william_w_brownWilliam Washington Browne, a slave freed after the Civil War, created an economic empire founded and run by the black community known as The Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers. Instead of fighting for social equality, Browne devoted most of his time, strength, and energy to advancing the black community while simultaneously desiring to remain completely separate from white Richmonders. However, James D. Watkinson, a research librarian at the Library of Virginia, notes that “he [Browne] disliked being under white control, even if only nominally. Browne struggled throughout his life to define a satisfying relationship between blacks and whites, trying to separate himself from whites, yet constantly pointing to them as models and seeking their approval.”

In 1888, the True Reformers received a charter from the state to establish a black-owned and black-operated bank: the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers. Browne’s empire flourished in Jackson Ward, a black neighborhood north of downtown Richmond, separated from most of the white citizens. This physical distance greatly decreased the amount of time that the True Reformers interacted with white Richmonders. William Washington Browne and his followers had seen the horrors of the Civil War and made the decision that the potential for racial conflict greatly outnumbered the potential for any alliances. This racial landscape is still seen today in the city’s West End and East End. The West End is a predominantly white, wealthy, and educated area. Its neighborhoods boast successful private schools and locally owned stores that bring life and character to the community. The predominantly African-American, uneducated, and low-income East End is not as impressive. This area contains poorly funded public schools with aging buildings, high drop out rates, and inadequate teachers.

Browne’s story echoes many of the changes that were occurring around the city. Black Richmonders were gaining more equality and becoming a more prominent part of the city’s culture. The white community, largely motivated by unwarranted racism and a reluctance to change, was not accepting of this progression, especially during the nineteenth century.

August Third Collective South NAPLA NAIM