This story was originally published Jan. 30, 2018. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Imogene Draper's and Martha Rollins' friendship RADIO IQ is re-airing the story.
This year marks 50 years since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. The law made it possible for people of color to buy homes in any neighborhood they wanted. Before the law, neighborhoods often had covenants restricting sales to white families.
As neighborhoods opened up, segregation by choice remained throughout Virginia. But in one Richmond neighborhood, two women resisted.
For some real estate agents, the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 was good business.
Agents could sell a black family a home in a white neighborhood and start a domino effect. White families would sell quickly, and agents could buy the vacated houses cheaply before selling them at inflated prices to black families. Finally, the agents would help the white families find a new home in the suburbs.
“It is the trifecta. They make a lot of money,” explains local historian Beth O’Leary.
That’s what was happening in Richmond’s Carillon neighborhood in the 1960’s. Real estate agents had targeted the area. Within 18 months, a third of the community there was African American.
Martha Rollins, who is white, remembers telling her realtor she wanted to live there.
“I said ‘This is the one I really want to see’ and he said ‘Oh no you don’t want to live there, that’s a changing neighborhood.’” Rollins recalls. “I said ‘Oh what is that?’ Because I thought change was good.”
Despite the agent’s warnings, Rollins and her husband decided to buy. When they moved in, the agent brought them flowers and told them that crime would soon rise and property values would fall.
Rollins remembers laying in bed, in her new home, afraid.
“I don’t know how long (it took). Maybe a half hour? I said ‘Nope I’m not going to let him tell me how something is going to turn out. And I’m not going to be afraid,’” Rollins says. “You have to choose not fear.”
There were 350 houses in that neighborhood. By the summer, Rollins had knocked on every door. That’s when she met Imogene Draper.
From Martinsville to Richmond
Imogene Draper doesn’t remember what month it was when they met. She thinks it might have been May, because the roses were blooming.
Draper and her husband were both educators. They found their way to Richmond and fell in love with the Carillon neighborhood after having lived in nearby Byrd Park. For the first year in their new home, Draper was at Duke University getting her Master’s.
It was the Duke sticker on the car that caught Martha Rollins attention. She was also a Duke graduate. Rollins stopped to say hello during one of her walks and asked Draper where she was from.
“I’ll always remember this,” laughs Rollins, “She said ‘I’m from a little town you wouldn’t ever heard of called Martinsville.”’
As it turned out, they had grown up in the same small southside city. Rollins' family was a founder of that region’s textile industry. Draper could trace her family roots there to before the Civil War.
“I grew up in what was called East Martinsville,” recalls Draper. “We had a close community. The center of our lives was school and the churches.”
Drapers’ ancestors had worked in the household of Rollins’ ancestors. Draper’s father had worked for the family business that Rollin’s father ran. Rollins remembers planning her wedding reception for the local country club, where her father was a founder. The club wouldn’t let her have African-Americans at the reception so she decided not to have it there.
Draper’s father had also worked in the club.
“I had members of the family who worked in the country club. We had two different lifestyles, obviously,” says Draper. “It was the Jim Crow era and we were growing up in a town that subscribed to the mores of that era.”
A Civic Association
A few years later and things had changed enough that Rollins and Draper were now neighbors and friends. But in in the 1960’s, in their new community in Richmond, much was still the same.
Rollins recalls a white woman in the neighborhood saying that when she saw a black person enter a neighbor’s house she would pretend they were just working there.
“I thought I belonged here,” Draper says. “And I did.”
So along with other families, they created the Carillon Civic Association. The group hosted house tours and the brochures read “Good neighbors come in all colors.” They founded an annual arts festival, where Draper says neighbors would have to work together.
“We all came together and said this is what we want. We’re not letting other people tell us how we are to live together,” says Draper.
It took years, but eventually the neighborhood stabilized. Housing turnover slowed and property values rose. In the 1970’s then Virginia Governor Linwood Holton praised the community’s efforts as a national model for integration.
Today, the Carillon is one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in Richmond. In 2016, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Imogene Draper says the inspiration for their hard work was their children.
"Our children deserve to be able to live together without the baggage,” she says. “Without the baggage of the previous generations, and the Jim Crow era, and that sort of thing.”
Draper’s daughter still lives in her house. She also serves on the board of the Carillon Civic Association. The group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Editor's Note Nov. 2019: The original version of this story included background music that may not have fit the overall tone of the story. The audio file was replaced with a version without the music.