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Sisters Enjoli Moon and Sesha Joi Moon, Ph.D., share an inherent passion for Richmond’s Black history and heritage. Last December the Moon sisters combined their research and storytelling skills and co-founded The JXN Project to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jackson Ward, the nation’s first Black urban neighborhood registered in the National Register of Historic Places. Through the project, they hope to educate people on the overlooked history of Jackson Ward, which dates to April 17, 1871, and had a pivotal role in the Black American experience.
The sisters are currently working to rename Jackson Ward’s streets to honor some notable Black Richmonders, such as Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in the U.S., and John Mitchell Jr., editor of The Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper.
They are also staging events and organizing other initiatives such as Illuminating Legacies: Giles B. Jackson Day to honor the community’s Black entrepreneurs and celebrate 150 years of Black excellence. They hope their efforts will help drive the next 150 years.
The Moon family has deep ties to Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond. Matriarch Michon Moon earned three degrees from the university. She has held roles as the director of victim-witness services with the city of Richmond's Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney and justice grants administrator with the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants. Sesha has a bachelor’s degree in African American studies from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and a master’s in criminal justice from VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland and a micro-influencer who curates her blog on Instagram called @AngryBlackFemale. Enjoli is the assistant curator of film and special programs at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU and creative director of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, the only Black film festival in Richmond. She is also the founding chair of BLK RVA, a Richmond Region Tourism initiative to highlight Black culture in the city.
In 2018 the sisters created A Blackass Field Trip, a series of curated excursions designed to educate Black people on the Black experience in the country. Working on The JXN Project is rewarding and gratifying, Sesha Joi Moon said.
“Of all the work Enjoli and I have done together, [The JXN Project] is the project that really has informed my pride,” she said. “I thought I was proud to be Black and from Richmond before but over the last six months, that pride has grown tenfold.”
Sesha Joi Moon spoke to VCU News about The JXN Project, the history of Jackson Ward and other related topics.
Can you talk about your upbringing and the values you still carry with you today?
I think that for myself it’s just inherently to be proud to be Black and to be proud to be from Richmond. Those are the values instilled in us literally from birth. Our mother hailed from the Byrd Park area in the West End and our father hailed from the Blackwell area on the Southside so they both have their own distinct stories about the Black Richmond experience. I feel that those stories have 100% informed who I am as an individual. I definitely feel that being a Black Richmonder is the core value for me and my sister.
How does your mission to support Black lives reflect those core values?
Above anything, it’s a process. We say we are excavating, elevating and educating people on the Black Richmond experience. A lot of it has been hidden histories or lesser-known or under-told truths that we are trying to elevate to the forefront. Definitely, with Enjoli doing this type of work with the Afrikana Independent Film Festival and ICA, she is doing it by way of film and art. With A Blackass Field Trips, we have done it by trying to help expose people to experiences across the diaspora that will help inform a fuller narrative about not only the Black American experience but also how a lot of it is rooted in being Black and in Richmond.
Now with The JXN Project, a lot of it is understanding the origin stories of Black Richmond and how it is inherently connected to the core values of being proud and being Black. Of all the work Enjoli and I have done together this is the project that really has informed my pride. I thought I was proud to be Black and from Richmond before but over the last six months, that pride has grown tenfold. Learning about this, you understand that Black Richmonders not only survived but they thrived in the face of very intentional actions to suppress and oppress them, walking away with a badge of honor to say I am Black and from Richmond.the home of Maggie L. Walker [View Image]The home of Maggie L. Walker, one of many historic locations around Jackson Ward (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)
What qualities or skills do you have that were important to this endeavor?
For Enjoli, her skill set is that she is great at storytelling. She is great at taking a subject and finding ways to make it connect to people in a very humane way, whether through art or culture or food. That is really her lane and her gift. For me, I am a trained academic. What I brought to the table is that research lens. It’s a great partnership. I have been the one going in the library and digging through those crates to unearth the truth. But then Enjoli’s talent, and what she brings to the table, is being able to tell those truths in a way that connects to not only the city and the commonwealth but is starting to really grow a national connection as well.
What was your motivation for this project, especially starting it during a pandemic?
Honestly, it was ancestral. We happened upon this. Enjoli has been telling people we were guided to this work. I can’t really say we set out for it. Our combined work with Afrikana, Angry Black Female, A Blackass Field Trip and her work with the ICA and my work with diversity trips, all those roles were preparing us to be guided to this work.
Because of the pandemic, Enjoli pivoted the film festival last year to a virtual experience. She wanted to do activations across the city. To partner with each activation, she wanted to have what we call Blackass Facts, akin to A Blackass Field Trip, where she was going to highlight different communities. She asked me to pull the facts.
Again, because I am proud to be Black from Richmond, I think I pretty much know most of these facts. When I was looking at Jackson Ward, I said who is Jackson? In all my years of being in Richmond, I never asked that question to myself. I assumed it would be easy. Google will answer that in 30 seconds. That is what opened up this Pandora’s box to understanding that this question has been in contention since 1902 and there were four or five different Jacksons generally attributed to the name. It led to this journey of unearthing more than just a name. It’s really understanding the origin story of the Black experience, particularly within Jackson Ward. It led us to the project, but I can’t say we set out to do a project.man standing at the front of a bus speaking into a microphone [View Image]Events hosted by The JXN Project include Illuminating Legacies: Giles B. Jackson Day, above, which provided the community an opportunity to celebrate 150 years of Black excellence and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, The JXN Project Summer Lecture Series with the Library of Virginia and Richmond Public Library Series are helping highlight under-told and overlooked aspects of the Black experience through an academic lens (Photoes courtesy of The JXN Project).
How does this project affect your lives and the lives of others?
I think for our lives it’s just purpose driven, passion driven and it just let us know all those other projects were preparing us for this moment. I think it reminded us, or solidified our assignment to ensure that while a lot of these stories have local origins, that Black Richmond should be part of the national heritage. We try to leverage all of the work that we did individually, as well as the projects that we partnered on in Richmond in the past, and try to elevate that.
As far as the impact on others, we hope that it helps them feel connected to the city and that Richmond becomes a homecoming destination for anyone trying to understand the Black American experience.
Another layer of that beyond making our ancestors proud and standing on their shoulders is saying we have a living legacy. A young lady came up to me and said, “Thank you for this.” Her family’s home was destroyed because of the interstate. She said her family was almost forgotten and that this moment where we were illuminating legacies, she saw her family at work. If anything, that is the ultimate impact we would like to have, that people don’t feel forgotten, that people don’t hurt and that the stories are told truthfully and completely.
What is one finding from your research that was a surprise?
All of it was a surprise, but all of it wasn’t a surprise at the same time. Through the research, we found some disappointing finds. One of them being that Jackson Ward was probably named after Stonewall Jackson. You want to find the discoveries surprising or disheartening but when you think about it, it’s not surprising. This is Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Why would you think anything else?
I can’t say that any of the finds are surprising. They were startling, but not surprising. The biggest find internally for us was that this is what it is but then finding a way to not only re-contextualize or reclaim it for ourselves. Being able to find some inherent power within the findings has probably been the biggest surprise to me on a personal level.
“If anything, that is the ultimate impact we would like to have, that people don’t feel forgotten, that people don’t hurt and that the stories are told truthfully and completely.”
What type of events have you held or will hold and why?
Illuminating Legacies: Giles B. Jackson Day provided the community with an opportunity to celebrate 150 years of Black excellence and entrepreneurship. The JXN Project Summer Lecture Series with the Library of Virginia and Richmond Public Library Series are equally important because they help highlight some often under-told and overlooked aspects of the Black experience through an academic lens by leveraging both artifacts and anecdotes.
What would you like to see in the next 150 years for Jackson Ward?
To return to its former glory when it was a thriving vessel of Black entrepreneurship and excellence.
What can people learn from the entrepreneurs in Jackson Ward?
Self-determination, resilience and innovation above anything else. One of those under-told truths is that we were one of a handful of cities that had urbanized enslavement systems. We were more multidimensional than Black people who were being enslaved in the counties on plantations. We had this dynamic infrastructure where Black people were not in the purview of their enslaver, working at the plants in the city.
When you have that, you have this level of autonomy and you see what Black Richmonders did with that level of autonomy. How they maximized it to help purchase their own freedom, to start their own businesses, to buy their own homes, to really be a financial fortitude for themselves. When I see that inventive spirit, it should be inspiring. However, you can only be inspired by it if you know about it.
The most common truth we know is of the 1800s and 1900s when Jackson Ward was thriving as the Black Wall Street and the Harlem of the South. Truth is, when it was Little Africa in the late 1700s, that is just as important of a narrative that deserves celebration and elevation as well because I feel like you will be inspired by the fact that Maggie Walker, W.W. Brown and John Mitchell, they too were standing on someone’s shoulders.
How has working on this project changed you and your perspective?
I think it has forced me to lean heavier into my purpose and my passion. I have always carried this passion to research Black narratives and histories. In my day job, I work to create space for anyone considered marginalized. Now what I am finding is my personal, professional and Ph.D. background are all starting to coalesce into this one general purpose. I realized, as my sister said, right now we are being guided to something and I have to trust that process. Everything has been so ancestral, we want to say that is so accidental, what a coincidence that this happened at that time. But the way this project is unfolding, our ancestors are giving us little by little with each initiative of the project. I feel like they are in charge.