by Charles McGuigan
I’m guessing when Brian Burns began this book he had no idea that the United States and its basic values would be threatened by intolerance, white supremacy, unbridled capitalism—utterly un-American traits given voice, and, to some degree, endorsement, by a man who swore an oath of office to protect our Constitution and its guarantees, a man charged with defending our underlying principles.
This book—a quick and engaging read—reminds us how both white supremacy and rampant capitalism are nothing new under the River City’s sun. As its title tells us, the backdrop for this book is the Gilded Age when the chasm between the rich and poor grew like a tectonic plate shift.
Sixteen essays make up this slender volume which begins with Reverend Jasper’s famed sermon on astronomy that sparked national discussion, and ends with Grace Arents, heir to Lewis Ginter, who became one of the city’s foremost philanthropists, trying to make life better for the poor and destitute.
In the era following Reconstruction there was more than a faint glimmer of hope that Richmond might lead the way to a more egalitarian Southern culture. There was modern invention. After much debate the city was electrified—literally. And there were the streetcars, among the first in America. There were also progressives afoot who were firmly committed to putting the ante-bellum South, and all of its racial injustices, where they belonged—six-feet under. Readjustors had gained some political influence.
Back in the late 1880s, The Knights of Labor, which was at the time the largest labor union in the country, decided to hold its annual convention in Richmond. Hundreds of blacks and whites from all over the country would attend. The city seemed ripe for the convention—the Knights had organized an eight-month boycott of Haxall-Crenshaw flour mills, Richmond’s typographical union boycotted the city’s only non-union shop, laborers at Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works staged a walkout that lasted three months. Richmond even had a pro-union newspaper called the Labor Herald.
But Richmond’s reigning white capitalists, also profound racists, were having none of this. They had formed a local chapter of a national vigil ante group called the Law and Order League. And they turned the labor convention into what could well have become a blood bath. White supremacists armed with revolvers threatened to shoot any black labor organizer who showed his face. Descriptions by Brian Burns of this event are eerily similar to what occurred just last month in Charlottesville when white supremacists and Nazis attacked innocent protestors, killing one, and injuring dozens of others.
In 1887, that horrific racist Joseph Bryan formed a Law and Order League newspaper called the Daily Time, which would one day become the Richmond Time-Dispatch, the loudest—and often most incoherent—mouthpiece of massive resistance during the Civil Rights era. Bryan had proclaimed that segregation was ordained by “God Almighty.”
There are tons of other tidbits in this book that will fascinate any Richmonder, including a particularly pertinent entries about those men who attempted to revise history and create the myth of the Lost Cause.
“Gilded Age Richmond: Gaiety, Greed & Lost Cause Mania”
by Brian Burns
The History Press