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Richmond's African American Heritage
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First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory

First Battalion Armory

First Battalion Armory
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development


Built in the 1890s to house an African American military battalion, this castle-like building’s official name was the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory. The armory served as headquarters for the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Infantry, Richmond’s first African American regiment, which served in the Spanish American War. It was one of six original armories in the city, of which only two survive, and is the oldest African American armory in Virginia and quite possibly the United States. Richmond City Engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, a prolific public servant, designed the armory. He was also responsible for the design the Byrd Park Pump House and for the present-day layout of Monroe Park, the City’s oldest municipal park.

The armory became somewhat of a social center in the surrounding Jackson Ward neighborhood, the site of dances and banquets as well as drills and assemblies. In 1899 less than 10 years after its completion, the Richmond City Council converted the armory to civilian use as Monroe Elementary School, which operated there for 40 years. The building became a reception center during World War II, providing temporary housing and a recreation hall for African American troops from 1942 until the end of the war. Almost 56,000 soldiers passed through the building during this period. After the war, the building received a new name, the Monroe Center, and became an annex of Armstrong High School, Graves Junior High School, and eventually the Colored Special School until the 1950s. In the mid-1980s, the Richmond School Board leased the armory building to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center.

Distinguishing features of the imposing brick building include five distinct types of masonry units, terra cotta crenellation and grapevine friezes, and corner towers with fine radially-molded brick. The armory contributes to the significance of the Jackson Ward Historic District, a National Historic Landmark. This neighborhood was the heart of Richmond’s African American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its architecture includes the largest collection of cast iron ornament in the country outside of New Orleans. Many of Richmond's famed historic African American homes and icons are located in the district.

While this important center of black heritage is now seeing major revitalization efforts and an influx of new businesses and residents into once vacant buildings, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the district on its list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places as recently as 2001. As a result, historic Jackson Ward, including the First Battalion Armory, has benefited from federal rehabilitation grants funds through the Save America’s Treasures program. Stabilization of the armory building began in 2002 with a complete restoration of the building’s impressive brick exterior, including the crenellation on the parapets and towers in 2005-2006. Various ideas are being considered for use of the building. In the spring of 2016 the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia moved into the armory. A grant from Save America’s Treasures, a national historical site preservation program, agreed to fund the armory’s rehabilitation. The structure had some of its exterior brickwork redone, new floors and a roof installed and was soon up-and-running once again.

Plan your visit

First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory is located at 122 W. Leigh St. within the boundaries of the Jackson Ward Historic District. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center has opened in the building and is open for tours and events. For more information please visit their website.

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