Remembering Project R4

May 2008

Originally published in October 2000

Forty years ago, in the name of urban renewal, Harrisonburg bulldozed the heart of its black community, including homes, businesses and churches. Some say the city never recovered.

by Lauren McKinney

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Just northeast of Harrisonburg’s Court Square, a chapter of the city’s African-American history lies buried under the pavement. Kline’s, Dollar General, Roses, the Post Office substation, and the Rockingham County building are a few of the establishments occupying that space now. Imagine their vast parking lots as a series of back yards, with laundry on the line and women chatting over the fences. Picture children playing hopscotch on the sidewalks. Organ music from First Baptist Church floats on the breeze, and young men enter the pool hall, laughing. This was the heart of the black community. In the 1950s and 1960s, Harrisonburg tore it down in the name of urban renewal.

Many of the destroyed homes were in good repair and well-loved by their owners. Edna Rhodes had a big front porch, and she says “I have been missing that porch ever since.” Her husband Elon’s grandfather built the house, which was actually a log house. “We loved our house. It was set on flat rock. Elon was 6 when he moved in with his family,” she explains. “We also had rental property that was torn down. We sold two houses and could hardly buy one,” she sighs. She remembers one couple who were proud of their home and took excellent care of it before being forced to move. “They didn’t want to live in the projects, so they ended up living in the worst-looking place in town.”

Jennifer Vickers’ grandparents Henry and Savilla Vickers lived in a fine old house on Wolfe Street, where Dollar General is now. The size of the old house allowed the family to entertain a lot, but their replacement home on Broad Street was much smaller. “Henry was never happy there,” recalls Mary Fairfax, the only resident known to have fought the city and saved her home on Gay Street.

Andrew “Poochie” Toliver’s mother had a large brick house on Mason Street, where Auto Zone is today. It was no more than 20 years old when it was torn down. Their new house was smaller on much less land.

Not everyone was unhappy, concedes Edna Rhodes. “Some people who never had furnaces or bathrooms were glad.”

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“Project R4” began when Harrisonburg, like many American cities and towns in the 1950s, decided to take advantage of newly available federal redevelopment funds, whose basis was the Housing Acts of 1937 and 1949. Bob Sullivan, an intern for the city planner’s office in 1958, explains that David Clark, the city planner, “had to convince City Council that we had slums.” The idea was that a city would have housing experts declare slum or blight areas. Then the city would clear these areas and build new housing elsewhere for the displaced residents. Many cities rebuilt their cleared areas with public parks or recreation areas, while a minority, like Harrisonburg, planned to sell the new space to commercial developers.

Clark and his city planning office defined Harrisonburg’s “slums” as the city blocks east of Main, north of Gay, west of Broad, and south of Johnson. Bob Sullivan’s sum- houses in this area, as evidence of their poor condition, and to use as a basis for their appraisal upon purchase from the owners.

Federal law mandated that before any clearance project was started, each city had to hold a referendum on the issue. The referendum did not refer to any specific clearance project. Instead it merely asked, “Is there a need for the housing authority to be activated in the City of Harrisonburg, Virginia?” Given the bland wording of the question, the tiny black voting population and a still-segregated society, it seemed that Harrisonburg would pass the necessary referendum easily. Surprisingly, the vote was close: 1024 in favor and 978 against.

With that vote, the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority (HRHA) was formed. All its members were white men, says Sullivan. Their representatives began to knock on doors, telling residents and business owners that they had to sell. Recalls Mary Fairfax: “It was a sad feeling when people’s houses went. What really got on my nerves was when they burned houses down. You heard the machines early in the morning, and you knew that someone’s house was going to go that day. … My daddy built our house and I didn’t want to see it go like that.” She eventually bought her own house back from the government.

Harrisonburg could force people to sell their homes because of a landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that defined “eminent domain” to include commercial use. If not for this decision, Harrisonburg would only have had the right to force people to sell if the cleared land was to be for public use, such as a park or playground or school. Jim Deskins, the current director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, says that the city made $500,000 selling the property to developers, which made it one of only two “profitable” redevelopment schemes in the state of Virginia.

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Profitable in what sense? Only in the narrow economic sense, Deskins insists. “Socially, it was a failure,” he says. “Disassociation of ownership was the real cost of urban renewal.” Many of the people forced to sell could not afford to buy a new house, because they were offered rock-bottom prices by the government and because new property was too expensive for them. These people had to move to public housing projects and become dependent on the government. Harrisonburg relocated these people to the projects on Broad Street, Harrison Heights and Franklin Heights. Mary Fairfax claims that, “Some people were never any good after they had to move. Of course, they paid people. But they had everything fixed up the way they wanted it continued from page 15 and thought they’d live there until they died.”

Also destroyed were a number of blackowned businesses including the Colonnade, which had a dance hall, restaurant, barbershop, beauty parlor, poolroom and record shop; and the Hut, also a restaurant, dance hall and poolroom. The Stevens Taxicab Company, which was “not slum property” according to Bob Sullivan, was destroyed. The clearance of these business establishments was even more devastating in some ways than that of the houses, because the vast majority could not reestablish themselves.

Cheryl Talley, a JMU psychology professor who conducts diversity training, moved to the city 13 years ago. She recalls, “What was conspicuous by its absence was the businesses. Where was the soul food restaurant? The five and dime? The hairdresser? I thought, there has to be a funeral home. During segregation all these businesses must have been here.” About the clearance, she says, “I don’t think [the black community] has ever recovered.” Out of all the businesses in those blocks, only Kline’s, one of the few white-owned businesses to be demolished, reopened in the cleared area. Stevens Taxicab moved to Waynesboro, and one of the barbershops reopened elsewhere in town.

Not only did the clearance signal the death knell for black entrepreneurship in Harrisonburg, but it also cut the heart out of social life. Emmitt Lee, who served in the military from the late 1950s to 1982, returned to the city noting that, “Everything was gone. We had had five restaurants, three banks, a poolroom, a little of everything.” Poochie Toliver, who also served in the military during the redevelopment, says, “It was quite a shock to me. I didn’t know where anybody was. I missed the Colonnade, the Hut, and—what was that restaurant? I forget. There really wasn’t anywhere to go. We just had house parties instead. My wife was from Waynesboro, and I spent most of my time there, where there was a lot more to do.”

What’s left? Ironically, the one place that seemed to belong to the Northeast community all along, the Lucy Simms School, is barely accessible to the local residents. Under segregation the school was a hub of the black community as “everyone” turned out for games or other social events, according to Mary Fairfax, who taught there for many years. It closed in 1966. The city school system still owns the building and primarily uses it to house its central offices. The remaining space is leased to nonprofit organizations. HUD block grants were used in the 1970s to build the community center— the Westover recreational complex— but in a middle-class neighborhood many blocks further west. Ralph Sampson Sr. and Emmitt Lee complain, “It’s not near us. We don’t all have cars.”

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Mary Fairfax sums up the redevelopment experience in Harrisonburg by saying, “They took our community. It hurts.” Jennifer Vickers believes, “These stories must be told before everyone involved dies. Everyone needs to hear the stories in order for healing to take place.” Cheryl Talley says the city must look at its history. “I just got back from conducting diversity awareness training for the Roanoke city employees. Roanoke owns their past. Harrisonburg needs to do that in order to begin reconciliation.”

Jim Deskins is more concerned about the present. “The need for economic justice today far outstrips any of the problems back then.” He says living conditions on Norwood and Hawkins Streets, now largely populated by immigrant poultry workers, are three times worse now than in the 1950s and 1960s.

He claims that the “wealthy merchant class” of Harrisonburg has been in control all along, and that’s why the then-shabby west side of Main Street across from the clearance area was protected back in the 1950s, because they were making money from the Cavenaugh Hotel and other businesses. “It’s all about the wealthy merchant class versus the un-empowered,” he says.

“Harrisonburg is a different kind of town than it appears to be,” says Deskins. “You have overall religiosity but they’re morally corrupt.” His special concern is the control that the poultry industry has over the area, and the vast numbers of low-wage earners they draw in. Eight or nine out of every 10 new hires in the poultry industry is an immigrant worker, according to an independent economic survey commissioned by HRHA and released this year. “Unless you pay living wages you create unlivable conditions,” says Deskins adding that, ironically, “The really conservative anti-government people will say, ‘they can live in public housing.’”

Cities across the country have long decried the dehumanizing effects of “slum clearance” and “redevelopment.” Harrisonburg’s HRHA now emphasizes home ownership and Section 8 subsidies instead of public housing.

Mary Fairfax’s house, the one that was saved, is still on Gay Street, although she has since moved. A new family lives there now, and a “no trespassing” sign adorns the window. Jennifer Vickers says that in the formerly close-knit neighborhoods of northeast Harrisonburg, “People used to cut across yards all the time, but now I get yelled at.”