Explore the Past - More Convention Center History

Maggie L. Walker:

Maggie Walker
Maggie L. Walker, c. 1900 (The Valentine, Witherspoon Collection)


Maggie Walker House
Maggie L. Walker House, 2011 (courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)


A few blocks away, at Second and Leigh streets, is the home of Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934), a prominent African-American entrepreneur and community leader during turn-of-the-20th-century Richmond.  Walker was born at the Van Lew mansion in Church Hill, where her formerly enslaved mother worked as a cook for Union spy ring leader Elizabeth Van Lew.  At a time when Jim Crow segregation laws throughout the South forbade black and white citizens from doing business with each other, Walker defied gender conventions and took a leading role in turning Jackson Ward into the center of Richmond’s African-American business and entertainment culture.  In 1903, Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming the first woman of any race to charter and become president of a bank in the United States.  In 2017, a statue of Walker was unveiled at Broad and Adams streets, between the Arts District Eastbound and Westbound GRTC Pulse stations.  Walker’s home is operated by the National Park Service as the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, which is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.  (600 N. Second St., 0.4 miles from Convention Center Eastbound GRTC Pulse Station, 0.3 miles from Convention Center Westbound GRTC Pulse Station.)


Central National Bank Building:

Removing the letters "CNB" from the Central National Bank Building, January 31, 1978 (Photo by Wallace Huey Clark, The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection)


Directly across from the Convention Center Westbound GRTC Pulse Station is one of Richmond’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture, the 282-foot-high Central National Bank Building.  Completed in 1930, the 23-story building was one of Richmond’s earliest skyscrapers, and was designed by architect John Eberson as a ziggurat, narrowing in size as it increases in height.  During the mid-20th-century, huge neon “CNB” letters on the tower’s roof lit up at night, communicating the next day’s weather forecast via a code involving the letters’ color and whether they blinked or were constant.  The building offered banking services continuously until 2000.  After 15 years of vacancy, the tower and its attached annex were transformed into a 200-apartment residential center called Deco at CNB.  (219 E. Broad St., 0.1 mile from Convention Center Eastbound GRTC Pulse Station, <0.1 mile from Convention Center Westbound GRTC Pulse Station.)


“The Fifth Avenue of the South”:

Miller and Rhoads
Drawing of Miller & Rhoads downtown store, c. 1960 (The Valentine)


Berry-Burk Co
Berry-Burk Co. clothing store, 1930s (The Valentine)


The length of Grace Street between Second and Seventh streets once housed so many retailers and fashion houses that from the 1920s through the mid-20th century, it was considered the South’s version of New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Shoppers came to Richmond from all over Virginia and even adjoining states to purchase seasonal fashions from the Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores and elegant boutiques such as Montaldo’s, Ardley and Berry-Burk.  The adjoining section of Broad Street was lined with variety stores, including Woolworth’s, G.C. Murphy and W.T. Grant.  A day of downtown shopping would often include a meal at one of the many in-store lunch counters, the Miller & Rhoads Tea Room or Thalhimers’ Richmond Room.  Most of these stores closed by the 1990s as residents moved to the suburbs.  Today, the Miller & Rhoads building has been converted into a hotel and condominiums, while Grace Street has found new life as part of Richmond’s resurgent downtown restaurant scene.  (Distance to restaurants around Fifth and Grace streets:  <0.1 mile from Convention Center Eastbound GRTC Pulse Station, 0.2 miles from Convention Center Westbound GRTC Pulse Station.)


The “Richmond 34”:

Thalhimers Protest
Thalhimers Protest, 1960 (The Valentine, Anderson Collection)

Thalhimers Protest, 1960 (The Valentine, Anderson Collection)


In early 1960, the Thalhimers department store that was once on Broad Street between Sixth and Seventh streets became a flash point in Richmond’s struggle for civil rights.  On February 20, 1960, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and protests in North Carolina, hundreds of African-American students from Virginia Union University walked into several downtown Richmond stores, including Thalhimers, Miller & Rhoads (Sixth and Broad streets), and Woolworths (Fifth and Broad streets), and staged non-violent sit-ins at the for-whites-only lunch counters and restaurants.  During subsequent sit-ins two days later, 34 VUU students who refused to leave Thalhimers’ lunch counter and Richmond Room restaurant were arrested on trespassing charges.  The arrests of the “Richmond 34” led to picketing and boycotts of Richmond stores with segregation policies.  Bowing to economic pressures, these businesses agreed over the following year to integrate their restaurants.  In 1963, the students’ convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.  A stone memorial to the “Richmond 34” is located on the east side of Sixth Street between Broad and Grace streets, and a historical marker has been erected on the south side of Broad Street between Sixth and Seventh streets.  (0.1 mile from Convention Center Eastbound GRTC Pulse Station, 0.2 miles from Convention Center Westbound GRTC Pulse Station.)


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