First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory

Historical Significance

The First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory, also known as the Leigh Street Armory, is the oldest Armory structure in existence in Virginia.  It is one of six original armories in the city and one of only two that survive in Richmond, and is believed to be one of the oldest African-American armories in the United States. The First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory was built in 1895 after 10 years of lobbying led by John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet Newspaper, and the commander of the Richmond African American militia, Major Joseph B. Johnson. Mitchell and Johnson hired a carriage to drive through the city, meeting with all of the city council members to persuade them to override the mayor's veto of construction plans for the armory.

In the 1890's, Mitchell again came to the aid of the Armory when construction began. The all white Bricklayers' Union complained at a city council meeting because the contract for the brickwork was awarded to Armstead Walker (the husband of Maggie Walker) and his masons, all of whom were black. Mitchell made a successful plea before city council for Walker to maintain his position as subcontractor.

Richmond's first African-American regiment met and drilled at the armory and the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers rented rooms there as early as 1876 for drills and meetings. In 1895, the armory served as headquarters of the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Infantry, an African-American regiment which served in the Spanish- American War. The Armory was also utilized as a social center for Jackson Ward, where black civilians held balls, banquets, concerts, and drill competitions.

In 1899, due to discrimination against black troops during mobilization for the Spanish-American War and the onset of the Jim Crow era, the First Battalion was dissolved and the Armory became the Monroe School. The school served the African-American community until 1940, when it was condemned as an "antiquated fire trap." However, the building was used soon after as a reception center for 56,000 African- American soldiers during World War II, serving as a recreational hall and housing facility for African-American troops from 1942 until the end of the war. After 1945, the building became the Monroe Center, an annex of Armstrong High School, then Graves Junior High School, and soon the Colored Special School until the 1950's. In the mid 1980's the Richmond School board leased the Armory building to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center. During this lease, the roof of the building on the second floor burned, making the building uninhabitable.

The Armory building remained in ruins for 20 years until 2003, when funding from Save America's Treasures was used to stabilize the supports of the building and construct a new roof.

The building is now being renovated and expanded prior to becoming the new permanent home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in 2014. 

Physical Description

The Armory building is an imposing castle-like brick structure, exhibiting five distinct types of masonry units, terra cotta crenellation and grape vine friezes, and corner towers with fine radially-molded brick. The building was designed by Wilfred Emory Cutshaw and the masonry units were constructed by Armstead Walker and his company of African American masons.

Geographical and Contact Information

122 West Leigh Street
Richmond, Virginia