By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On the same day, Hampton Roads lost two iconic, faith, and civic leaders.
On January 13, according to his family, Father Joseph A. Green, 96, died. There was no cause of death given.
Shortly after, it was reported that Bishop Levi Willis II died of an undisclosed ailment. He was 69.
Bishop Willis II, who served 50 years in various pastoral ministry capacities in the Church of God in Christ, the Virginia Third Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, was recently honored in a grand celebration on December 9, 2022. (Please read his obituary in a separate story.)
Reverend Dr. Joseph N. Green, Jr. was a Priest in the Episcopal Church. He was rector at Norfolk’s historic Grace Episcopal Church from 1963 until he retired in 1998.
In June 2021 Rev. Green was installed as Canon Theologian of Christ at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, an esteemed position as a mentor, teacher, and a “godly reflection coach” for others in the diocese.
He was known fondly as “Father Green” inside of the Episcopal church and within his public role as a political leader in Norfolk, Va.
Father Green arrived in Norfolk from St. Augustine College in 1963, when he was called as rector to Grace Episcopal Church.
At that time Norfolk’s Black community was in the midst of Civil Rights struggles like others across the country. In 1959, Norfolk had desegregated the city’s public schools, but Norfolk was dragging its political feet to fully comply with the Supreme Court Decision to desegregate public schools.
Attorney Hilary Jones was appointed the first Black member of the school board since reconstruction that year, according to the GUIDE.
There were no Black members on the council until 1968 when attorney Joseph Jordan won a seat, thanks to reforms imposed by the Voting Rights Act.
Green quietly immersed himself in the city’s faith and civic issues.
In 1973, he joined Vivian Carter Mason on the school board, replacing Vincent Thomas. For the first time there were two Blacks on that panel.
In 1978 he was appointed to the Norfolk City Council to replace Jordan who was appointed to the Norfolk Courts system.
According to the GUIDE archives, Green in 1978 and 1980 failed to be selected as Norfolk’s Vice Mayor, losing to Councilman Hunter Andrews. This angered the Black community.
However, in 1982, Green was elected Vice Mayor, a position he held for 10 years. In 1984, Rev. John Foster joined him on council.
Green served on Norfolk City Council for 20 years before stepping down.
He was also involved in supporting St. Paul’s College, one of the HBCUs the Episcopal Church continued to support until closing the university in 2013.
“Father Green was a mentor to generations of clergy and civic-minded residents of Norfolk and beyond,” said Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander. “His life and actions in the pulpit and politics are worth honoring and emulating. Throughout my civic and political life, I have been the fortunate recipient of his advice, guidance, and prayers.
“He was a gentle soul, but ferocious, when it came to speaking out about what was just and fair,” Alexander said. It’s not lost on me, as mayor, that Father Green should have been the first Black mayor of Norfolk. He helped paved the way for me, and I am grateful. May his memory be a blessing and give his family comfort.”
After retiring from the Norfolk City Council. Green continued his civic activities which included raising money and restoring the historic Attucks Theater. He founded the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center which led to the reopening of the historic Attucks Theatre in October 2004.
He retired from leadership and Grace Episcopal, but would continue to play an active community role until several years ago.
“I learned what people need. I also learned what I needed,” he said during an interview with the local media. “I learned that a healing ministry works both ways, and boy, did I see it work miracles!”
Until his death, he continued to assert support for civil rights for African Americans and fair play for all as he worked for the betterment of Norfolk. His efforts to promote affordable and accessible housing in Norfolk led to new housing in many sections of the city.
Becky Livas, the first African American female TV personality in the region, recalls she first met Green and his wife Evelyn in 1957.
“We attended Sunday church services one morning at the Chapel,” said Livas, who lives in Virginia Beach now and who was then 14. “That’s when I saw them together; they were such a handsome couple.”
Livas said she grew up attending Grace Episcopal Church. She said that Father Green christened her daughter Nicole and later her granddaughter Mia.
“I always believed that a priest should be scholarly and well-spoken and outgoing,” said Livas. “Father Green was all three. When he delivered a sermon, he could always relate it to life. He was easy to talk to and engage with. He will be missed.”
His efforts to promote affordable and accessible housing and education have changed the city forever, according to his bio. He was a strong proponent of mass transit, championed the inclusion of a public housing tenant on the Housing Commission, and was instrumental in the establishment of the downtown campus of Tidewater Community College.
In recognition of his leadership, a building at Tidewater Community College is named for Green, and the city council named a street after him.
According to the archives of the Journal and Guide, Green was born in 1926 in Jenkinsville, South Carolina.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, before earning his Master of Divinity Degree at Philadelphia Divinity School in preparation for his ordination to Holy Orders.
After his ordination, he served congregations in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina and as chaplain at St. Augustine’s College before coming to Norfolk.
Father Joseph Green Photo: Courtesy