History, nature and hands-on fun abound at Virginia's capital city.
One of the things my son and I enjoy together is singing along to oldies as we travel from school to piano to soccer – you know the routine. One of his favorite songs, which I don’t consider an oldie because it’s from my high school days, is “Mr. Bojangles” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He was surprised to learn there was a real Mr. Bojangles, a tidbit of African-American and musical history I was able to impart to him after a trip to Richmond, Virginia.
It was here in 1907 that Bill Bojangles Robinson was working as a waiter with the expectation of meeting influential people while he also danced for tips on Richmond street corners. As anticipated, a big New York stage producer at the time was dining at The Jefferson. Bojangles “accidentally” spilled soup all over the man and then danced his way to the kitchen for a towel. The next day, Bojangles was on his way to New York and a career in stage, radio, film and television that lasted more than 50 years.
African-American history, as told at the Black History and Cultural Center of Virginia, is just one of the many sites we enjoyed during a family visit to the capital of Virginia and the former capital of the U.S. Confederacy. Civil War, Colonial and Holocaust history are all a part of the fabric of the area. But for unprecedented family fun, Richmond is also home to a great children’s museum and a children’s farm, and is the only city in the United States to offer Level IV whitewater rafting within the city limits.
Local History IS National History
Let’s start where history starts in Richmond – with a visit to Wilton, a 250-year-old Georgian manor that is museum quality, but without the restraining guide ropes or restricted walking areas of many such homes. It’s one of the many places throughout the 13 original colonies that boasts “George Washington Slept Here.” Before a tour, kids are encouraged to dress in period clothing, and when it’s all over, they are offered cookies just like those served at children’s parties in the 1700s.
Thomas Jefferson was another famous person that slept at Wilton, probably while he was in town designing the state capitol. Dedicated in 1861, the capitol building is where Aaron Burr was tried for treason, where Robert E. Lee accepted command of the Confederate Army and where the Confederate Congress met during the Civil War. Jefferson was one of eight presidents to hail from Virginia, and busts of the other seven encircle the rotunda. Visitors can try to name them, then guess the purpose for the empty bust slot.
Learn more about the Confederate government at the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, a leading center for the study of the Civil War. Kids will love the Civil War-era toy collection and the story about Robert E. Lee’s son “borrowing” a small canon from the White House to get even with some neighborhood bullies. If the kids really get into Civil War history, consider the museum’s Civil War Explorers Camps.
Time for Fun!
Once the kids have had their fill of history, make a stop at the Children’s Museum of Richmond. One of the nation’s oldest and most renowned museums for children, its new location next to the Science Museum of Virginia features more than 42,000 square feet of exhibits. Kids can climb into a treetop and sit in an eagle’s nest, or crawl through the mouth and slide down the throat into the digestive system of a gigantic human body to experience what food does as it becomes energy. A special area for infants and toddlers provides the crawling, touching, feeling environment their new little brains need for maximum development.
Maymont is another fun place to visit with kids. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the fabulous home built in 1886, this “Hundred-Acre Adventure” features live wildlife exhibits of animals that once filled the woodlands and rivers of Virginia. Bison, black bear, whitetail deer and bobcats are among the animals being cared for here because of injuries sustained elsewhere. Families can also pet and feed the goats, sheep, cattle and rabbits in the children’s farm area. The indoor nature center will entertain kids for hours as they watch the turtles, river otters and fish flop through the waters of the James River. Maymont can easily fill a day of your visit to Richmond, and the best part is, it’s free!
After watching the river otters at play, it may be time to take the kids to play in the river itself. The James River, which flows through downtown Richmond on its way to the Chesapeake Bay 100 miles away, provides the only Class IV whitewater rafting available within the city limits of any city in the United Statess. Trips include gentle family rafting to explore wildlife as well as kayaking, tubing or rafting through the downtown area. The James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District includes the Canal Walk – a scenic 18-mile-long pedestrian way – and the Visitors Center, where you can learn more about Richmond’s unique history.
For More Information
Black History and Cultural Center of Virginia
Children’s Museum of Richmond
Edgar Allen Poe Museum
Museum and White House of the Confederacy
Richmond Riverfront/Civil War Visitor Center
Science Museum of Virginia
Virginia Holocaust Museum
Virginia State Capitol
Wilton House Museum