A Jackson Ward Journey

Unearthing the history and legacy of civil rights attorney Roland J. ‘Duke’ Ealey

James Vigeant | 11/16/2023, 6 p.m.
When my wife, Sasha Finch, and I purchased the 1880s East Clay Street building on Jan. 4, 2012, it had …
From left, James ‘Jim’ Vigeant, Sasha Finch, Janis Allen and Theodore Holmes stand in the Jackson Ward home in which Roland J. “Duke” Ealey’s legal documents were discovered. Photo by Sandra Sellars

When my wife, Sasha Finch, and I purchased the 1880s East Clay Street building on Jan. 4, 2012, it had been dormant for more than 10 years. Plywood covered its outside window and inside the level of disrepair was undeniable. A fire on the second floor had caused considerable damage to much of the property.

Yet something drew us to this building. We saw beauty in this wonderful old brick structure. For five years we worked steadily on the property’s exterior, rebuilding damaged brick walls while preparing the interior for its eventual renovation.

We began to plot repairs to restore the building’s brick integrity that would entail careful removal of years of debris, including a tree rooted in the basement that had grown through the roof of the house.

What we could not see or imagine was a cultural treasure hidden among the ruins.

Two untouched basement rooms had separate exterior entrances. One room’s exterior door had collapsed long before we purchased the building.

These two rooms were connected only by a small three-foot square opening with a wooden closure. We were aware that many boxes occupied one of these rooms, along with two large oil tanks and a huge furnace.

To gain greater access to the inner room, I removed the brick wall area underneath the interior window and created a rough interior door access way.

Once accessible, our plan was to gather the boxes, presumably old accounting papers, and send them to the city dump.

Meet James “Jim” Vigeant and Sasha Finch, owners of the Ealey Collection

James “Jim” Vigeant and Sasha Finch have been restoring old homes for more than 30 years. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Vigeant, 68, worked in the corporate world as a chemist and planner from 1980 until 1993 in Rochester, N.Y., Chicago, and New Albany, Miss.

While in Mississippi he owned a restaurant and organized the three-day Tallahatchie River Festival. He also helped create the New Albany Mainstreet Program and the Historic Northside Neighborhood Association, as well as restored residential and commercial properties.

Ms. Finch graduated from Penn State University. In addition to teaching and serving as a college admissions counselor, her career has included interior design and space planning, restaurant owner, yoga instructor and property restoration. For nearly 20 years, Ms. Finch has assisted her daughter, Allison Merritt, with the Western Design Conference Exhibit & Sale in Jackson Hole, Wyo. She is a former president of the Fan Women’s Club, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s English as a second language program.

“We have restored properties in Upstate New York, Chicago, Mississippi, and here in Richmond,” said Mr. Vigeant. “Our goal is always to allow for these properties to have a rebirth and another full life of usage. We have also been very active in community development for this entire time. In New York, Sasha restored an 1820s farmhouse; in Chicago, we restored an older home in the suburb of La Grange; in Mississippi, we restored not only residential properties but commercial properties as well.

“In Richmond the East Clay Street property is our fifth restoration since arriving here in 2004 and is now our home.”

But, on this day in early 2019, for some inexplicable reason or just plain old curiosity, I took a closer look.

The boxes contained legal documents, many of them dating back to the 1940s, that belonged to the late Honorable Roland J. “Duke” Ealey.

Not knowing anything about Mr. Ealey, I Googled him. A 1992 article in The Washington Post appeared first.

The article stated how then-Gov. L. Douglas “Doug” Wilder had lowered the United States flag to half-mast at the Virginia Capitol in honor of his childhood friend and civil rights colleague who died in March 1992.

Suddenly, our renovation work came to a screeching halt. We knew that we had stumbled upon something important, something that demanding our greater attention.

Because I knew Gov. Wilder, I texted him to learn more about Mr. Ealey and to determine if the documents had any possible historical significance.

“Don’t trash it,” the former governor immediately responded.

Soon after Gov. Wilder explained to me the importance of this material and how it would bring firsthand documentation to much of the African-American historical story in Jackson Ward, Richmond, and the larger Civil Rights Movement. He brought to my attention several key cases in which Mr. Ealey had direct influence, specifically: Irene Morgan vs Greyhound Bus, Green vs New Kent County, and Johnson vs The State of Virginia.

For the next several months, we spent countless hours carefully removing the delicate collection from the basement, transferring some to more suitable boxes, but working steadily to transfer the documents and artifacts from the basement to the first-floor area, which was dryer and more stable.

Once most of the discovery had been moved, Sasha and I began reaching out to the community. We also established a steering committee to get this effort off –The Ealey Project – off the ground and hopefully headed in the proper direction.

In the early months of 2020, we reached out to Janis Allen, the president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, and to my neighbor, Theodore Holmes, an African-American freelance historical photographer.

Janis agreed to join our team and helped facilitate our growing relationship with the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Theodore and I then took a cursory look inside the material look for the cases mentioned by Gov. Wilder.

We quickly found some remarkable historical documents. Equally remarkable was seeing Theodore’s reaction to some of the material containing names, places and events that he recalled when growing up. I saw him having flashbacks to his early days — as a small boy, a young man and beyond.

After finding the Brown v. Board of Education documents, the milestone 1954 Supreme Court ruling that separating children in public schools on the basis of race, we knew we had to stop because we were clearly now working with significant historical material.

Several months later, because of the COVID19 pandemic, Theodore and I met only once a week in 2020 and 2021 to sort through the papers.

In 2022 we decided to reach out to some possible archiving institutions.

In late spring of 2022, we met with the Library of Virginia (LVA) and began negotiations about how best to archive The Ealey collection.

After 11 months of determined negotiations, we arrived at an appropriate understanding and developed a suitable contract agreement. With the negotiations completed we then transferred the ownership of the “physical” aspects of the Ealey Collection for the LVA to begin the process of reclamation and archiving.

Within our contract agreement the Library of Virginia also acknowledged that Sasha Finch and James Vigeant (The Donors) would retain the ownership of the intellectual content held within the physical documents of the Ealey discovery that was being transferred to the LVA. With this Sasha and I signed a “Deed of Gift” contract on June 30, 2023, with the LVA for them to become the archiving house for The Ealey Collection.

A legacy revealed On March 8, 2023, Sasha and I received our TEP 501©(3) non-profit organization letter of approval from the U.S. Internal Revenue service to represent the intellectual content of the Ealey Collection — with the mission statement: To Reveal The Legacy Of The Honorable Roland J. “Duke” Ealey.

In early August of 2023, the Library of Virginia placed the Ealey collection into official boxes to transfer them to a Virginia state holding facility to be processed within their freezer in preparation for archiving. Once the collection is removed from the freezer, our agreement with the library is that archiving will begin and that TEP will reach out to the community to establish a “Community Engagement” effort to encourage the Jackson Ward Community (but not limited to) to participate in the archiving of this valuable historic, and extremely large Ealey Collection.

Additionally, The Ealey Project, the Historic Jackson Ward Association (HJWA), and the Black History Museum and Culture Center (BHMCC) have built a solid relationship over the last year to join forces and create a collaboration that will enhance the clarity and understanding of African-Americans’ deep contributions to our more complete American History story. Our goal is to strengthen the visibility of the major contributions that Jackson Ward and Richmond, Virginia have had on our American History, and promote the key figures who are responsible for this rich American historical narrative.

For more information, please visit The Ealey Project website: https://tep.ngo