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Beach Marker To Highlight Black Norfolk History

In 1930, at the height of Jim Crow segregation in Norfolk, the city bragged about 20 miles of its border that was adorned with beautiful sandy beaches, kissed by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, Lafayette, James and other waterways.

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According RPD, shortly after 5:30 p.m., an RPD officer saw Peters driving a sedan that struck another vehicle at the intersection of West Franklin and North Belvidere streets. He continued driving and the officer followed him north and onto the I-95/64 ramp at Chamberlayne Avenue.

Peters then lost control of his vehicle after striking two other vehicles on the ramp, police said. He emerged naked from the disabled vehicle and ran into the northbound lanes of I-95/64. Witnesses said they saw him dancing and rolling around on the interstate before running back to the on-ramp.

Police said Peters then charged the Richmond officer, who deployed his Taser in an effort to disable Peters. The Taser was ineffective, police said, so the officer fired his service weapon, striking Peters, who was unarmed.

Peters was transported to a hospital where he died shortly after midnight.

Peters was raised in Middlesex County, one of 12 children. He graduated summa cum laude from Middlesex High School in 2011.

His high school class selected him as a student speaker at graduation, which was covered by the local Southside Sentinel. In his commencement address, Peters appeared optimistic and said he was “excited for our future.”

Peters went on to attend VCU, graduating in 2016 with a biology degree and cum laude honors; he also minored in Spanish, psychology and chemistry. While at VCU, he attended the school’s Honors College, served as a resident assistant and volunteered in doctor’s offices, the family said.

Chief Alfred Durham identified the officer as Michael Nyantakyi, a Black male who is a 10-year veteran. He was wearing a body camera. The officer has been placed on administrative leave as the RPD’s Force Investigation Team conducts its investigation.

In 1935, after considerable legal and verbal resistance from White residents of Ocean View who lived near the area, council approved a near 12-acre site for the city’s Black population, next to Chesapeake Bay. It was in a part of Princess Anne County until it was annexed by Norfolk in 1959.

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Eighty-three years later on June 7, at 4 p.m. at 27th Bay Street and East Beach Drive, the city of Norfolk will dedicate a marker to the history and importance of City Beach set aside for the area’s Black citizens.

Today the site where the dedication will take place is called the East Beach of Ocean View. The area has been greatly upscaled during the last decade and very little of City Beach is left, except for entries in city records, personal collection of photos from patrons or in the memories of several generations of Blacks who patronized the area.

“It was the only place we could go for the beach,” said Charlene Butts Ligons of Bellevue, Nebraska, who once lived in the Oakwood section of Norfolk. “We did not have a car so we would ride with neighbors with a picnic basket full of food.”

Ligons is the daughter of Evelyn Thomas Butts who lent her name to the suit which killed the poll tax, a barrier to voting for Blacks in Virginia and nation. That tale is captured in the book, “Fearless,” which Ligons penned about her mother.

Ligons recalled her times at City Beach with family and neighbors in the late 50s, when she was a pre-teen and later, as a high schooler.

She also recalled another beach called Seaview Beach which once sat on Shore Drive in Princess Anne County which is now Virginia Beach. Ligons said on Sundays and holidays, busloads of churchgoers, including her own clan, ventured to Seaview Beach set aside for Blacks. Seaview had an amusement park and other amenities that City Beach did not have.

It, too, no longer exists.

Norfolk City Councilman Paul Riddick and his colleague Tommy Smigiel were the co-patrons of the effort to have the marker erected at the City Beach site.

“This is long overdue,” said Riddick, the longest serving member of council. “I was 10 years old living with my mother in Young Park when I first went to the beach. I would get a bus to Willoughby and then walk the 24 blocks to the beach all by myself. During the summer, I would meet my friends down there and hang out in the hot summer days.”

Mervin Pitchford lived on Hanson Avenue in Barraud Park. In 1962, at age 17, he was hired as a life guard at City Beach.

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At the time, the city had a department to run the few recreational facilities Blacks were allowed to use. He recalls that Raymond Norman, his direct supervisor who hired him, ran the Black recreational facilities around the city, even in the public housing communities.

Pitchford will be among those who will deliver a few words at the June 7 event, he said.

Pitchford, who was an NSU freshman and political science major at the time, said he received his swimming and lifeguard training certifications from directors of the Boy Scout Troop at the First Calvary Baptist Church.

When he arrived for work in early June, 1962, he met Joseph Southall, an older gentleman who was the head lifeguard at City Beach, and they worked the lifesaving tandem.

“We worked from 11 a.m. until sundown and we had no problems, and very few instances where we had to rescue anybody,” said Pitchford, retired after a long career with the YMCA.

“We would patrol up and down the beach,” he recalled. “We were really busy on the weekends and holidays. We saw mostly families and couples and groups of students from Norfolk State. We did not have any fighting or other trouble.”

Pitchford recalls at the time the East Ocean View Community was a mostly White community of permanents and seasonal residents who lived in small bungalow homes.

The White residents mostly ignored the City Beach patrons or those who walked or drove down East Ocean View Avenue, he said. He does not recall any hostility.

“It brought African-Americans together,” said Pitchford. “Yes, it was the only place we could go to enjoy the beach. But people appreciated it. I appreciated the opportunity and the chance to serve the community. We have come a long way. But I am sure people still recall City Beach. It’s an important part of our history.”

According to information supplied by Peggy McPhillips, the Norfolk City Historian, and the GUIDE’s archives, the search for a public bathing beach for Blacks began in the late 1920s. That’s when a group of Norfolk’s African-American citizens began to look for a strip of land on the Chesapeake Bay that could be turned into a public bathing beach for the Black community. Access to existing White facilities was illegal and prohibited by the segregation policies and practices of the day.

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City records and archives from the Norfolk Journal and Guide both report an interracial committee was formed to pursue the search. In January 1930, Norfolk City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the purchase of eleven acres east of Ocean View from the Pennsylvania Railroad, in what was then Princess Anne County.

Over the next five years, White opponents to the beach for Black citizens carried their protests to Norfolk Council, Circuit Court, the State Supreme Court and the State Corporation Commission, seeking injunctions to prevent the opening of the beach. At the same time, supporters from both races worked to eliminate obstacles, even raising money for the purchase price in case private funds were needed.

Finally, aided by funds and workers from the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the public beach, which would be known as City Beach, opened on Sunday, June 16, 1935, with amenities that included a bathhouse, boardwalk and recreation hall.

The beach was the scene of gatherings by families, church groups and other organizations for many years, with bathing and basking by day and barbecues in the sand after sunset.

It was especially busy on July 4th when it seemed that all of Norfolk went to the shore for a day of bathing, crabbing and picnics on the beach.

City Beach was operated by Norfolk Community Hospital from 1938 to 1948 before management was turned over to the Norfolk Recreation Bureau in 1949.

City Beach was annexed to the City of Norfolk in 1959.

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide


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