This is a classic Richmond story so listen carefully. In my first book, I insisted that Richmond was “not six degrees of separation, perhaps two”. Upon hearing this story, you might agree.

After my first book, From a Richmond Streetcar, came out, two ladies from the Forest Hill Neighborhood Association made a long, rainy- night trip to hear my presentation and buy books. One gave a book to a man named Richard Lee Bland, who called me to say that, upon reading it, he realized that he had “seen these pictures before.” Because my great-grandfather sold photographs, that didn’t seem implausible…but this story is. Implausible, I mean.

Richard Lee Bland was at the Church Hill Tunnel collapse 75th anniversary commemoration when he noticed a man showing people a photograph of the Tunnel before it collapsed. He approached the man and asked if he could take the photo to VCU Libraries to be scanned. Mind you, this was a historic photograph and Richard Lee Bland a complete stranger but the owner of the picture immediately handed it over. Richard took it to VCU and shared the image, then contacted the owner to return it. As Richard Lee described it, he drove “all the way to Moseley, Virginia” and by this time, I knew exactly who “the man” was. It was my father, Howard Lynch, who gave a stranger a precious piece of Richmond history and trusted that it would be returned to him. His trust was well-placed in Richard Lee Bland.

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East Entrance of Church Hill Tunnel, 1918

This story had already answered one big question we had pondered: how did The VCU Libraries digital collection get Harry Stilson’s photograph? We were told that it was donated. Now we knew by whom. But there’s more. When Richard returned the photo, he taped the conversation as Howard Lynch showed him the Stilson collection, about 300 photos. That collection now includes nearly 4,000 negatives, prints, and films, materials I found in Howard’s sister’s basement and garage. In my new book, Up & Down Church Hill, dedicated to Margaret Lynch’s memory, I describe her as our “accidental” historian. A lot of accidents or coincidences surround this Church Hill Tunnel photograph. Richard wanted to meet me and give me a copy of that audio tape. It’s disorienting to hear a tape of your deceased father discussing pictures you work with daily. It’s also frustrating because they discuss pictures I either don’t have or can’t recognize. “This is a house being moved…” WHAT???? Where? I don’t see that in any of Harry’s pictures!

There’s more. I donated Stilson films and images to VCU Libraries because I was contacted by Ray Bonis, VCU archivist, who’d heard about the collection. We met and I agreed to share material with VCU Libraries. That was in 2012. A year later, while going through my dad’s papers, I noticed VCU’s letterhead on a letter. It was written by Ray Bonis after the donation of the Stilson image by Richard Lee Bland. Dated in 2000, Ray asked Howard to consider donating the collection to VCU. I scanned the letter and attached it to an email to Ray with the explanation that he needed to see this “historically significant letter.” Poor Ray. Expecting some exciting new “find,” instead he found his own letter which he didn’t remember writing to a man he’d never met but who gave a photograph to someone Ray knew who then gave it to Ray to scan. Following this?

In 2000, Richard Lee Bland spots a valuable photograph and shares it with VCU. In 2003, Howard Lynch dies and I inherit his grandfather’s collection of early 1900s photographs. In 2012, I write a book based on those images and a museum staff member I met told Ray about the collection so Ray reached out to me, not realizing he had requested the same collection from the same family 12 years earlier. Good thing Ray’s a patient man.

There’s more. When Richard brought me the tape from a decade earlier, he also gave me a priceless piece of information. Between phone conversation and visit, someone offered to sell him a photograph. Richard said he would have bought it anyhow because it was a rare 1919 image of an African-American man in Jackson Ward, documented by the enamel street sign on the corner of a house, but he was certain it was a Stilson photo. He recognized the writing stating the date as that of Harry Stilson. What are the chances of being offered a Stilson photo days after reading my book with photographs that he recognized as the work of a man whose grandson he met 12 years earlier? I know. This is getting complicated.

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Richard Bland’s photo of African-American man, N. Kinney & Leigh Streets, June 15, 1919

There’s still more. His photograph was taken the day after Richmond’s African-American troops returned from France at the same corner my photograph of the soldiers was taken but his displayed the location, a mystery we’d tried to solve for months. No one could identify the location and now we know why. That block of Leigh Street, just east of Moore Street Church, is gone. All that remains is a small sign: “Hartshorn Community Association.” The purchase of a book for a friend resulted in a trail of interactions and coincidences that documented the location of a historic event, the parade route when Jackson Ward’s sons returned from France.

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African-American troops returning from France June 14, 1919

There’s one final piece to this illustration of how small Richmond really is. Last night Richard Lee Bland emailed me that he had found “documentation” of the Church Hill Tunnel photograph provenance. To view a picture of my father, now deceased, unknowingly setting in motion the project we call Richmond In Sight is emotional. His generous sharing of one Harris Stilson photograph was the first step in my work of research, indexing, and writing. It’s a labor of love, squeezed in between real estate and triplet grandbabies and usually means working at 5 AM or midnight but Richard’s “documentation” made me cry. It’s a connection between generations, sort of a sign that there is a reason that I do this, even when it’s expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating. I’ve said all along that Howard Lynch would love all this. Oh, yeah, the man who handed over a priceless piece of family and Richmond history to a stranger because the stranger said he “wanted to share it” would have been delighted by the books, the presentations, the blog, all of Richmond In Sight. How cool is that?

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Howard D. Lynch loaning Church Hill Tunnel photo to Richard Lee Bland, October 2000

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