By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
There are few places in North America better exemplifying the journey of Africans in America than Norfolk, Virginia, which sits across a river from Fort Comfort and Jamestown, where the first Blacks entered in 1619.
Norfolk was established in August 1682 and granted borough status in 1736. It grew steadily and had a population of 6,000 by the eve of the American Revolution (1775).
A book entitled “Norfolk; The First Four Centuries,” co-authored by Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart and NSU Archivist Dr. Tommy Bogger notes that in the 1660s and 70s there was a “small element” of Blacks in the area.
Norfolk historians are hard-pressed to define exactly when and where the first Blacks settled in the Norfolk.
Today, Norfolk’s waterfront along the Elizabeth River is a major economic hub of the city, highlighted by the Waterside Marketplace and Harbor Park.
In the early 1800s, it also was a hub of the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping plantations in southeastern Virginia and northern North Carolina.
Black dock workers, friendly Whites and ship captains of vessels facilitated their escapes.
The pens that held enslaved Blacks before they were sold and transported were located near the current Norfolk City Hall Complex.
Hallowed Sites: Burial Grounds
People familiar with the city’s long history can easily recite their list of hallowed and sacred sites in Norfolk.
NSU History professor Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander connects the most hallowed and sacred Black historical grounds with sites where Black people were buried.
The first burial grounds for Blacks reflected White disrespect for Black humanity, despite their toiling to build the economic foundation f the nation.
Dr. Alexander wrote in “Remembering Norfolk: African-American Cemeteries,” that in the rural areas, Blacks were buried in the ”marginal” part of their master’s property. Blacks in the cities fared no better.
Even when the city allocated land at the north end of Cumberland Street and the south end of Smith’s Creek for burial for Whites in 1825 (Cedar Grove), Blacks had to bury their dead in backyards or vacant lots, In 1827 Norfolk’s Common Council authorized Blacks to be buried in a Potter’s Field outside the borough limits.
In 1853 Elmwood Cemetery was created for Whites. Many Whites who died from the yellow fever in the 1840s were buried in the Potters Field with Blacks, according to Alexander.
In 1873 another Potter’s Field was established for the exclusive interment of Blacks. It was known briefly as Calvary Cemetery. This site was located at the west point of Elmwood Cemetery. Today, it is behind a 7-11 and Rally’s Burger sitting at Monticello and Princess Anne Road.
In 1885, Norfolk’s first Black Councilman, James E. Fuller, had the name changed to West Point Cemetery. Fuller insisted that a section of the cemetery “… be dedicated as a special place of burial for black Union veterans …”
The area was donated to the Union Veterans Hall Association for the burial of the members of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Fifty-eight Afro-Union soldiers are interred at the site and Councilman Fuller and the Norfolk Memorial Association raised money to build the West Point monument in honor of African American soldiers and sailors of all wars.
A permanent Calvary Cemetery was established as a burial ground for Norfolk’s African American citizens on January 9, 1877. Today Calvary is a 68-acre burial site of African American history in Norfolk.
For nearly a century, Norfolk’s African American citizens at all levels were buried at Calvary as there were no other burial options available to African Americans in Norfolk until the mid-1970s. The cemetery operates to this day.
In the Berkley section of Norfolk, Mount Olive has over 2,000 graves and most of them are Blacks from that area. It is 186 years old and the oldest grave marker belongs to Mary Buffaloe (correct spelling) who was laid to rest on March 18, 1826. The latest burial was in 2006 for Oliver Brooks, who was born in 1959.
There are family plots and 100 military veterans who died during and after the two World Wars. Anne Boone, the President of the Berkley Historical Society (BHS), said a historic marker will be placed near the front entrance of Mt. Olive on February 20 at 11 a.m.
Hallowed Sites: Schools
The John T. West School is no longer standing, but for many years, it was one of the first school buildings in the city used to educate Blacks. Its first location was at 1425 Bolton Street.
It is recognized as the first accredited African-American high school in the South.
“Tanner’s Creek School No. 4,” was built in 1906 to hold the first public African-American high school classes in the city of Norfolk.
In 1911, the school, renamed the “Barboursville School,” became a combined elementary and high school. In 1913, the size of the building doubled to create more space for high school classes and the school was renamed in honor of John T. West, the Norfolk County School Superintendent.
Today on the lot where the Blyden Library now sits at Princess Anne Road and Chapel Street, is where several Black educational institutions were located, including West.
In 1916, the city of Norfolk purchased Norfolk Mission College and moved the John T. West High School classes to that site. Classes continued there for only six years until 1922, when a new school was constructed, named “Booker T. Washington High School.”
Booker T. dates back to April of 1911, when the Norfolk School Board agreed to endorse one year of high school learning in connection with the elementary school at John T. West School.
In 1912, a second year was added and, in 1913, a third year was included. In May of 1914, the State Board of Education endorsed the high school and the local board passed an act which gave Virginia its first accredited public high school for Negroes.
A new and then modern Booker T. Washington High School opened on Virginia Beach Boulevard in 1974, and continues to educate students.
St. Joseph’s Catholic High School which no longer exists sits where the Norfolk Scope Arena is today. The school and Booker T. Washington High School had a fierce athletic competition, before it was closed in the early 1957.
Hallowed Sites: Black-owned Businesses
“I think any place where the Norfolk New Journal and Guide has or is located is hallowed and sacred,” said Norfolk Councilman Paul Riddick. “So is the Attucks Theater. Blacks financed, designed and built it, debt free. It was the centerpiece of Black culture and business then and now.”
Blacks in the city always had an entrepreneurial spirit, according to Riddick, and that enabled them to build an economic system in the midst of Jim Crow to provide skills, housing, food, places to worship and to educate their neighbors.
During its heyday, the Journal and Guide newspaper was considered a staple in Black homes as it provided employment for both youth and adults, and reported on news that was not told in the daily papers. It continues today at 116 years as Norfolk’s oldest Black-owned business.
Norfolk’s Church Street today is a highway for commuters driving north to downtown. At one time it was the Black business corridor during Jim Crow segregation until urban redevelopment displaced or closed the businesses in the area.
Today it is a mix of residences and a handful of long-standing enterprises, including the Attucks Theatre, Graves Funeral Home and Mark IV.
The Plaza Hotel has been torn down for many years, but it sat on that corridor at 18th and Church Street. During Jim Crow segregation it was the only hotel in Norfolk that African Americans could use, including some of the most prominent entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington who performed at the Attucks and other venues along the strip. It was owned and operated by Mrs. Bonnie McEachin, considered a stylish and brilliant businesswoman.
The Attucks was not only an entertainment venue, but provided office spaces for a number of Black lawyers such as Hillary Jones and other professionals. Jones was the first Black member of the Norfolk School Board.
Near Norfolk State University sits a parking lot that once was the bustling enterprising Norfolk Community Hospital (NCH). It was one of over 100 hospitals across the country which served Blacks during the era of Jim Crow.
The Tidewater Colored Hospital Associated began the operation in Lambert’s Point and it was called Drake Memorial Hospital. In April 1925, the Tidewater Colored Graduate Nurses Association established a maternity ward on Henry Street. The two facilities merged and the Wise Contagious Disease Hospital on Rugby Street in Lindenwood opened with 30 beds.
In 1939, the operation was moved to Corprew Avenue. Until it closed in the mid-1990s, Norfolk Community operated as a full service hospital. Many of Norfolk’s Black citizens were born and treated in the hospital.
Yards away from NCH was Norfolk State University’s Brown Hall; originally called Tidewater Hall, the academic building constructed at then Norfolk State College sits on an old city golf course.
NSU, observing its 81st year in 2016, was first the Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union (now Virginia Union University in Richmond) and classes were held in spaces in the first Hunton YMCA on Brambleton Street, in 1935.
In 1942, it became independent of VUU and was named Virginia Polytechnic and College. Two years later, in February 1944, by an act of the Virginia General Assembly, the school became the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College.
As its enrollment grew, the school was referred to lovingly as “Little State.”
It became independent of Virginia State College in February 1969 and was named Norfolk State College. Its university status was conferred by the General Assembly in 1979.
Hallowed Homes and Meeting Places
Keela Boose, a South Norfolk native, says homes and the meeting places of distinguished Black people such as attorney Joseph Jordan and activist Evelyn Butts deserve to be on the hallowed list.
She cites the home of her parents, “Springfield Cove” and that of the first President of NSU, Dr. Lymon Beecher Brooks, which sits just blocks from the home of Judge and Jocelyn Goss.
“This (Goss) house like others was not only a place to live … people met there to organize events and political efforts,” said Boose. “Also Mrs. Goss was the tutor of the Norfolk State athletes. She not only taught them, but fed and nurtured those young men.”
Although the latest edition of the Hunton YMCA sits on Charlotte Street, the first site was the first place dedicated for Blacks in the South and it also housed the Norfolk Chapter of Virginia Union, which later became Norfolk State.
Hallowed Site: Botanical Garden
Originally a huge azalea garden in 1932 to attract tourists, six years later the city had secured funding from the federal government (WPA) to hire 200 Black women and 20 Black men to build what is now called the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
The work assigned the Black adults was physically demanding, requiring the workers to clear a field populated with snakes and other vermin, but the workers did not flinch.
Hallowed Site Blyden Library
In the early 1920s, there were 700,000 Blacks in Virginia. But there were no public libraries for them.
Norfolk Blacks lobbied the Norfolk Public Library system to build a facility for them, and it responded to their request by proposing it be located at the YMCA on Queen Street
Later the city devoted $1,700 to establish a Black library. On July 19, 1921 a library opened in two rooms of Dunbar Elementary School.
The branch was named for Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, a Presbyterian minister, college president, Secretary of State of Liberia, and a rights activist. Mrs. Jessie E. Moone was appointed its first librarian.
For 16 years, the Negro community labored under the constraints of its two-room facility. Norfolk Journal and Guide Publisher P.B. Young Sr. reported in 1931 that he “had visited the branch several afternoons and sometimes found 50 children crowded into a space that could only accommodate 25 to 30 people.”
To alleviate this condition, the city in 1937 appropriated funds to relocate the branch to 1346 Church Street and Johnson Avenue. One year later, it was moved to its new quarters.
In 1956, the Norfolk Mission College Alumni Association suggested to the city council that the former Mission College site be considered for a branch library and park. Their suggestion was accepted and with an appropriation of $60,000, planning for the new Blyden began. On June 24, 1957, the present building opened its doors to serve the African-American community.
Hallowed Sites: First Baptist Bute Street and St. John AME
Along with the homes, hospitals, businesses and educational sites developed and used by Blacks to empower themselves, the churches cannot be overlooked.
They served as homes of spiritual devotion, and platforms for Black freedom and enterprise.
Blacks gathered in their pews to discuss plans to build their communities.
Their pastors led their communities, schools and provided ideas for strategy for liberation.
First Baptist Church Bute is the oldest of its kind starting in 1790s when Blacks and Whites rowed across the Elizabeth River to attend church at the Court Street Baptist in Portsmouth.
In 1800s the same group started worshiping in a house on Norfolk’s Cumberland Street with a White pastor, in accordance with the law. In 1805 they moved to Borough Church, where St. Paul’s Episcopal Church sits now.
In 1817, 25 Whites left the church and formed the Cumberland Street Baptist Church, which is now First Baptist Church of North Kempsville Road.
In 1831, when Nat Turner’s brief revolt terrified the White community, Blacks could not meet to worship without a White master or minister present.
Because First Baptist had a White pastor, the law did not apply.
In 1863, during the Civil War, First Baptist Bute Street hired the first Black pastor.
First Baptist’s current site was built and paid for in 1906.
According to its current Senior Pastor Robert G. Murray, who has led the church for 32 years, the church was a way station of the Underground Railroad, had a hand in the formation of the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia Union University in Richmond, and the Norfolk unit of VUU which would became Norfolk State.
“We host tourists during the course of the year,” said Murray. “Some ask ‘when did you buy this church?” We tell them Black people financed and built the church from the ground up.”
Dr. Murray describes his church as an outlet for spiritual and social engagement for soldiers of both World Wars. It formed one of the first assisted living facilities, Shepherd’s Village.
It helped form the Hunton YMCA, and it was the site to prepare the Norfolk 17 who desegregated the Norfolk Public Schools to make history.
Its Ready Academy is set for K-5th Graders and has an enterprising footprint in downtown along with its Murray Banquet Center.
With a history almost as long as First Baptist Bute Street, sitting a stone’s throw away, is the first Black African Methodist Episcopal Church in Virginia, St. John’s AME Church.
It began in 1794 when Blacks worshiped with Whites, but sat in an “end gallery.” In 1802, the Norfolk Church moved and was named the Cumberland Street Methodist Church.
After a fire, it reopened with up to 900 colored and White members.
In 1816 Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia as a worship center for Blacks. That action later led to the founding of St. John’s AME in Norfolk.
The church is pastored today by Rev. John D. Burton.