at a disadvantage because I'm not a cook. I had no idea what I was looking at on the shelves or how they might be used in a dish.

I recommend looking through some cookbooks before heading here, particularly before visiting the smaller stores. Unlike the Tan A, the stores on Horsepen aren't really for browsing; they're more for the seasoned traveler who is familiar with the cuisine.

Regardless of cultural barriers, the stores are worth a visit if only to hear the different languages being spoken. You won't feel like you're in Richmond anymore.

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