The city council’s last minute decision to step away from the access to the museum “by appointment only” averted a controversy and allowed it to pass its $414 million budget. Individuals opposed to the reduction in access to the facility were present at the council meeting. One of them said that shortly before the council convened, Councilmember Herbert H. Bateman, Jr. approached the group and alerted them that the governing panel had stepped away from its controversial stand.
Days before the May 8th council meeting, the council said its decision to cut funding for the Newsome Museum was based on low patronage and an effort to tighten its budget. If the council had adopted its controversial position, it would have been in effect July 1. Now, with the two part-time employees on duty without benefits, the city will be saving money.
Newport News has operated the facility since the late 1980s as a museum and cultural center devoted to African-American history. In 2010, the city reduced the operating hours of the Newsome to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday to Saturday.
The Newsome House is the historic family home of Joseph Thomas Newsome, a leading civic figure in the Black community until his death in 1942.
Late last week, the New Journal and Guide began receiving calls from supporters of the facility and patrons stating they had “heard” city council was poised to vote to cut off funding for the facility and closing the Newsome House’s doors permanently.
Interest was stirred from various corners of the Black community to ensure that the doors stay open, that the city find some way to fund personnel to operate it, and that public funding support from the community which uses it the most, African Americans, would be initiated.
An e-mail and telephone campaign was begun to rouse public attention to urge residents around the region to write or call council members to keep the current hours of operation and perhaps provide more support. “It would be a shame if the city allowed that facility to close and the community at large did not have access to it,” said Elois A. Morgan, President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “That building represents the legacy of a man who worked hard to improve the life of his community. Further, it is one place where Blacks can show their history and culture. Something needs to be done to ensure its future and purpose.”
Jerome Newsome is the great-great grandson of Thomas Newsome and lives in Alexandria Virginia. “I have a vested interest in keeping the Newsome House open for many reasons,” said Newsome. ”I understand the budgetary problems. But how do you question the long term value of structure like that based on a short term issue and decision now.”
Newsome said he has attended board meetings where the issue of fundraising to run the facility was talked about. “But it seems no one has followed up on it,” he said. Newsome said that he is working on developing a fundraising strategy based on local input and from corporations. William Harvey is a member of the Board of Directors of the Newsome House. He said he is not only concerned about the Newsome House, but two other buildings on the city-owned campus on Oak Street.
“Mr. Newsome meant so much to the residents and developments of the east end community,” said Harvey. “If you take away that facility, you will take away the flavor of that community. Newsome founded the first Black library and law firm in that house. That’s a lot of history we could lose. I think the Black community should begin raising money. We can do it at one dollar at a time. “ Harvey continued, “But I think if the city really supported and respected Black history, it would continue funding. If they can do it for historic sites and facilities related to the Confederacy and other chapters in our history, they can do the same for the Newsome House.”
Councilwoman Tina L. Vick who represents the South District 3, Seat A, the section of Newport News where the Newsome House Museum is located on Oak Street, said that the facility’s Board of Directors should do more to raise money to ensure its immediate and future operations and existence.
“No one, especially me, wants to see that building close or have its operating hours and purpose reduced,” said Vick. “I think it’s time that the Black community showed just how important that facility is to us, by supporting it more with their patronage and their dollars. The city owns the buildings, but it does not mean that the community can’t step up to help out. Further I think the Board of Directors should be leading the charge to raise money to keep the center open.”
According to city officials the busiest time for the Newsome Center recently was from December to March when programs such as the Soul Christmas, the King Holiday Celebrations, Black History Month and Women’s History Months drew heavy traffic for various programming developed by Donna Davis, its curator during that time. Even Newsome supporters say that patronage of the facility on a daily basis has slowed since then.
Not only does the site honor the legacy of Dr. Newsome, but it periodically creates or invites exhibitions of art works, and cultural programs for display at the site. Recently the New Journal and Guide displayed its original USS Mason exhibition at the Newsome House. The exhibit highlights the paper’s news coverage and historic significance of the first U.S battleship which had an integrated crew in WWII.
Also organizations such as the ASALH have used the facility to hold their months meetings. Kim Lee said that the bulk of the funding for the Newsome House is for the salaries of its curator, the exhibits’ coordinator and part time employees who were also working for the city’s Downing Gross Cultural Art Center and at the Newsome on Thursday through Saturday.
According to the Newsome House website, in the late 1980s, an agreement was reached with the City of Newport News to undertake the project. Between 1987-90, over $600,000 of federal, state, city, and private moneys were raised to restore the house. In April 1990, the structure was recognized as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
The refurbished facility was dedicated on February 17, 1991, as a museum and cultural center. Some 49 years after Joseph Thomas Newsome’s death, 2,000 persons honored him again at this event.
Attorney J. Thomas Newsome, who lived from 1869-1942, and his wife Mary Winfield Newsome, moved into the house on 2803 Oak Avenue in 1906 after the birth of their only child and daughter Maurice Ethelred. The Newsomes began making changes to the house, turning the salt box structure into an elegant Queen Anne residence which served as a hub for the local Black community.
It was the first structure owned by an African American to be a recipient of a National Historic Preservation Award.
Joseph Thomas Newsome was born in Sussex County, Virginia on June 2, 1869, according to the census of 1870. He was the sixth of seven children born to Joseph and Martha Ann Newsome, former slaves who lived on Princeton Plantation near Sussex Courthouse.
He received his primary education at a church school in Sussex County and entered Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute at Petersburg in 1891 to pursue a career as a teacher. While there, he was a member of the debating society and developed his oratory skills. After graduation in 1894, Newsome returned to Sussex and taught for a short time, but he did not enjoy this occupation. Instead, his interests focused on politics and law.
With the encouragement of family friend Judge Robert Arnold of Waverly, he entered law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He paid his way by working as a waiter and construction laborer. Newsome graduated May 30, 1898, as class valedictorian.