Richmond Community Hospital is a part of Richmond’s Black History

by | Mar 2, 2024 | POLITICS, RICHMOND NEWS, RICHMOND POLITICS, SOCIAL JUSTICE

An interview with Viola Baskerville, who is holding a rally to save the historic Richmond Community Hospital at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at 1209 Overbrook Road.

What, and how, we honor reveals a lot about our society. When the Confederate statues came down on Monument, much of Richmond saw their beloved city get its Rebel flag tattoo removed. That one morning in the roundabout of Allen and Monument, Robert E. Lee’s traitorous bronze ass got out of our way literally and metaphorically. The crane that hoisted his head and torso into the air created a sight poetic in its symbolism. We drowned out the apologists and revisionists, for once and for all. 

The city just unveiled its sprawling (and quite beautiful) master plan for the Shockoe Slavery Museum – ending a decades-long controversy about the proper development of a slave burial ground. Dignity prevailed. There’ll be justice in memoriam, if not in life. 

We are on a ROLL.

Interview with Viola Baskerville about the Richmond Community Hospital by Christian Detres 2024
In the operating room of Richmond Community Hospital, established in 1907 to serve Black patients, four nurses collaborate with a physician during a critical “Emergency Case.” (Image credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress American Memory)

Aaaaand then there’s the Richmond Community Hospital. If I’m figuring the odds here, you don’t know much or anything about this place. At least you didn’t until last week when VUU was coaxed into divulging its plan to demolish the site. So here’s a little primer. 

The building in question is the two-story, handsome, brick and stone building with red-painted window boards, haunting Overbrook Rd between Brook and Langston. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. In the early 1930’s, in the middle of the Great Depression, the resilient, self-sufficient and determined black community in Richmond pitched in to build and institute a proper home for Richmond Community Hospital on Overbrook Rd. The hospital, as an entity, existed as far back as 1902. Dr. Sarah Garland Boyd Jones (the first black woman licensed to practice medicine in Virginia) rallied a dozen and more Black doctors to create a safe and dignified place for their people to access healthcare. 

For decades this institution cared for Richmond’s minority classes when the city refused. This was a place of refuge when power sought to insult and intimidate its most vulnerable citizens. It was ceded to VUU. It sputtered into neglect once Bon Secours bought in as a partner in the 90’s upon which it was defunded into oblivion. It began its slow decay behind graffitied window planks and tall lawns until this moment came to decide its fate.  

In the last week, I’ve certainly met quite a few people enraged by the flippancy shown towards the future of this historical landmark. While I share that feeling, I’m also confused as to how we’ve come to this point having never addressed it. 

The situation is presenting itself at a timely intersection of cultural reflection and political importance. We are in an election year, and protecting historic landmarks plays really well to most audiences. Cynicism aside, there are people that DO care. There are many people alive today because RCH wouldn’t deny them the best care science could offer. Their experiences and comments can be found on this Save Community Hospital Facebook page. I encourage you to scroll the reminiscences there to glean what this hospital meant to the people that relied on it and the current plans to save it. 

I called up the one person I knew would give it to me straight about the history and challenges (and potential future) surrounding the preservation effort, Viola Baskerville. She’s a former Virginia House Delegate and was Secretary of Administration under Governor Tim Kaine. She’s dialed into these efforts with a wealth of experience, influence, and a healthy dose of fearless “I said what I said” vibes. Well, here’s what she had to say:

Christian Detres: I saw your piece that you wrote in response to the Richmond Free Press about the hospital. I could really sense your disappointment in the developments surrounding its future. I would love to get to the bottom of how this building development process came to this conclusion, this quickly, without community discussion. Could you give our readers your take on the whole situation?

Viola Baskerville: Well, I think it really piqued the public’s interests when the Free Press and the RTD were asking about the plans for the site. After the $500 million announcement surrounding VUU’s campus redesign, the questions started coming in about how the hospital building was to be handled. The plans never had a specific description as to what was to be done about the hospital. I heard from a civic association that the development companies had rolled out their plan, but again, there was no specific statement about the future of the hospital. Then the Free Press came out with the information with respect to its proposed demolition and here we are.

CD: Is it conceivable in any way that the developers, obviously in conversation with the college, overlooked the cultural importance of this building? What was the process in making that decision? Why were there no reasonable conversations with historical groups or conservation initiatives? Is that interesting? 

VB: Oh, extremely. And I think that’s the exact type of question that has to be posed to the university. To its leadership in the President and the Board of Directors. The development corporation has offices in New York and Philadelphia. Those offices aren’t anywhere near this community. They may be a well-meaning and capable development entity but there’s a huge disconnect. A black development entity comes to a city that has a strong African-American Heritage – culturally, in population, history-wise – and you don’t even consult with the community? 

When you hear about our cultural sites being on their way to being demolished, you have to speak up. Somebody has to speak up and say no. We are a unique city. We have 400 years plus of history. It’s good history and it’s bad history. It’s changing history. It’s a history that puts us at the forefront of American history. The African American role in that transition is huge in Richmond. 

I think what happened was that we have entities that are not focusing on our local history. In all honesty, because we have such new, changing demographics coming to our city, there are groups that are not as aware of the rich fabric of historical pieces that we have. 

So the Facebook group, Save Community Hospital workgroup, is to educate folks. The community most affected by the future of this building have posted articles, options for consideration, information about what other HBCUs have done with respect to rehabilitative use of buildings, adaptive reuse. That’s the direction we have to go in with respect to these historical sites. And it’s not just the African American community and cultural sites, it’s all across the city. We are carrying out the fabric that makes us unique in spite of so much development coming in, which we are also grateful for. We want new people coming in on that breeze. They’re fresh air to our city. 

CD: Was the hospital designated as a historical building prior to this development idea? 

VB: I’m not clear about that. I’m doing some research and asking people about that. I do not think so. It is definitely eligible in my estimation.

CD: Do you believe that to be because no one ever thought there would be a challenge to its existence? Did this just fall under the radar? I mean, How did we undervalue something this important to the history of African American professionalism and perseverance? It should be a museum. 

VB: Sometimes Richmond kind of hides its gold. Okay. We’re not always boastful and proud until something happens, and then all of a sudden, yeah, we got to do something. We got to do something to save this. Consider that the Board of Directors, in the 1980s, conveyed the building to Virginia Union University. You have a black organization conveying an entity to another black organization, and over the years, it went neglected. It’s been boarded up and gone unused. Sometimes you need a wake up call to say, “hey, your own history is important.” 

CD: It’s not always as cut and dry heroes and villains is it?  That’s fair. So that wake up call that you just mentioned, that moment is definitely now. As we’re moving forward, in the now, what can we do to spread the word? You have a demonstration coming up on the third, right?

VB: [laughs] It’s not a demonstration. I want to highlight the oral history surrounding the hospital. We need to capture and retain the stories for newbies to the city, and for people who may not have known about it while it’s been right under our noses. How do we capture these stories, these life and death stories, these community events that hospital was involved in? How does that hospital relate to Northside’s predominantly African American community? So there are all these little stories that we need to capture and if we can capture them in front of that building, that would be great. 

CD: Is there anyone in our city government that can affect maybe a stay on that development pending community conversation on the matter?

VB: Oh sure, they haven’t even put a spade to ground yet. In the process of all of these plans, they have to come to the city and the City Planning Commission. They’d have to come to the city council for approval. 

The pressure points would be city council, the planning commission, elected officials locally. Your pressure point is also Virginia Union University. President, University Board of Directors, your trustee board, Dr. Richardson as the chair, your board members, your alumni, and the developer, the Steinbridge Group. All of these communities of interest would have the pressure put to bear on what happens with that space.

CD: That’s really useful. I think sometimes with targeted activism, that’s the first hurdle. Simply knowing how to be effective. Thank you so much for the chat. I feel a little smarter. 

The rally to save the historic Richmond Community Hospital will take place 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at 1209 Overbrook Road. You can find more information on the Save Community Hospital Facebook page. 

RICHMOND COMMUNITY HOSPITAL

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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