One of the best places to learn more about African American history in the Richmond area is the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. This museum, located in the beautiful and historic Leigh Street Armory, is a thoughtful and educational place to learn more about the African American experience in Virginia and is an important place to visit while you are in Richmond. I love its mission of “preserving stories that inspire!”
The museum is located in Historic Jackson Ward, which was described as the “Harlem of the South” by the early 20th century. It’s a few blocks from the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and is a short drive from many of the other Richmond historic sites. The building opened in 1895 as the Leigh Street Armory for Richmond’s black military units, and it was vacant and abandoned for decades until the museum moved there in 2016.
The museum has preserved the beautiful high ceilings and exterior while thoroughly modernizing and updating the interior. To learn more about the building and to see pictures from its history, check out the display inside the museum, just past the welcome desk.
The modern entrance to the museum is on St. Peter Street, the side street running beside the museum.
A bronze statue of Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Howard L. Baugh greets you as you enter the museum.
After entering, you will see a replica of the Woolworth luncheonette that was the scene of many sit-in protests during the Civil Rights movement.
Purchase your entry tickets and inquire about any guided tours or special activities. Before your visit, you can check out its special events calendar here, especially the hands-on history programs that are perfect for kids!
Also be sure to ask for a scavenger hunt brochure for your kids to work on while touring the museum!
Begin your tour in the downstairs galleries, starting your visit in the long hallway that contains an interactive touch screen timeline of African American history.
Then move on to the adjacent galleries, which contain information and artifacts on Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Desegregation, Massive Resistance, and Civil Rights. There are many hands-on activities for kids in these galleries, such as this fun electronic banking game.
In the first gallery, you can learn more about Emancipation and Reconstruction.
Your kids will enjoy the family tree touchscreens at the Emancipation Oak.
In the second gallery, it’s important to watch the scrolling pictures to learn more about Jim Crow, Desegregation, and the Civil Rights movement.
I was especially interested in learning more about the struggle for integration in Virginia and seeing the historic photos of the brave African American children walking into the schools. I happened upon a guided tour and heard the guide’s heart-warming story about one of the women coming into the museum and seeing the photo of herself for the first time. She knew her dad was walking behind her the whole time but this was the first picture that showed his presence.
Your kids will enjoy learning about one of the first African American NASCAR drivers, Wendell Scott, and playing the car racing electronic game!
You can’t help but be in awe of the Arthur Ashe statue, which was used as the prototype for the Arthur Ashe monument found on Monument Avenue, a few miles from the museum.
After you are finished with these galleries, head upstairs to the temporary exhibit space, currently featuring the powerful “Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello.”
This exhibit highlights and gives voice to the 607 enslaved men, women, and children that were owned by Thomas Jefferson over his lifetime.
It discusses the issues that surround Jefferson as a founding father and as a slave owner and tackles the contrast between the writer of the Declaration of Independence, where “all men are created equal,” and the owner of 607 fellow humans. It’s a hard concept to understand but the exhibit is thoughtful and educational, bringing the stories of the enslaved workers to life. The descriptions of the families and their descendants were especially poignant.
Many visitors are already aware of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the back room of the exhibit space discusses this in more detail. This can be hard to explain to small children but using the video and artifacts provided, this is the perfect place to have these hard conversations.
Kids will enjoy the hands-on activities in the room that really bring this history to life. Get your children to try to pick up the 10 pound bucket of nails. They may think it’s easy to do this once but try several times in a row!
The other rooms contain many items used by Jefferson that were made with slave labor, including this beautiful chair made by John Hemmings.
I was also intrigued by this revolving book stand so Jefferson could read 5 books at once!
Don’t delay in seeing this exhibition as it ends its stay at the museum on April 18th!
Be sure to visit the gift shop for books, toys, and other souvenirs, located at the entrance/exit. Don’t miss the display about Henry “Box” Brown before you leave.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is a wonderful place to bring your family to learn more about African American history and you don’t want to miss the important “Paradox of Liberty” exhibit. Make plans to visit today!
- Cost: $10/adults; $8/students; $6/children 4-12
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 1-1 ½ hours
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: Street parking is readily available. On weekends, visitors can park in the school lot across the street. Do not use the church parking lot on St. Peter Street, beside the museum.
- Dining options nearby: Our family’s favorite, Mama J’s, is just a few blocks away. Additional nearby favorites are Max’s on Broad and Tarrant’s Cafe. Great ice cream can be found at Charm School.
- Nearby attractions include: Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and nearby park, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue, VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, and a fun kids’ store, Little Nomad.
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County
- Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
- Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, the Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel
- Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America
- 10 and up:
- Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition
- Arthur Ashe: Young Tennis Champion
- If You Were a Kid During the Civil Rights Movement
- This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality
- The Underground Abductor (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5): An Abolitionist Tale about Harriet Tubman
- 6 and up: