Richmond’s Black population declining: ‘You can’t really locate a solid African American community. There just isn’t anymore.’
on April 27, 2023
When Ulis Redic became pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in 1997, the Black congregation was thriving in Richmond, where about 1 out of every 3 people was Black.
Two decades later, fewer than 1 out of 5 Richmond residents is Black.
Redic is not only watching his congregation shrink but also seeing family members leave the city. He said his youngest son moved to North Carolina in search of a more diverse environment in which to raise his children.
“He wanted to be around Black people,” Redic said.
In the past four decades, Richmond’s Black population has dropped 41%. Nearly half of Richmond residents were African American in 1980. By 2020, only 18% were. The exodus has affected many families, whose children have left in search of safer, more affordable places to settle down. Redic raised six children in Richmond and four of the six have left.
“The people who commute to church now, their children probably will not,” he said.
Mt. Zion’s sanctuary has a capacity of about 175 people. When Redic first arrived, the church regularly reached full capacity. It also had special worship services for children, young adults, and senior citizens.
“It was rare to get a member who did not live within walking distance from the church,” Redic said.
Twenty-six years later, 70% of the congregants drive from Vallejo, Fairfield, Pittsburg and San Jose, though most used to live in Richmond. Now, Redic preaches to an average of 40 people in person. After the pandemic, the church turned to virtual services via Facebook live. Since then, 75% of the contributions are from online giving.
There are also very few children in the church. Even on Easter Sunday, out of 125 people, only 10 were under the age of 12. The church stopped offering an after school program to help children with their homework six years ago, for lack of participants.
It pains Redic to admit that many once-vibrant churches are dying, victims of a dramatic decrease in Richmond’s Black population.
The situation is much the same at Resurrection AME church on Cutting Boulevard, where on a recent Sunday, only one small child attended the service. And among those who go to church there regularly, the youngest member is about 40 years old, said Gwendolyn Woodson, a member and the pastor’s sister.
The shift is keenly felt in North Richmond, a Black enclave since World War II, when people flocked to Richmond for its good-paying jobs.
“You can’t really locate a solid African American community,” said Nat Bates, a former Richmond mayor who spent decades on the City Council. “There just isn’t anymore.”
Woodson was born and raised on Third Street in North Richmond. Her parents owned a grocery store in the neighborhood and 30 years ago, Woodson bought the house next to the store on Fifth Street, where she still lives today.
“We had pretty much everything inside the small community,” Woodson said, from grocery stores to repair shops, a gas station, baseball field, and even community halls for holding events.
“The elementary and high school was predominantly Black,” she recalled. And North Richmond kids moved through the grades together.
The neighborhood’s demographics have since changed, with many Latino residents now calling North Richmond home. Woodson said her parents’ store, which she and her brother own and lease, is one of the last businesses owned by Black people.
“There are so few places where you can go with Black people to spend money,” said Redic.
Woodson’s child moved to Sacramento, where housing prices are more reasonable. According to real estate brokerage Redfin, Sacramento is the most popular destination for the 25% of Richmond homebuyers looking to move out of the area.
Prior to World War II, there were 23,000 people in Richmond, including 270 African Americans. The war brought new jobs to the city and a migration of workers. Many Black workers moved to Richmond for jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards, and by 1946, the Black population reached its peak of 110,000.
However, there was tremendous discrimination in housing, leaving African Americans no choice but to build in North Richmond, which lacked houses, schools, police, and other public services. Improvements didn’t come quickly and only came because African American residents campaigned for civil rights and better living conditions.
In the process, the Black community gained political, economic and social clout. Black leaders worked to bring equity to Richmond and rose to influential positions in government and the community.
Parchester Village brought the opportunity for many Black residents to buy a house. In 1949, the Rev. Guthrie Williams, who wanted to end housing and workplace discrimination, made a deal with a city councilman and a wealthy landowner to build an integrated community north of North Richmond, KQED reported in a history of the development.
Parchester Village soon became predominantly Black, with many veterans among its early homebuyers. Today, its demographics look much the same as North Richmond’s, as younger Black residents leave the family home.
“They prefer to buy their own house,” Woodson said.
When housing prices and the cost of living exploded in the Bay Area, many Black Richmond residents were forced to relocate.
“They had two choices,” Bates said, “to sell and liquidate the property or move elsewhere where the cost of living is less expensive.”
RedFin lists the median house price in Richmond at $630,000. And the 2020 Census put the median household income at nearly $80,000.
“Economics,” Bates said, citing the main reason for the Black exodus.
According to Redfin, more people are leaving Richmond than are moving in. The census also reflects that. After decades of population growth, nearly 1,000 people have left the city since 2020.
Along with the high cost of living, people cite crime and violence as reasons. Though, statistically, crime rates in Richmond have declined in the past few decades, some residents say crime is still pervasive.
“Crime is the major issue, even now,” Woodson said. She pointed out that things had calmed after the eruption of gang violence in the 1980s. But public safety remains a cause for concern.
”The shootings and warfare are starting again,” she said.
“Now it’s drugs and homicide,” added her brother, the Rev. Boaston Woodson, pastor of Resurrection AME, who says he has witnessed homicides. “Violence is everywhere.”
Brenda Lee, a Resurrection member, agreed, saying, “I got used to it, which is sad.”
Boaston and Gwendolyn Woodson remember a borderless Black community, where their father had the store. People coming through would stop there to grab a coffee and a doughnut. Their father opened the grocery store because he couldn’t stand seeing people hungry. He extended credit to neighborhood families, something unheard of today.
“In Christmas time, we had toys, so that people don’t have to go out of North Richmond to buy Christmas gifts,” Gwendolyn Woodson recalled.
Now, the vibrant atmosphere is gone. “I can’t even think of when the last white person other than workers came through or stopped by the store,” Boaston Woodson said.
The cohesive community also is lost, with Black residents spread out across the city.
“African Americans, we had our days in Richmond, and now it’s for another group to have their days in Richmond,” Redic said.
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No it’s not time for another group in Richmond. Another group to just sit on top of what we built. His defeated attitude is part of why this is going on. We deserve to have what’s ours and nobody has the right to take it or give it away. We have been denied and they are affirmed and funded. We deserve funds too.
What is that suppose to mean black people we had our stay , now it’s time for another group to have theirs. That sounds to me black people don’t have a chance. I believe we do have a chance .. black people don’t fight for each other , they fight against each other and do t even see how it’s leaving us without so much stuff how can we possibly let let another group come in and take over our communities, out businesses. ,and our jobs and don’t even speak English this is sickening can Ice solve this issue . I think a lot of crime comes from these illegals especially the human trafficking … This makes me sick!
“Economics,” Bates said, citing the main reason for the Black exodus.”
How about looking at immigration as the driving force. Another facet of the “Great Replacement Theory” so widely mocked.