Before Westham Park: Physical History of our Campus
In the antebellum period, the area that now envelops campus was no amusement park. Mr. Ben Green’s plantation encompassed several hundred acres, extending from Three Chopt Road to the north, to the Higgenbottom Plantation bordering the river to the south and west. His plantation included the entirety of what is now our campus, from the business school to the sorority cottages, New Fraternity Row to the Gateway Apartments. As we all know from treks up Mt. Modlin, our campus is anything but flat, and as such, Mr. Green’s land was not suitable for an agricultural plantation. Because Mr. Green could not grow profitable tobacco, his business was lumber.
Fortunately for Mr. Green, his plantation housed abundant natural resources. There was no shortage of trees on his holdings, and the small but sufficient Westham Creek ran through his plantation. If dammed, this creek could power a sawmill to efficiently produce his lumber. Around 1840, Mr. Green ordered his slaves to do exactly that – his able-bodied slaves dammed the creek and built his sawmill along the resulting lake’s southeastern edge. For the duration of the operation of his plantation, these slaves would also haul felled trees from all corners of his plantation, up and down the hills of campus, and eventually deliver them to the southeastern edge of the lake they themselves formed.
Yes, our beloved Westhampton Lake was indeed created by slaves, established as the millpond of a slave owner.
This is an unsurprising revelation for a campus in the South, but what is notable is that so few people seem to know that Mr. Green’s slaves worked and sweat on the topsoil of our campus. This was where they lived their lives, and likewise, it was where many of them died.
The sawmill and dam were situated in the approximate location of present-day Tyler Haynes Commons. According to a 1935 book titled “Zion Town – A Study in Human Ecology” published in 1935, “some few years ago” a group of laborers dug a hollow just behind the dam. In doing so, they unearthed piles of the bones and human skulls of Mr. Green’s slaves. This site is considered to be the burial ground of the slaves who worked Mr. Green’s plantation, a site that students pass by and walk over every day.
In the 1940s, the same thing happened a second time – workers digging a hollow unearthed the bones of several bodies near the same area behind the Commons. These bones also belonged to Mr. Green’s slaves, and were found along with a small marker engraved with the lettering “D.F.” According to an article published in The Collegian dated Nov. 7, 1947, it was thought at the time that this inscription was meant to denote “Died of Flu.” This same article also reported the speculation that the bones may have belonged to William and Mary football players, but this assertion has since proved to be unfounded. Both historical facts about the university timeline, as well as analysis of the bones themselves have shown that these belonged to people of hard slave labor, Whitt said.
The records of Mr. Green’s plantation are unfortunately incomplete, and we do not know exactly how many slaves worked the land of our campus. However, with the quantity of land Mr. Green owned, he would have owned a substantial number.
The history of campus in the post-bellum era is detailed in a self-published piece by Stuart Wheeler, entitled “Absolute Beauty: Frederic William Boatwright, Ralph Adams Cram, and the Arts and Crafts Neogothic Architechture of the University of Richmond.” According to this source, in 1897, William Washington Browne purchased the land to the south of Green’s millpond – 634 acres of land known as Westham Farm, which included the southern parts of campus. Browne, born in 1849, lived the beginnings of his life as a slave on a Georgian plantation, joining the Union army at the age of 14. After pursuing an education in Wisconsin and teaching school in Georgia and Alabama, he settled in Richmond and became the head of a group called the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers. The True Reformers was a secret order that developed in the reconstruction era, and at its height had 15,000 members, employed 250 people, and ran the 150-guest Hotel Reformer in Richmond. The group also formed the first African American bank in America, created in 1888.
In 1893, Browne proposed to create a retirement home for poor African Americans, and this quickly became his chief ambition. He purchased with his own funds Westham Farm, including the southern portion of campus, for exactly this purpose. Browne selected the land because of its location, a mere 6 miles from Richmond, and its proximity to Westham River Road, presently River Road. Unfortunately, he died in December of 1897 of skin cancer, leaving the management of the land to the True Reformers.
The grandson of the new president of the True Reformers, Thomas W. Taylor, took charge of the land on which the retirement home stood. Though he supported the home for many years, by 1910 the True Reformers was facing financial ruin, which Wheeler attributed to poor leadership. The land was sold to John Landstreet of the Westham Land Corporation, who offered 100 acres of his holdings to Richmond College, with an option to purchase additional land. At an evening meeting at the Jefferson Hotel, the Richmond College Board of Trustees accepted the gift, voting to purchase more acreage for just under $18,000. Thus, a site that for 13 years had played an important role in the positive reconstruction of African American communities became part of an all-white institution.
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