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Life for Kids on the Street in Post-Civil War Richmond

For poor kids in American cities, life can be hard.  Gangs, guns and drugs are part of the landscape, but one historian says things were even worse in Richmond after the Civil War. More than a thousand lived on the streets including at least 100 kids - selling newspapers for a penny apiece and doing battle with rocks.

After the Civil War, thousands of former slaves made their way to Richmond, hoping to find paying work.  The economy was in ruins, and about 1,500 people ended up homeless.  At the University of Richmond, professor emeritus Harry Ward says the city was a miserable place to live.

“Tons of horse manure on the street, tons of garbage plus dead bodies on the street.  Richmond was not a pleasant place to be.”

The air was filled with dust from factories that made cloth or clothing, and the water was even worse.

“The city of Lynchburg 247 miles away dumped all its sewage into the James River.”

The first water purification plant didn’t open until the 1920’s, so disease killed some parents.  Other simply abandoned their kids, and at least a hundred of them lived on the streets - stealing or selling newspapers and fighting for their turf.

“Two boys stood on the corner and glared at each other.  Both had bundles of the last edition under their arms.  One boy was in his own territory, the other strictly out of his, but he was the bigger, and bigness often counts.”

A fight ensued, but the big boy ran off when police came around.

“The little boy rubbed his face with the back of his hand and gazed triumphantly upon his recovered territory.  ‘Last edition!’ he shouted.  ‘Last edition!’”

Ward says a total of 43 gangs formed and many children ended up in court, presided over by Judge John Jeter Crutchfield.

“Children as young as six or seven were tried as adults. The judge was not a lawyer, but had the wisdom of Solomon, but he attracted attention nationally, and people came from all parts of the country to hear him.”

Sometimes Judge Crutchfield would find homes for these children - promising them clean clothes, plenty of food, education and a chance to attend church on Sundays.  In exchange, he made them promise to be good boys.  He often handed down light sentences to kids who told the truth and when a young man came before him - a drifter from North Carolina - the judge announced:  “I thought so.  Just fine him a $5 bill for being loose in Virginia, and let him go.”

These and other tales are told in Children of the Streets of Richmond - 1865 to 1920.  Harry Ward’s next book will be Public Prostitution in Richmond.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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