Personality: Janis Allen

Spotlight on the board president of Historic Jackson Ward Association

10/6/2022, 6 p.m.
In a time of increased attention, discussion and potential change for Jackson Ward, Janis Allen is doing her part to ...

In a time of increased attention, discussion and potential change for Jackson Ward, Janis Allen is doing her part to make sure its history and legacy are preserved. As the newest board president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, she is tasked with a mission that is both culturally important and deeply personal.

Ms. Allen’s family was just one of many Black families that were forced to move out of the area due to construction of Interstate 95 in the 1950s. The project split the district in half and was one of several initiatives that left it diminished.

Although she left the district at a very young age, Ms. Allen nonetheless carried a deep connection to Jackson Ward, thanks to the memories and recollections of her family. The memories formed an idea of Jackson Ward in her mind that heavily contrasted its reality.

“I grew up hearing stories about a place my family loved,” Ms. Allen says “The strength and pride that ran through those stories captured my attention and I wanted to live in that place. Yet it no longer existed.”

But those stories struck a chord with Ms. Allen, and when she moved back to Jackson Ward in 2011, she endeavored to not just be a great neighbor, but an advocate for the district. Within the same year, she joined HJWA, taking on several roles that eventually led to her being elected to the board in 2015 and elected president in 2017.

With Jackson Ward surrounded by several economic, political and redevelopment interests in Downtown Richmond, the struggle to maintain its identity and the community’s integrity helps guide Ms. Allen’s mission and HJWA’s vision.

“Jackson Ward is more than what we know it is now,” says Ms. Allen, noting how large the district used to be. “It’s really kind of hard to sometimes even know what Jackson Ward is.”

“But we know that when we say that we need to encompass all of Jackson Ward — both sides of the bridge, that’s Jackson Ward to us.”

Currently, one of Ms. Allen’s major focuses is the Reconnect Jackson Ward Project, which is working on a redevelopment plan to connect the north and south districts split by I-95, with HJWA serving on the steering committee alongside other community stakehold- ers. The effort to maintain Jackson Ward’s history and the community’s interest has proven difficult, as their ideas for true community investment in the plan conflict with zon- ing laws and regulations that may not be addressed before redevelopment begins.

This struggle has been compounded by other obstacles HJWA has faced this year. This includes a shift to virtual meetings during COVID-19 and the cancellation of the annual 2nd Street Festival, which allowed them to connect with those tied to the district and the general public.

“The legacy of being from Jackson Ward is an awesome one and sometimes the accompanying responsibility can be palpable,” Ms. Allen says. “Being a part of HJWA affords me an opportunity to participate in maintaining and developing this vibrant community in a direct and meaningful way.”

Meet a leader working to maintain Jackson Ward’s legacy and community and this week’s Personality Janis Allen:

Volunteer position: President, Historic Jackson Ward Association.

Date of birth: July 14. Where I live now: Historic Jackson Ward.

Education: Dana Hall School (High School) in Wellesley, Mass., bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Harvard University.

Occupation: Retired insurance executive and freelance marketing consultant.

Family: My immediate family is a close-knit group of dear cousins, nephews and nieces including “greats” anchored by my beloved Aunt Deal, Mrs. Delia A. Coleman

The Historic Jackson Ward Association (HJWA) is: A neighborhood association committed to preserving a significant Richmond community that is the largest National Landmark District associated with African-American history. Our intent is to continue to integrate this history into the modern-day experience. Our vision: “Historic Jackson Ward will be the preferred place to live, work and play as a neighborhood that is safe, attractive and alive with cultural, commercial and historic resources available to its residents, businesses and visitors.” This community is home to a diverse population of residents, businesses, schools, churches, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and more. We continue to honor and promote the rich history and cultural heritage of our neighborhood while working through the complexities of gentrification.

When and why founded: The association was founded in the early 1980s, not too long after the Jackson Ward Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1978. Reportedly, HJWA was the result of merging two other neighborhood associations – one being the Central Ward Improvement Association and the other is likely the Historic Jackson Ward Foundation. Next year we will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the National Historic Landmark District designation. This will afford us an opportunity to revisit, celebrate and share the details of the path to the historic designation and the founding of HJWA. Founders: The actual founders are not readily identified in the available records although the list of board officers is captured through the years, as are the names of the members. The list is so impressive and reflective of the many who have worked tirelessly on behalf of this beloved community.

The Central Ward Improvement Association can be traced back to 1964 and was founded by Abner Clay and his wife Margaret. I know better than to begin to list other names – invariably and inadvertently I will omit someone. Yet it is imperative to note that I am standing on the shoulders of remarkable leaders.

Mission: The current mission of HJWA is to unite, protect, and advance the interests of the neighborhood and improve the quality of life in Historic Jackson Ward and the greater community.

Intentionally, this mission is broad, allowing us to attempt to address the many initiatives and projects before us. Currently, there are close to 20 different initiatives and projects underway that impact Jackson Ward. From Reconnecting Jackson Ward and the Jackson Ward Community Plan, to the City Center Plan and the Fall Line Trail, to rezoning and considering the expansion of the Old and Historic District – plans are in play for the future of this community.

Why I became involved: My family is from Jackson Ward. I am third generation and moved back in 2011. As a member of the community I felt a responsibility and desire to participate so I joined the Historic Jackson Ward Association. After being an active member for a couple of years I was asked to run for a board seat. I was elected to the board in 2015 and was elected president in 2017.

Number one goal or project as association president: In addition to the requisite safety, infrastructure, beautification, and community engagement goals, the primary goal is to preserve the integrity of the community – especially in the face of increased development. We understand the need for more density and are not unilaterally opposed to it. What the community wants and needs is responsible development that respects its architectural and historic fabric as well as the characteristics of the Jackson Ward neighborhood. We want projects that are reasonable in height, compatible in style and materials and offer mixed use and mixed income developments (including home ownership). Projects should always include /consider affordable housing including affordable home ownership.

Strategy for achieving goals:

Continue to:

• Work with all stakeholders to achieve fair and equitable development in Jackson Ward.

• Work on enhancing/encouraging community engagement so that the neighborhood’s voice is organized, amplified and heard.

• Foster alliances and collaboration.

• Continue to articulate what we want for the community and work to have these elements included and executed in the plethora of plans.

Biggest obstacles: Zoning codes that allow for development by right that may be in conflict with what the community envisions. While one of the big moves of the Richmond 300 is to rewrite the zoning codes, which may or may not address the issues, several unsupported projects will be completed and/or well underway before this is done.

When established: The roots of Jackson Ward can be traced Back to 1871. Before the Civil War the community was home to free Black people and enslaved individuals as well as European immigrants and Jewish residents. After the war the community became the hub for freed Blacks and eventually grew to be a city whiten a city. In its heyday, form the early 1920’s to the late 1940’s, the Ward grew to become an accomplished, thriving and enterprising African American neighborhood - a center of Black Excellence. Thanks to the lauded work done by JXN Project, the community celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. Along with establishing a Giles B. Jackson Day – the project also installed 14 honorary signs throughout Jackson Ward in recognition of other Black Richmonders whose stories deserved to be highlighted. HJWA is currently working on at least two additional honorary signs.

How Historic Jackson Ward got its name: This question always leads to robust discussion in the Community. For as far back as I can remember (and reportedly as far back as 1901) the question has been met with one of the following four answers: Col. Giles Beecher Jackson, James Jackson of the Beer Garden, President Andrew Jackson or Confederate General Thomas Stonewall Jackson. While it is likely the Ward was named after one of the confederates (although there is still debate), the question leads to a conversation that put Giles B. Jackson front and center. In 1897, he was the first black lawyer to practice before the Supreme Court in Virginia. This is only one of his many outstanding accomplishments. Over the years, the discussions have led to the 2007 installation of an historic marker in his honor at the intersection of N. 2nd and East Clay Streets. Most recently posing this question resulted in a proclamation and celebration of Giles B. Jackson Day on April 17 2021 as part of the 150th anniversary

The Jackson Ward name first appeared when Giles Jackson was in his childhood adding to the reasoning that he may not be the namesake. Yet some still believe he is because reportedly he proclaimed he was. What is undisputable is that Giles B. Jackson has an impressive resume –worthy of having a ward named after him.

Reconnect Jackson Ward project is: An effort to engage the community in the design a feasibility study for an in- frastructure project in Jackson Ward. The study will form the framework for an application for a competitive federal grant. This project is described as a cap or lid over a section of the highway that will add green space and buildings as well as provide opportunities for art, culture and history. It will physically connect a portion of the North and South sides of Jackson Ward. Additionally economic development will come from this effort. The money from these grants is for infrastructure projects only. Yet we know the damage caused by these highways go way beyond infrastructure.

Project location: The project location generally extends from the Belvidere Street Bridge over I-95 to east of the North 1st Street Bridge over I-95. This encompasses portions of Jackson Ward, Gilpin Court, and surrounding neighborhoods

Upcoming events in Historic Jackson Ward: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Abner Clay Park–Oct.7 at 10a.m. Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, “Forging Freedom, Justice and Equality” (now through April 2023).

Jackson Ward Plan Alternatives Workshops, Nov. 1, Calhoun Center, 436 Calhoun St.

How I start the day: I start the morning in silent prayer, grateful for another day. Abundance, patience and fo- cus are my mantras. Coffee is my fuel.

The three words that best describe me: Witty, tenacious, inquiring

Best late-night snack: Popcorn.

How I unwind: Listen to pod- casts and solve Wordle.

What I continue to learn about myself during the pandemic: Gratitude increases my fortitude.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I sing along with country western songs wher- ever I hear them. Knowing the lyrics is not a requirement. A quote that I am most inspired by: “What you are thinking is what you are be- coming.” — Muhammad Ali

At the top of my “to-do” list: To find more balance in my life and recruit more people for HJWA membership, board and leadership positions. Favorite place in Historic Jackson Ward: The W.W. Browne House, the site of the first Black bank chartered in the United States, The True Reformers Savings Bank. The best thing my parents ever taught me: Always strive to do my best and to behave myself. (Still working on that!)

The person who influenced me the most: My mother, Mrs. Willnette Anderson Lewis. Saying her name brings tears to my eyes, puts a smile on my face and makes my heart swell. Her unconditional love and authentic personality shaped me. She will always be with me in spirit and I take this opportunity to continue to say “thanks.”

Book that influenced me the most: “Twenty-five years history of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, 1881-1905,” by William Patrick Burrell and D.E. Johnson.

Next goal: To complete my book about the life and legacy of the Rev. William Washington Browne and the True Reformers.