By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A number of books have been written over the years about the history of Norfolk; penned by individual authors, scholar-writers or those commissioned by city officials. But Norfolk is one of few cities to undertake the task of compiling a book on the contributions and history of its African-American population throughout its long history. According to Norfolk City Clerk Breckenridge Daughtrey, the city commissioned a team of researchers, a writer and other experts to sift through existing books, media archives, personal recollections and other sources to generate a manuscript on the subject, which is currently being edited.
The result is a 500-page book entitled, “I Too Am Norfolk: A History of African-Americans in Norfolk, Virginia.” Dr. Tommy Bogger, historian and NSU Archivist, NSU History Professor and author Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander, and History Professor Dr. Charles Hucles of ODU researched and wrote their accounts of the city’s history. Joe Jackson, a former reporter for the Virginian Pilot, was assigned the task of compiling all of their work and writing the manuscript, according to the City Clerk.
It has taken over a decade to complete the research and compose the manuscript and there is rising impatience and concerns among those familiar with the project that it may be taking too long. According to Daughtrey, who is supervising the project, the timeline in the book runs from 1619 when the “first 20 and odd” Black people arrived at the Jamestown Colony as servants to 2001, the beginning of the new Millennium.
Persons concerned about the slow pace of the project’s completion fear that many important events related to the city’s Black history may not be included in this book. This includes the recent election of the city’s first Black Mayor, State Senator Kenneth C. Alexander. One historian who did not want their name used for the article said the writers of the current book should figure out a way to include this and other events since 2001.
“Now we wonder how this and other events will fit into the volume, if it ends at 2001,” the historian said. “After this book, we do not know when another book on this city’s history will be written. We may be looking at further delay as they figure out how to do it.” Daughtrey said this recent passage of the city’s history will be worked into the book. Also, he said that Norfolk’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the city’s end of massive resistance to the Brown Decision has been worked into the text.
In 2009 the city organized programs to recognize the Norfolk 17, the Black students who desegregated six all-white schools in February 1959. Meanwhile, he said that the current manuscript is undergoing intense editing and verification of the large amount of facts and figures unearthed by the historians. Daughtrey said when the manuscript was initially submitted to the UVA Press, editors discovered a number of editorial issues which are now being addressed by the composers of the manuscript.
The City Clerk said after all of the issues the UVA Press cited are addressed, it will be submitted to Alexander, Bogger and Hucles for their review and then it will be resubmitted to the UVA Press for printing. The book was generated from a number of sources, including archived pages of the New Journal and Guide, which first began publishing in 1900. The newspaper company is currently the longest operating Black business in the city.
The Guide, many historians and local residents agree, published information about Black individuals, organizations and critical events that were ignored or downplayed by the white media outlets until as late as the mid-1960s. Also, archival material from the city’s historical data base and personal interviews with long time residents and others familiar with the African-American historical experience have been factored into the book.
“No matter how long it takes, we simply want to get it right,” said Daughtrey. “Remember it took Robert Caro a while to write the book on President Lyndon B. Johnson. David McCullough took 12 years to do the book on Harry Truman. We should be careful to make sure we include all of the historic details and do it accurately.” Peggy McPhillips, the city’s Historian who works for the Norfolk Public Library system, says that the city council has commissioned two books detailing Norfolk’s history.
The first, “Norfolk: Historic Southern Port” was written in 1931 by Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, who wrote a number of books about Virginia history. It was revised in 1962. Another, “Norfolk: The First Four Centuries” by Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart and NSU Archivist, Dr. Tommy L. Bogger, was released in 1994. Especially in the second book, there was a significant amount of information about the city’s Black community from the time of slavery through elements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.