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Can Richmond heal its past to become a thriving city? An interview with Julian Hayter

Andrew Sharp

I met up recently with Julian Hayter, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of the University of Richmond. A historian, Hayter focuses on municipal politics in the post-1945 South and specifically Richmond, Virginia. His research does more than interrogate Richmond’s past, he explained: “I’ve asked historical questions that beg contemporaries to think about Richmond presently.”

Q: As part of the Institute for Advanced Cities in Culture’s Thriving Cities Project you’ve been asked to write a city profile for Richmond. How are you approaching this?

Outside of thinking about things within the ideological framework Thriving Cities champions, I’ve simply relied on many of the research techniques I use as an historian. I’m currently writing a book that ends in 1985—many of the sources I’ve used to uncover Richmond’s past aren’t that dissimilar from the data I’m using to understand Richmond now.

Q: Do you think Richmond is a thriving city?

Frankly, portions of Richmond thrive. Other portions of Richmond, which were purposefully underdeveloped during the Jim Crow era, still struggle. Unfortunately, Richmond has struggled to overcome segregationists’ lack of long-term political vision.

Q: If we think of cities as having inheritances, what do you think is Richmond’s primary treasure that lends to its ability to thrive?

Richmond’s history, which has been its Achilles’ heel, might be used to turn a corner. This area occupies a special place in American history—Richmond and Virginia were central to the creation of the American democratic experiment, trans-Atlantic slaving, the establishment of the Confederacy, and much more. Richmond has inherited a special place in American heritage. Yet, this is a hotly debated space. History’s been used in this area to divide. I see no reason why Richmond’s history can’t be a unifying force.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or barrier to Richmond’s thriving as a city?

Even more frankly, Richmond’s biggest challenge is poverty—it’s rampant and generational. Richmond’s poverty, unfortunately, is also closely linked to Jim Crowism. Yet, local policymakers are finally addressing this issue. (See the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.)

Q: What is one thing that has surprised you about Richmond in your work so far?

I’ve been studying Richmond’s relatively recent history for nearly a decade. My colleagues are local policymakers, social workers, organizers, and active citizens. Very little surprises me about this area.

To hear more from Julian, check out the opinion piece he wrote for Richmond’s Style Weekly (The Rest of the Dream) about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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