Chioke I'anson and Brandi Summers

Resident Blackness; an Oral History of Richmond

Many universities have skeletons in their closets, and VCU is no exception.

During the construction of the MCV campus in 1994, human bones and artifacts from the 19th century were discovered in an abandoned well on East Marshall Street. The remains included the bodies of at least 44 adults and nine children and were primarily of African descent.

The well and the controversy surrounding its discovery became the subject of a documentary by VCU professor Shawn Utsey called “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies,” which examined the issue of grave robbing and the use of black cadavers in medical education during the 19th century. In response to the film, The East Marshall Street Well Project was established in 2013 by President Michael Rao to support the appropriate study, memorialization, and reburial of the bodies discovered in the excavation.

To Assistant Professor of African American Studies Brandi Summers, Ph.D., the story of the East Marshall Street Well Project presented an interesting local example of the disenfranchisement and dehumanization of African American bodies.

Summers collaborated with Chioke I’Anson, Ph.D., an African American Studies Assistant Professor and underwriting announcer for NPR, in applying for a year-long undergraduate curriculum development grant to investigate the East Marshall Street Well Project through a special topics course at VCU called Resident Blackness: Oral History and African American Life in Richmond, VA.

The class combined media and intersectional African American studies to examine the historical and contemporary macro-community and micro-sub-community issues shaping the social, economic, and political lives of African Americans in Richmond, by studying the interconnected influences of race, public space and urban change on the East Marshall Street Well Project.

The first semester of the course was taught by Summers and focused on providing theoretical and historical context for the well project through the study of the social, economic, and political lives of African Americans in Richmond. Students in the class were tasked with creating a field guide on exploring and conducting research in black urban spaces, and created a timeline of the East Marshall Street Well Project.

“I recognized the gentrification, the moving of black people out of the city, since I got here in 2013 but this class provided the theory as to why it happens. It’s essentially a lot of disenfranchisement for the African American community and of course gentrification. This class provides the theory as to why these things happen and how easy it is to just shift a group of people, African American people, out of a specific area, revamp it, and then raise the rent,” said Casey Ellis Johnson, a senior at VCU currently enrolled in the course who is pursuing dual degrees in African American Studies and Political Science.

The second semester of the course was designed to apply the theoretical knowledge that students gained in the first semester into practice, through the production of a historical, evidence-based class project using secondary and primary document collection. The class was tasked with collectively developing a podcast on the East Marshall Street Well Project, composed of interviews and oral histories from the African American community of Richmond.

“You get to put a face with these people who have been essentially dehumanized,” said Johnson. “It’s a lot of pride in the sense that I get to help them voice their perspectives on these situations.”

I’Anson taught his students the practical research methods and media production techniques that they needed to record interviews with the field and create a podcast. The ultimate product of the class’s labors will be published on the class website, and the raw interviews will be transcribed and stored in the Cabell library.

“It’s one of those things that both serves the academy and serves the public,” said I’Anson.

Their joint course on Resident Blackness is just one example of how Summers and I’Anson have collaborated to produce content that benefits both the university and the Richmond community at large.

Through their positions as members of VCU’s iCubed Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Transdisciplinary Core Team, Summers and I’Anson are working on numerous community-based projects including the Black Artists in Perspective project, which is still in the collection phrase but features interviews with prominent artists of color including Kehinde Wiley and Shawn Theodore, an visual urban history of Richmond series called the Motorcycle Diaries, a videography project on the genetic ancestry of the African American Studies Department, and much more.

“We feel like academia is at its best when everybody is collaborating as opposed to when we’re going it alone,” I’Anson said.

By Megan Schiffres
May 10, 2018