By: Geronimo Knows
If urban culture ceased to exist, I’d probably go back to school and become a career college student. Until that day comes, however, I’ll be in cities across the world to learn what keeps residents residing and tourists touring. This undying interest is why I was excited to interview Joshua Epperson, Kathleen O’Donnell, and Kelli Lemon of BLK RVA. The collaborative is an initiative between Richmond Regional Tourism (RRT) and 20+ community leaders. The purpose of BLK RVA? To promote African American tourism by illustrating the Richmond, Virginia region as a multicultural hub that specializes in four pillars: Arts & Entertainment, Food & Drink, Community, and History.
We met the BLK RVA team at a cafe in the historic Jackson Ward neighborhood called Urban Hang Suite. There’s no connection to r&b singer Maxwell, but it’s very connected to BLK RVA’s Kelli Lemon, Urban Hang Suite’s owner. Visitors are greeted by smiling baristas, hip-hop and r&b music, and the usual cafe sounds like the whirring of an espresso machine and conversations. The walls display artwork by Richmond-based artists and frames showing two decades of VIBE Magazine covers. I took a picture of the magazine covers as my own piece of nostalgia reminiscent of my teen years. Kelli was on-site and made us feel at home while we waited for Joshua and Kathleen to arrive. Once the rest of the team arrived, we jumped right into the interview.
The areas of note on the BLK RVA website which resonated with me most were its tagline “Rooted & Rising,” that 1 in 4 African Americans can trace their lineage to Richmond, and the page explaining the lexicon used on the site (ie. African American vs Black, enslaved vs slavery, etc). I focused on these points and threw in a couple of general questions for added variety. The conversation not only provided more context for the inspiration to launch the initiative but also gave a snapshot of Black Richmond’s past and present culture. During the interview, I mentioned viewing BLK RVA as a case study that other cities could use to highlight their Black communities. In the short time I’ve worked with Visit Black History, I realized how little existence or knowledge there is of comprehensive online databases focused on Black history. With the prevalence of “Buy Black” campaigns and continued lack of proper Black history education in schools, there’s an extreme need for creating more places online with a one-stop-shop approach where people can find out about Black cultural events, historic institutions, and businesses – all with an emphasis on engagement and tourism.
It had been two years since I was last in Richmond, and prior to that visit, it had been 25 years. My two-week visit in 2017 showed me a new, vibrant Richmond with all the urban appeal that I love but topped off with just enough southern charm to make the stay hospitable. I was able to tap into a little of what Black Richmond has to offer having patronized a few Black-owned cafes and restaurants. This time, however, I learned an immense amount of what Black Richmond has to offer in a 10-minute conversation on a day trip – a conversation that now has all the sights and sounds of BLK RVA on my bucket list of urban exploration.