The Phoenix Bank of Nansemond

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 4, 2005

In the early 1920s, what today is a growing and lively city, was once simply a junction of dusty dirt roads connecting large patches of beautiful Virginia farmland.

At that time, the quiet town in Southern Tidewater could easily be the setting of the many stories our grandfathers passed down-a time that was slower, a time when hard work was the standard, and a time when a man’s word was everything.

Situated in this town, the heart of the former county of Nansemond, now known as Suffolk, there was a bank on East Washington Street, and the bank president was John Richardson.

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Being a bank president in a rural agriculture-rich area near the turn of the century was a rather prestigious role.

Indeed, bank presidents at that time often wielded a great deal of local political and financial clout.

But John Richardson held no such power, because John Richardson was black.

Every morning, John Richardson spent his day presiding over the complex financial matters of the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond, a financial institution devoted to securing loans for African-American farmers and entrepreneurs.

And in the evening, as he locked the doors of the two-story brick building that housed the bank he ran, John Richardson traveled across town and set to work, with a bucket of soapy water in hand, shining the cold tile floors of the nearby white-run bank where he held a second job as a janitor.

In 1921, Mr. Richardson and a group of other local African-Americans, knowing black farmers and businessmen were struggling to find financial means, had established the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond.

Perhaps at that time John Richardson could not have foreseen that he would simultaneously hold the dual roles of a bank President and a janitor.

Nevertheless, he knew the intrinsic value in both roles and he knew he could not afford to wait for circumstances to change the situation of his community.

Every night as John Richardson walked across town en route to the white-run bank, he must have thought of this.

But he must have also known that in his service and in his sacrifice he would bring great credit to his community and would pave a path for a brighter future for his children and grandchildren.

Since closing its doors in the tide of the Great Depression, the old brick building which housed the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond has endured years of vacancy and sporadic use as a Chinese take-out eatery.

Today the Phoenix Bank is not just a historic landmark, but is symbolic of a nation built by innovation, a free-market economy and the hope of a community.

Still located along the now bustling 300 block of East Washington Street, the building where John Richardson once sat behind the President’s desk will soon be undergoing another transformation. In the coming months and years this brick building will be transformed into the Suffolk African-American History Museum to showcase African-American contributions in commerce and trade, farming, education, medicine and religion.

This country was founded on the basic principle that, &uot;all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.&uot;

We hear this phrase often over the course of February as Black History Month is celebrated. But it is important to remember

Black History Month as more than just public service announcements and succinct quotes from great Americans. It is an opportunity to realize that we do not have to look far even in our own communities for rich history of African-Americans such as John Richardson. And it is also an opportunity to realize that these stories of hope extend far beyond the confines of race or the boundaries of time.

Indeed, they embody who we are as Virginians and Americans.

J. Randy Forbes represents the 4th district of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives.