By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Today, downtown Portsmouth is undergoing a revival, with new multi-story apartment complexes and homes where public housing once stood, and the city aims to redevelop its waterfront.
But large swaths of land are vacant and undeveloped, awaiting public or private development in the coming years.
Another glaring reality is that while there are homes occupied by African Americans, there is a lack of a Black business presence in the downtown business corridor.
This is ironic, considering Portsmouth is a majority Black city, with a cadre of Black political leaders on all of its important governing bodies, including city council.
Further, at one time, there was a very strong presence of Black enterprise in the downtown business corridor. From the intersection of Effingham and South Street, west to London then right to Chestnut, and then circling back to South Street, was the geographic boundary of Portsmouth’s busy Black Business District.
If you include a stretch of Green Street, at one time in downtown Portsmouth, Black enterprise of all kinds existed.
The offices of professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, barber and beauty parlors, the bureau of the Journal and Guide newspaper, fish produce markets, the headquarters for a cab company, a pharmacy, and hang out spots for the youth—they all stood here.
But there are plans in the works to recruit and install a new generation of Black enterprise in the city’s downtown business corridor.
For the past two years, the Economic Development Committee of the Portsmouth NAACP and the Portsmouth African American Historical Society have joined forces to devise plans to reverse the trend.
Ed Joyner, the chair of the economic development committee, has been quietly meeting with descendants of those old businesses to formulate plans to lure Black business investment to the downtown.
Called the Pioneer Business Association (PBA) Joyner says he hopes to get investment from those descendants and their offspring to restore Black business development in the area.
“It is a ghost town down there now,” said Joyner. “It is disturbing to the members of the association, and the Black community, in general, that there are no Black businesses operating in the city’s main business district today.”
Joyner said there are about 12 members of the PBA who have signed on thus far. They will meet to plot strategy and to collect the history of old Black businesses at various sites downtown.
He said that once its mission and the goals of the PBA have been established, the group will engage the city’s business development department to secure its assistance and support.
“We have to take the investment from the PBA members and acquire help to achieve our goals,” said Joyner. “I don’t think the city would miss this opportunity to include African American development plans downtown or in other parts of Portsmouth.”
The PBA’s last meeting was held at the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum at 904 Elm Street. On December 20, 1945, the 900-square feet building was opened on South Street. And, according to Joyner and Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, President of the African American Historical Society, the facility was the centerpiece of the Black business corridor.
In 1963, the library closed its doors as a result of a lawsuit that led to the integration of the city’s public library, opening those doors to all of Portsmouth’s citizens.
In 1967, the building moved a few blocks to the parking lot of Ebenezer Baptist Church, saving it from demolition and giving it new life, serving as a meeting space for the church.
During a recent meeting, Joyner mentioned applying for historic markers to designate where many of the businesses were located. Also, he said that the group will be writing a grant to acquire some operating funds to pursue its aims.
During the recent meeting at the Colored Library Museum, nine members of the PBA attended and shared their family business history which existed downtown and other parts of the city where Black people lived and worked.
Jacqueline Simmons Rasberry. now 84, said that her grandmother Hattie Woodson Boone, who migrated to Portsmouth from North Carolina, opened Boone’s Fish Market on Chestnut Street.
“She was an enterprising woman like her whole family was,” said Rasberry. “She operated the fish market from her home on Godwin Street. They eventually moved to Cavalier Manor. When I was a child she also
converted an old shed in her backyard into a beauty parlor. She operated that fish market until it closed in 1971.”
One of the youngest members of the association is Wayne Neal. He told the story of the Famous Shoe Repair Shop at 600 Effingham Street, which was opened in the 1940s and closed in 1977.
It was opened by Naomi Parker Fuller, his grandmother, and her son Charles Neal, his father, eventually took other the family business upon his return from serving as a Marine in WWII and the Korean Conflict. He operated the repair business with his wife Thelma Neal, who was co-owner.
In the back of the shop, he said his father opened the Authentic Judo Club, the first martial arts club which was desegregated in the region.
“Now all of the 600 Block of Effiingham, County and other nearby streets are vacant,” said Neal.
Geraldine J. Granger, recalls she and her brother worked for her father Grant Jones, who ran the Jones
Electrical Contracting Company, which he opened in 1933 at 1314 Columbia Street downtown..
Her father was born with polio, but his father pushed him to overcome the handicap by making him “chop wood, walk to school in the snow, and do other normal things.”
Her father attended I.C. Norcom High School and then enrolled at Tuskegee Institute where he was trained as an electrician. In 1942 he worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard before he left and then returned in 1955.
“In 1959, Dad left the shipyard because they told him he was unable to do the work physically,” said Granger, who is a graduate of North Carolina A&T. “But actually he was let go because he was too politically active. He had people in our home trying to learn how to read. He was
counseling and organizing Black workers at the shipyard. In 1967, to pay my tuition, he went back to the shipyard.
Her father retired in 1979 and Granger recalled that her father had inoperable emphysema and the business closed in the early 1980s. He died in 1988.
To Be Continued…