Our Challenge to the City of Richmond

This op-ed piece was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, January 31.  I wanted to post it here as well so that it can be easily re-blogged, or shared on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Let’s read, Richmond!


February is Black History month.

We want to challenge our city to read some history.

But it’s not only black history: it’s our history, black and white together.

I’m the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  David is the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit organization devoted to racial reconciliation.  Together we want to challenge the citizens of Richmond to a city-wide book read during the month of February.

The idea for a city-wide read began after the tragedy in Charlottesville on August 13, 2017, when one person was killed and many more were injured in a clash between white nationalists and anti-fascists.  When rumors began to circulate about a similar demonstration on Monument Avenue, many of us wondered how we could keep the same thing from happening here.

I had already registered for a one-day conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11 called “The Angela Project,” named after the first enslaved person to set foot on American soil.  It turned out to be a one day awakening, in which speaker after speaker cited the injustices experienced by African-Americans in this country: inequities in income, housing, and education that appeared to be the product of systemic racism.

But what could be done?

Dr. Kevin Cosby, organizer of the event and pastor of the 14,000-member St. Stephen Church in Louisville, recalled his conversation with Joe Phelps, a well-meaning white pastor who wanted to know what he could do to make things better between black and white people in that city.

“Do you really want to help?” Cosby asked.

“Yes!” Phelps answered.

“Then read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

 It was a challenge.

To Cosby’s astonishment, Phelps, the pastor of Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church, agreed.  When he finished, the two pastors got together to discuss the book.  It led to a weekly lunch joined by other black and white pastors in the city who read books and talked about the problem of racism.  That led to an organization called “Empower West” (a reference to West Louisville, home to most of the city’s black population), that, among other things, challenged the entire city to read a book during Black History month.

When I got back to Richmond I had lunch with my friend David Bailey to talk about what I had learned and to dream about what we might do together to make things better between black and white people in this city.  When I mentioned the city-wide book read he pounced on it, because he knows we fear what we do not understand. And so we decided to challenge the citizens of Richmond to read a book together during the month of February.


The book is The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, subtitled: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. It’s the same book the citizens of Louisville will be reading, and it’s described on the dust jacket like this:

 “In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.”

Those “discriminatory patterns” appear to continue in Richmond, where most of the city’s black population has ended up in the East End.  Why is that?  And how did it happen?

Rothstein’s book has answers.

If you have read this far you are a reader.  And if you are reading the Times-Dispatch then you care about this city.  As a reader who cares about Richmond, David and I challenge you to read The Color of Law in February, and to join us for a livestream conversation with the author at 7:00 pm on Monday, February 12, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue).  The event is free and open to the public.

—Jim Somerville