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A Southside Tragedy: A Judge, A Murder, & A Mural

I drive Hull Street twice a day on my morning commute. I am constantly looking around trying to soak in all I can about this once thriving business corridor. Hull’s commercial strip is a piece of forgotten Richmond that has stories to tell-some good, some bad, and some tragic.

A few years ago, one particularly strange mural piqued my curiosity. The old, faded mural is located on the front facade of a building near the intersection of Cowardin Ave and Hull Street in an area that is currently referred to as Swansboro. I always thought the mysterious mural was strange since I didn’t understand its history. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit I laughed at it at first-a nervous laugh admittedly-not knowing or understanding the sad history behind this intersection.

The messages on the mural point toward the time when this area of south Richmond was a completely broken community, even more so than it is today. The stark messages-SAY NO TO DRUGS…STOP THE VIOLENCE…CRACK-give an indication of what you had to deal with if you lived in this area of Richmond in the 1980s and 90s. As if the messages weren’t enough, the imagery of addicts, drug dealers, police officers, prison inmates, and ghouls drive the point home.

It was at this exact intersection that one of Richmond’s most tragic murders took place in 1997. I am referring to the murder of Judge Harold Marsh Sr., one of the most prominent civil rights leaders from one of the most prominent African-American families in Richmond. Mr. Harold Marsh was a bastion of the community. He and his brother are the men for whom the Manchester Courthouse is named. This man and his family were (and are) a huge deal for Richmond, the state, and the country.  Mr. Marsh’s murder caught national attention. The story was covered by the Washington Post and New York Times. The Virginia-Pilot said it best when they summed up Mr. Marsh’s stature in the community: “The law firm he helped form in the heart of Richmond’s Jackson Ward district was arguably the most prominent local law firm in the South when it came to charting and pursuing legal strategies for dismantling segregation.”

Jet Magazine gave a brief synopsis of the story, with this to say:

Judge Harold Marsh gunned down in car on Richmond, VA, street. (brother of Senator Henry L. Marsh III)

Judge Harold M. Marsh Sr., who had become a father figure to hundreds of ghetto youth, was gunned down in broad daylight at a traffic light at one of the busiest street intersections in Richmond, VA.

The 59-year-old brother of State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III was en route to his downtown firm’s office from an appearance as a substitute judge at a juvenile court in Chesterfield County. It was 2:05 in the afternoon.

He was shot twice in the body by an assailant who was described as driving “a brown or bronze 1996 or 1997 Cadillac.” The gunman pulled along side the lawyer’s rented Ford sedan and fired four or five times, blasting out the car windows before speeding away.

Police were baffled by the crime of one of the city’s most popular political figures and member of a prominent civil rights-involved family. And law enforcement officials were also puzzled by the lack of cooperation from community members. Although the murder happened at a busy thoroughfare, not a single witness appeared.

“He was always trying to do something for somebody,” Sen. Marsh said of his brother, who graduated from the University of Virginia law school. His daughter, Erica, graduated cum laude as valedictorian of her class at Harvard University.

According to The Richmond Times Dispatch, it turns out that “the shooter, a man who had fallen behind in rent and was facing eviction from property leased from one of Harold Marsh’s clients, was sentenced to 53 years in prison.”

The Richmond Free-Press gave a glimpse into the painful memories the Marsh family was still struggling to cope with in 2016 nearly twenty years after the murder with its article covering the renaming of the Manchester Courthouse for the Marsh brothers:

“Harold Marsh was fatally shot in 1997 about a mile west of the renamed courthouse by an embittered defendant in an eviction case. For Harold Marsh Jr., who was joined at the podium by his sister, Dr. Erica Marsh, the ceremony was bittersweet. He and his sister, who now live in Chicago, had not returned to the courthouse since the trial of the man charged with killing their father.”

This story comes full circle for us. Upon learning this story, I instantly thought it would be nice to fix up the old dilapidated building where this tragic mural gives hints of the painful history of this intersection.

As fate would have it, the building was just put up for sale. And we put it under contract. Now it’s time to take that old, abandoned and crumbling building and do something positive with it. Mr. Marsh’s history will remain as his important civil rights work is properly commemorated at the Manchester Courthouse for posterity’s sake. Let’s not forget his sacrifices and his tragic death. Mr. Marsh was a hero, and his story needs to continue to be told and remembered.

But as for the faded mural-a vestige of when Richmond was once the murder capital of the Unites States-it is time for it to go. Now is the time for this building to become something positive, rather than a sign of blight and neglect. Said differently, it’s time to turn the page.

10 thoughts on “A Southside Tragedy: A Judge, A Murder, & A Mural

  1. Many people who are new to this area might not be aware that 30yrs ago the numerous blocks stretching from Commerce & Hull st. Up towards Cowardin/Jeff Davis and Hull st. and the various neighborhoods surrounding that area where controlled by numerous Drug gangs,and it wasn’t unusual to witness a shooting during broad daylight!. (A Judge Harold Marsh was shot to death in his car waiting for a light to change,in traffic near that mural) this mural has been around since the late 80’s during a “stop the violence campaign “,that corner was lined with bars&restaurants (the famous Gregory’s Ballroom that featured live music ). Also nobody from that area called this area “Swansboro”,that area was further up the street,more commonly associated with that area near “Swansboro” school ,residents called this area Blackwell Remembered (Blackwell), ….these names attached to these areas now have more to do with real estate marketing and gentrification than anything else,anyone who has lived in this area 30+ years would know this!.

    1. Darrl Davenport, agree with you on the names. We get blasted by folks though if we don’t refer to the area as Swansboro. The city currently recognizes the Swansboro name for this area now. We think the name is less important than remembering the history though. Thanks for the comment.

      1. LOL! When I was reading Derrl Davenport’s post, I was thinking how you might get lambasted had you incorrectly labeled the locality. Thanks for the article, I have always wondered the meaning of that mural.

    2. The city is eager to refer to it as Swansboro, because in many ways they wish to put the past in the past!,yet many long time residents would tell you it wasn’t all bad,yes the area had the largest public housing community in RVA,stretched from numerous blocks (thus the name “scattered sites”) ,but there was always community ,and many people grew up to be successful supported by those communities. There were neighborhood Football & Basketball teams,live music concerts on Blackwell playground,block parties etc… .with the city it’s all about real estate marketing with them,but they should know the past cannot stay hidden. Longtime residents welcome any improvement ,but for longtime residents ,Blackwell will always be remembered.

    3. As one of those newly arrived people I really enjoy hearing from long time residents about the neighborhood back before gentrification took hold. Manchester/Blackwell/Swansboro all have a great story that often gets overlooked by the developers, politicians, and new arrivals like myself. Thank you for your insight

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