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Back-in-the-day slumlord John Wesley Pearsall

The Other Side of the Slum Story from the Dec.21, 1968 issue of The Richmond Afro-American is a fascinating look back at an earlier East End slumlord, John Wesley Pearsall.

The article says that Pearsall, a lawyer named the 1948 area Junior Chamber of Commerce “Man of the Year”, was “known as a church-going man of great responsibility”. The article also credits Pearsall with sparking the drive to renew the area around St.John’s Church by restoring “two fading houses in the 2600 block of Franklin Street, which is now a quaint pocket of affluence amid the pitiful conditions on Church Hill”.

After this lauditory introduction, though, more is shared about Pearsall’s other holdings. He owned at 1608 North 22nd Street, for example, “a dismally deteriorating six-room dwelling” at the center of an eviction dispute (see image below). The article says that Pearsall owned hundreds of houses of slum property worth over $1 million in Church Hill and Fulton, “most them … rundown and below the city housing standards”. In 1968 this included houses with no indoor toilets and no hot water.

Pearsall was leagues beyond being an amasser of substandard housing; he was not merely a proto-Oliver Lawrence. John Wesley Pearsall did not just own countless houses that defied the housing code: he helped write the code in the first place. From 1949 to 1950 he served on the Richmond Commisssion on Housing, and was given the responsability of drafting Richmond’s first housing codes.

Pearsall is described as having out-maneuvered and then profited off of the city in the years leading up to the 1958 sale to the city of an entire block for the construction of the Safety, Health, and Welfare Building (Where is this? – JM). He’d out-bid the city again and again for the parcels making up the block, and then sold the entire kit and kaboodle to the city at an even higher cost. Another big score off of substandard housing for Pearsall was the sale of 75 slum parcels as part of the 17th Street Renewal Project.


Steven 03/03/2010 at 5:32 PM

Anything about former slumlord Stanley Smith? Or more recent Lacey?

sean 03/03/2010 at 5:38 PM

Oliver Lawrence owns 1608 N 22nd St now. Weird.

publius804 03/03/2010 at 5:47 PM

Nice work John, this is fascinating.

Any connection/relation to the Evelyn Pearsall Trust–the owner of dozens of properties in the city, including multiple listings on the vacant property registry?

Jennifer C. 03/03/2010 at 5:51 PM

The block in question may be the old Public Safety Building, which takes up the area between Marshall and Leigh/9th & 10th.

John M 03/03/2010 at 6:06 PM

@sean – Damn, you’re not kidding. That’s fucked up. This is where 40 years have put us?

@publius804 – I don’t know, & don’t know how to really dig. The Pearsall name turns up a lot, though the connections are unclear to me.

sean 03/03/2010 at 6:09 PM

#3: I was wondering the same thing, how curious that a Pearsall pops up so often in the search for abandoned/slumlorded property

sean 03/03/2010 at 6:57 PM

Makes me wonder how much the city paid Pearsall to raze his properties in old Fulton. Insanity.

This is one thing i found about Pearsall vs City re:blight..

Virginia Supreme Court Reports
PEARSALL v. RICHMOND R & H AUTHORITY, 218 Va. 892 (1978)
43646 Record No. 761445.
March 3, 1978.

In this eminent domain proceeding instituted under Virginia’s Housing Authorities Law (hereinafter the Act), Code Sections 36-1 to — 55.6, we consider a question of evidence and the problem of so-called “condemnation blight”, a condition which often stems from urban renewal projects.

gdawg 03/03/2010 at 7:59 PM

Funny thing is the Pearsall’s own quite a bit of property in the Bottom and elsewhere – several of which are in Terrible condition.

gdawg 03/03/2010 at 7:59 PM

*Still own*

crd 03/03/2010 at 8:20 PM

#3 – The Evelyn Pearsall Trust is usually about Billy Pearsall, who is a modern day slumlord. I’m not sure how he’s related to her, perhaps it was his mother, perhaps another relationship. I know of two parcels, one on East Franklin and the other on East Grace, that he actually owns. One has been vacant for years, the other occasionally rented but has problems that just barely escape the code, probably ’cause he rents it so cheaply and the tenants would rather pay cheap rent than complain. I’m sure there are many other parcels in the area like that.

John M – The Safety Health & Welfare Bldg. is on 9th Street, as #4 states. It’s on the right as you head north on 9th Street, just past the court building which is on the left.

I’d also think about the 1948 Chamber of Commerce stuff in context – at that time, Brown v. Board of Educ. was a few years away, and black housing wasn’t considered an issue. I’m most certainly NOT apologizing for the slumlord, just saying that that was the way it was then – pitiful and painful in today’s context, but true, as also evidenced by some maps and other news of that era.

crd 03/03/2010 at 8:43 PM

#8 and 9 – please be clear about which Pearsalls own what. I suspect it’s Billy Pearsall, or the already mentioned trust. I happen to know a couple by the same name, and they don’t own any slum properties at all. I’m just trying to be clear about it, thanks.

John M 03/03/2010 at 9:02 PM

crd – go to the Parcel Mapper and put in PEARSALL for the name. This comes up with about 85 listings under various combinations of names. Based on names that appear together, address proximity, and sales between the different folks, they all appear to be related/connected in some way.

For instance, John W & Laia W PEARSALL sold this vacant scrubby lot to E FRANK II & DONNA N PEARSALL in 2000. Combinations of these names are listed with EVELYN and/or every other name that shows up, including, JAMES, except for HALEY and JOHN. Except that when you look, JAMES sold HALEY and JOHN their property, which is on the same block (1400 East Main) as multiple properties owned by other PEARSALLs.

I’m not saying that any or all of this current property is slum property, though I haven’t mapped too much of it either. I did run across a few vacant lots. It does appear that Pearsalls that are probably related to John Wesley Pearsall continue to own a lot of property in the city.

There are 7 properties under PEARSALL on the January 2010 vacant property registry (PDF), all in our area.

Shannon 03/03/2010 at 10:50 PM Reply
Right on Broad 03/04/2010 at 9:08 AM

Excellent job, John, for bringing a little sunshine to this situation. The more resentment that can be brought against people like this the more likely these properties can be pried out of their hands and put in those of responsible, caring owners.

tiny 03/04/2010 at 10:27 AM

Does anyone know when our public housing projects were built? Public housing was initially conceived as the government response to the tent citiss and slums that grew out of the Depression. I wonder what role Pearsall may have had in development of public housing in Richmond.

John M 03/04/2010 at 10:34 AM

A History of Public Housing in Richmond

John M 03/06/2010 at 8:54 AM

Hey folks – This is the book that sent me off on the quest that help turn up this article. It is a fascinating read and I highly suggest it.

sean 03/06/2010 at 9:39 AM

I love that book. I’ve read it twice, even. I wish there were more photos available from that area so i could piece together the story visually. I think i could count on two hands the number of pics i’ve ever seen.

Melinda 03/07/2010 at 5:34 PM

There are several wealthy families in Richmond who made much of their money off poor people– starting after WWII in the late 40s. I’m old enough to know that another large proportion of Richmond’s “FFVs” rose in the ranks by selling tobacco or people. They haven’t been keen on digging into a lot of the city’s history. It’s way past time.

Melinda 03/15/2010 at 10:13 AM

If anyone wants to purchase this wonderful book, we are selling it (paperback) to benefit the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

P.Pearsall 05/18/2010 at 3:39 AM

The story that’s missing in the article about the eminent domain case mentioned by poster #7 “sean” should be on record at the Times-Dispatch. The librarian there should be able to help you find the articles or you can probably search and pay for the link through the newspaper’s website. I haven’t tried, so I don’t have copies myself, but this case was heavily covered in the press at the time.

As for other posters’ interest in who owns what, Billy Pearsall (mentioned above in connection w/Eveyln) still owns multiple properties. To my knowledge, the bulk of the property owned by John W. Pearsall has been sold with the exception of 2 or 3 pieces in Shockoe Bottom entrusted to his children/grandchildren (I believe the last Church Hill property to which I was beneficiary was sold this past year, but I will have to check).

Without detracting from the negative impact my family’s ownership of these properties has had on these neighborhoods, there is another side to the story that potential developers and those with a serious interest in urban development should consider. First, it is practically unrealistic to assume that people who were willing to make their money in this way would be suddenly keen on giving the property away (and this is usually what is required as the resale value declines to zero). As has been noted in the comments, too often, new absentee landlords simply buy up the lots and take the place of the old: this seems to be the case with several properties Pearsalls once owned. Government sponsored redevelopment also has a pretty poor record in Richmond…witness the large scale demolition of properties and the building of low-income projects over the past decades throughout city’s East End. It is a testament to the society at large that the horrible conditions my family provided were simply replaced by the public housing nightmares of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

Another issue that has been important to my family is restoration. Redevelopment of old properties is much more expensive than building new and, while I personally don’t think this is an excuse for condemning whole neighborhoods to poverty, the redevelopment of the historic area of Church Hill the article mentions is something my grandfather poured time and money into. (It should be noted that most of the areas that sell for the high prices and look very nice these days looked a lot like the areas you picture on this website when I was growing up.) It takes a lot of commitment to turn a neighborhood around without simply tearing it down and I have respect for the work, if not always the history or motivation, the various owners (sons of slumlords and concerned individuals alike) put into the neighborhood.

On that note, I would be interested in seeing how members of the community are dealing with the added problem of gentrification. It is my understanding that within my family (especially during the depression) the rationale for this business was that these were places the poor could live for very little money, taken ‘as is’. Obviously, this reasoning politely leaves out the massive exploitation allowed by racial segregation of the city. But though I have no doubts my family has made money off the backs of the poor over the years, at the same time, I’m struck by how difficult it is to remedy the situation even when you want to. When not faced with the continuing decline of neighborhoods, the drug lords trying to buy your property, etc., there is the opposite problem housing those displaced by redevelopment. Houses simply cannot be restored to a livable condition without requiring a purchase price above the means of the people who used to live there, so then you have a nice-looking neighborhood like the restored sections of Historic Church HIll, and brand new displacement of people who cannot afford a place to live. How is this supposed to be done?

Anyway, as I don’t live in the city, I am not trying to offer an apology for what was done, nor do I have any solutions. I don’t expect the name ‘Pearsall’ will have any but negative connotations for those who lived in the properties who survive, but I would ask folks interested in this site and in developing the neighborhood in general to try talking across the divide. I think you’ll find the younger members of the family, especially, to be open to reason. I know Billy, for one, is often in the neighborhoods, working on these vacants himself. Though he may be hardened a bit by bad experiences, I expect he is ultimately open to ideas if you’re willing to listen to his concerns as well.

Most of all, thanks for posting this article. I probably never would have had the chance to read it otherwise. I agree with posters who cry out for further investigation of this city’s past (tobacco, coal, lead in gasoline anyone?)…just remember those we may see as being on the ‘wrong side of history’ are also people. It’s been my experience I can learn better what not to do by bothering to hear their side of the story. In the meantime, more postings like this please!

Melinda 05/18/2010 at 10:49 AM

A terrific and thoughtful commentary, P.

chpnfan 05/18/2010 at 2:51 PM

Mr. Pearsall,

Thanks for the additional history, your personal insight on and behind the article.

Reality is, history and sometimes family histories may not be glorious tales to tell, but the stories need to be told. You’ve raised some great points.

Bill Conkle 05/19/2010 at 12:22 PM

Thank you for your perspective, it is a valuable piece of this whole story.

RP 04/11/2013 at 8:23 PM

I agree with #14 we need to bring more attention to the landowners who won’t bring their properties up to the standards of the surrounding properties especially when they have the money.So here’s a shout out to the Carson brothers fix your properties.We can also do a lot more to help out the elderly and less wealthy keep and renovate the houses they have lived in for sometimes generations.The neighborhood raised over $15,000.00 so far for Sub Rosa,a successful business with insurance,why couldn’t we put that same effort into a fund raiser for Elder-Homes stipulating that is spent in the historic districts in Church Hill?That would have such a positive impact in a number of ways.


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