Archives for posts with tag: Astoria Beneficial Club

Some people perceive Black History Month as a time to remember injustices and it is. It truly is. It’s also a celebration of perseverance, of courage, faith, and humor. Each of us has many facets and talents and to reduce a person’s life to one piece of that life is to slight them. Richmond’s son, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a good example. His name evokes stunning dance steps, often with a dimpled Shirley Temple, and, while that was part of his legacy, there is so much more. Bill Robinson came home to Richmond often and once, he saw two children almost hit by a car in Jackson Ward. He asked about the lack of a street light at that intersection. When told that the city wouldn’t spend the money in a colored neighborhood, he paid for that street light himself. That’s why his statue stands at that particular intersection at Adams & Leigh. It was sculpted by Jack Witt and erected by the Astoria Beneficial Club in 1973. How do I know that story? Wesley Carter, an Astorian who died at the age of 104, made the trip to deliver the statue to Richmond and he shared his story. Both of these men, Bill Robinson and Wesley Carter, were dedicated to their home town and its people. Richmond has so many people like that.

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Wesley Carter & Kitty, Astoria Beneficial Club      Bojangles Statue

Dr. Carter was a teacher and mentor of countless young people and an institution at Virginia Union University. I met him through his cousin, Barky Haggins. Visiting or calling Barky’s Spiritual Store at 1st & Broad is unlike any other “business.” You’re welcomed into Mr. Barky’s store and his heart and that’s a really big heart. I won’t embarrass him with details but I have heard stories of incredibly generous acts from several Richmond folks and I can vouch for the lift I receive every time I hear his voice or am pulled into a big hug. One characteristic shared by Wesley and Barky is the ability to see humor in events that could as easily inspire tears. Talking about hardships like being the last kid in the bath water in a kitchen tub or walking miles to deliver school work, Wesley would just cackle. He’d shake his head at the absurdity of it all and laugh. That’s an admirable trait.


                                 Far background, left, is the Norton Street house Barky Haggins grew up in

Both Wesley and Barky reminisced about “2 Street”. That’s 2nd Street in Jackson Ward, the “Deuce,”  where the good times rolled. The Hippodrome was part of that but the whole street was a party. I found a glass negative labeled “Alonzo ‘Spider’ Waller” in Harry Stilson’s photographs and it just looks like it belongs on 2 Street, doesn’t it?


Alonzo “Spider” Waller

Waller is a well-known name in Richmond. Did you know that Waller & Co. Jewelers is a four-generation family business, established in 1900? That they make a signature watch? A Waller watch is a cherished possession. But my Waller, Alonzo, isn’t from that Waller family. At the Genealogy Roadshow at the Hippodrome, I met a woman who knew someone who was related to him and she promised to give her my card. I’d love to know Alonzo’s story and to share his picture with his family. Sadly, I never heard from Alonzo’s relative but I remain hopeful. Don’t you want to know more about Spider?

Richmond has stories to tell and Richmond In Sight wants to tell them. Celebrating Black History Month is a start but we need to celebrate people and stories like these all year long. Check back for more stories and images and don’t forget that we have a Facebook page. Richmond Views is the blog for Richmond In Sight and RIS is sharing the pictures of Richmond in the early 1900s everywhere we can. If your organization has programs, get in touch. I give presentations ‘most anywhere I’m invited and Black History Month is a great time to see what our African-American Richmonders were doing when Harry Stilson’s streetcar ran on the West Clay line.



I promised to tell you about the Astoria Beneficial Club so here’s a short lesson in co-operation and giving back to the community. In 1901, if you were African American, there were few options when enormous financial disasters struck. Insurance for blacks was almost non-existent so ‘beneficial clubs’ were formed. Co-ops, sort of. Members paid into the club and when they had medical expenses or funeral expenses, funds were provided. Of course, others donated as well. I have my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson’s note in his journal “.25 to bury colored man” but organizations like the Astorians were common then. Unlike most, the Astoria Beneficial Society is still providing necessary services in Richmond.

I was blessed to have a very special Astorian as my friend. Dr. Wesley Carter was friend, mentor, and cheerleader to me in my work to preserve, restore, and share the Stilson photography collection. I met Wesley when he was 104 years old but it was hard to prove his age. He lived alone, drove, went to Virginia Union weekly. As the oldest living alumnus of Union, he was revered and accorded special status. He was given that same respect by fellow Astorians so, when he received his free ticket to their annual award meeting, he offered to take me as his “date.” Naturally, I accepted. The picture below is Wesley, the man I called “the best PR man around and the best date I ever had.”

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At that dinner, awards were presented to people who do outstanding things in our community, educators, advocates, etc. That’s not new with the Astorians. Their history includes scholarships, donations to local causes, and more. The Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue is due to their determination to celebrate a Richmond hero and Wesley Carter went to Ohio with the sculptor to bring it here. Did you know why it stands where it does? Bojangles Robinson saw a child nearly hit by a car at that intersection and inquired as to why such a dangerous situation existed. Told that the city wouldn’t pay for a stoplight there, in Jackson Ward, a predominantly-black neighborhood, Robinson donated the funds to provide one. Today, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dances near the intersection of Chamberlayne and Leigh.

During the Civil Rights movement, the Astoria Beneficial Club promoted employment of African Americans by the city, equal pay for Public School teachers, voter registration and rights, and jobs in the Richmond Police Department.

Education has always been a focus of the Astoria Beneficial Club which has given scholarships to deserving black students from its inception. Today, they inspire students to achieve their potential. At that dinner, an award was given to then-school superintendent Dr. Yvonne Brandon who praised them for going into schools that few visit. She stated that the mentor program offered by the Astorians literally changes lives.

Changing lives. Pushing limits. Giving back. To quote from their program for the 110th Anniversary & Awards Celebration, they are “Celebrating a Richm Past: Making a Difference in the Future.” One hundred and fifteen years after they were established, they are still a powerful force for good in Richmond.