The Potential for Archaeology: Urban Renewal and the Destruction of Fulton

Figure 1. Modern view of Fulton Bottom from Pocahontas Playground (photo by Ellen Heberling)

Fulton’s History

The neighborhood of Fulton, surrounded by Williamsburg Road just east of Shockoe Bottom, has a long history. In the early 1600s, the Fulton area was occupied by members of the Powhatan Chiefdom, and was a place for many English-Native American interactions. Continuing into the 1700s, many Irish immigrants moved into Fulton for work at the port, what was then known as Rocketts.

Dan Mouer’s 1992 archaeological report on Rocketts Landing (see references) shows that prior to the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad in the late 1890’s, the broader area that would include Fulton now was referred to as the town of Rocketts – a town in which the economy was based through a port located on the James River. Rocketts was a place where people lived and worked, but after the railroad was built, and after the destruction of the Port of Richmond downstream, the economy shifted to focus on the railroad. The separation between work place and living space also came into fashion, pushing what was now known as the neighborhood of Fulton (named after the C&O’s railroad terminal) further away from the railroad and even further away from the port. Many families that originally lived in Rocketts moved to the area now known as Fulton, continuing the histories of those who had lived and worked in the village of Rocketts. However, while Mouer’s work focuses on the area that is now known as Rocketts, there seems to have only been site assessments done and no extensive archaeology work conducted just north, in what is now known as Fulton.

Urban Renewal

During the early 1970s, many industry jobs opened in Fulton, and it became home to many low-income African-Americans, as the Irish and other European immigrants moved out toward Montrose Heights, located near Fulton. Also beginning in the early 1970s, Fulton began an urban renewal process (Figure 1). Urban renewal was an urban planning movement that tore down many established urban neighborhoods, particularly displacing people of color. The implementing of urban renewal began with the passing of the Housing Act of 1949, allowing the federal government to acquire land for public housing. Ostensibly the goal of this project was to make what were referred to as “slums” suitable environments for families. However, another unstated goal of this process is now acknowledged to be the spatial segregation of extreme poverty and black families into discrete areas of the city (this process has been documented by John Moeser and the Mapping Inequality project, among others). The Housing Act of 1954, coined the term “urban renewal” and furthered this need to renew the “slums” by bulldozing many neighborhoods, promising relocation for the residents but breaking that promise time and time again.

Many citizens of Fulton resisted the demolishing of their homes and relocation of their lives, shown through the many narratives of Fulton residents in Scott C. Davis’ The World of Patience Gromes: Making and Unmaking a Black Community. Plans for urban renewal began in 1968, and right at the start committees were formed, and marches on the Capitol commenced. But after the flood of the James River in 1972 that moved fifty families out of Fulton, the battle against urban renewal was lost. By 1975, many streets, such as State Street, and the houses on that street were completely demolished for Admiral Gravely Boulevard (compare Figure 2 and Figure 3). Court cases against the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) continued into the 1980s, even going so far as to bringing a U.S. District Court Judge to Richmond, attempting to protect the last three remaining houses on Denny St. The court cases were not successful and these houses were torn down. Today, there are newly built houses on Admiral Gravely Boulevard, as well as many other streets that were demolished for the construction of new houses. As of days ago, there continues to be construction on the only original blocks left of the old neighborhood of Fulton. Old photographs of Fulton Bottom compiled at Church Hill People’s News also provide a sense of the historic neighborhood and how much it has changed.

Figure 2 and Figure 3. Modern day Google Map image of Fulton Fig. 3 Map of Fulton, 1966 (pre-urban renewal). This map being used is copyrighted by the City of Richmond-DPW and is being used with their consent. Any reproduction or other use of this map without the express written consent of the City of Richmond-DPW is prohibited.

The implementing of urban renewal by the federal government failed to improve the lives of those living in poorer, mainly non-white neighborhoods. It has instead gentrified neighborhoods, pushing people who were living in poverty out of where they’ve lived for many generations. Another negative impact of urban renewal has been its destruction of historically significant buildings and the loss of archaeological resources. For the case of urban renewal or any sort of federal housing project, the city of Richmond is allowed to receive federal assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Prior to the Programmatic Agreement for Richmond’s Housing and Urban Development Projects, which came into being after a lawsuit in the late 1980s involving the neighborhood of Carver, many urban renewal and federal housing projects looked over historically significant buildings that could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and ignored any sort of archaeological potential. With this agreement, the City must follow guidelines to make sure no historically important structures or archaeological sites get destroyed or have buildings placed over them, when working with HUD and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA). The over 800 houses in Fulton were destroyed before this agreement came into being, losing any sort of protection the houses could have gained, and destroying important archaeological knowledge. The somewhat confusing nomenclature of the Programmatic Agreement, its limitations, and the lack of public knowledge of the agreement has influenced me to write a later blog post about it, hopefully to be published soon after this post is up.

The Possibilities of Urban Archaeology

The archaeology of urban renewal projects, especially here in Richmond, could have rich potential. It could provide information through artifacts about how race, class, and ethnic relationships were understood in the past. Although it is not objectively possible to connect certain artifacts to certain groups of peoples, race, class, and ethnicity, can manifest themselves in the archaeological record through patterns, especially in certain contexts. Paul R. Mullins (2006) shows examples of this in his article “Racializing the commonplace landscape, an archaeology of urban renewal along the color line” when looking at Indianapolis, Indiana. His work attempts to draw a connection between racism, the urban landscape, and the contemporary Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus. Before archaeology commenced, there was oral history conducted, where African-American elders who felt a connection to the history being studied (or the descendant community) explained their lives and histories in this part of Indiana. Similar oral history projects have also been conducted on Richmond neighborhoods (Fulton and Church Hill) through Virginia Commonwealth University and the Valentine Museum. Through the oral histories, Mullins and others were able to understand what the descendant community believed archaeology could do for them. In this case, the descendants saw archaeology as a way of interacting with the public, and showing the public the positive lives they led in spite of racial segregation and racism.

During a 2002 excavation of an African-American boarding house site on the IUPUI campus, Mullins found a scattering of straight pins and buttons underneath the floorboards. As he notes, many laundresses and seamstresses working for white families would bring work home, possibly losing these straight pins and buttons through the cracks of their flooring. The straight pins and buttons were significant and indicated the houses’ social status, since this was documented as an African-American boarding house, what was found had potential to show the position of black women in the early twentieth century. Another interesting find were foil milk caps, found in all of Mullins’ excavated African-American sites. One of the neighborhood elders was able to describe the importance of these discoveries – these foil milk caps were used to grant access to an exclusively white amusement park, Riverside Amusement Park, on ‘Colored Frolic’ day, or what it later became to be known, ‘Milk Cap Day.’ This showed an instance where African-American members of the community were able to join an activity that they were usually excluded from; making the foil milk caps a culturally significant artifact.

It is important to note that archaeological work like Mullins’ might not function exactly the same way here in Richmond, for every community is different. Descendant communities from different locales will value different things, changing the research goals for the archaeologist from one site to the next. Dr. Michael Blakey from the College of William & Mary has conducted work and created a model describing the role of descendant communities in archaeological excavations, developed through his work at the African Burial Ground in New York City. His approach was innovative because he “provided the descendant community with political awareness through concrete historical experiences that afford opportunities to make alternative history and inclusion in the production of knowledge” (Perry and Blakey 1997, see references). This approach provides a platform in which archaeology, oral histories, the descendant community, and archaeologists could have worked together to provide historical information on the Fulton neighborhood that was meaningful to the local community.

Archaeology in Fulton

There is still a slight chance for more extensive archaeological work to be done in Fulton, since there is still construction going on to this day. Because the roads have been shifted and some areas have not undergone significant construction, there is still the possibility of finding intact archaeological sites in Fulton. But because only what seems like site assessment has been done, and there has been no sort of historic preservation, this area pre-urban renewal is only remembered through oral histories that only recently, and luckily, have been conducted and archived. Archaeology can provide a richer understanding of the area, through objects peoples of the descendant community could actually interact with. Peoples of the descendant community could possibly remember certain stories after viewing an artifact, like the example of the foil milk caps. Archaeologically, Fulton could provide information about race relations in the early 1900s, producing public conversations about race, class, and ethnicity, looking at what has changed, and what has not in the City of Richmond. Sparking conversation, building a stronger connection between descendant communities and past neighborhoods, is some of the work archaeology can do, especially in urban contexts.

Archaeological reports accessed through DHR:
1. Mouer’s (1992) “The Archaeology of the Rocketts Number 1 Site (44He671) Lot 203 in the City of Richmond, Virginia”

Academic articles:
1. Mullins’ (2006) “Racializing the commonplace landscape, an archaeology of urban renewal along the color line”
2. Perry, Warren and Michael Blakey, “Archaeology as Community Service”, North American Dialogue, v.2, no. 1, 1997.

More information about urban renewal:
1. “The Politics of Urban Renewal” P.J. Madgwick in Journal of American Studies 5, No. 3 (Dec., 1971), pp. 265-280
2. Archaeology of American Cities, Rothschild and Wall (2014)
3. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs (1961)

1. The World of Patience Gromes: Making and Unmaking a Black Community Scott C. Davis (2012)
2. Richmond Times-Dispatch article about Fulton in the late 1960’s –
3. Fulton’s oral histories:
4. 2007 Style Weekly article about the loss of the neighborhood of Fulton: