By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The October 5-12 edition of the GUIDE ran the first of a series on “How Jim Crow Destroyed Thriving Black Community” of Sugar Hill in the city of Portsmouth, from the late 19th century until recent years.
City, state, and federal machinery was applied via seizures for tax debt, eroding of land value, the building of highways through the community, and nuisances, such as, dumping and neglect to achieve it.
Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander, a noted NSU History professor and author, unearthed this history and revealed it during a special presentation to Portsmouth City Council.
Dr. Alexander’s research and presentation were contracted at the request of Councilman Mark Whitaker who expressed concern about how a once thriving Portsmouth Black community was destroyed by actions orchestrated by the city.
By the end of the 19th century, Pinner’s Point and its Sugar Hill community provided housing and a workforce for rail and shipping operations sitting along the Elizabeth River.
The area was a destination for Black and White migrants from rural North Carolina and Virginia, seeking employment and housing.
From the early 19th to the early 20th centuries, Sugar Hill evolved from a rural farming community into a suburban neighborhood, of Black families.
Much of Pinner’s Point was originally owned by white farmer David Culpeper in the early 1800s.
After he died in 1825, he willed the land to his daughters. They sold forty-five acres on Scott’s Creek to Edward and Lovey Ellet (later spelled Elliott), a free Black family, in 1840.
The Ellets left their farmland to their daughters, Emeline and Mary, and to their son William who owned a farm. The Ellet land would be the formative foundation of Sugar Hill.
In 1894 the Ellet land was sold to a group of white businessmen to pay off the family’s debts. That began the parceling of large tracts of land in Sugar Hill that would be sold for white business development.
Further, at the time was the rewriting of the state’s Constitution, enacted in 1902. Virginia joined southern states imposing Jim Crow laws to isolate Blacks in underserved neighborhoods and weaken their ability to fight for equal treatment legally.
Sugar Hill was one of them.
Southern Railway had gained access to Pinner’s Point where Sugar Hill existed in 1896, using 151 miles of the Atlantic Coast tracks that included the Norfolk and Carolina Railroad. With deep-sea terminals constructed, four years later, the railroads formed the Chesapeake Steamship Company while the railroad consolidated into the Atlantic Coastline Railroad.
In a decade these transformed Sugar Hill from a residential suburb to a “worker’s town.” While Blacks and whites in Pinner’s Point had access to employment, homes, and some commerce, Blacks were denied city-sponsored recreational activities.
Using Jim Crow policies first crafted by Norfolk in 1917, Portsmouth in 1925 adopted a plan barring Blacks and whites from moving into each other’s neighborhoods.
In the early 1920s, there was a proposal by the city of Portsmouth to invest in the infrastructure of Pinner Point and Sugar Hill, which was majority Black. In 1925 influential whites pressured the city council to abandon the plans and invest in their areas instead.
To erase housing shortages, in 1932 the Hoover administration created the Federal Home Loan Bank, to provide low-interest loans.
A year later the Roosevelt Administration created the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to assess the risk of such loans.
None of the federal agencies helped urban and rural Blacks. In fact, these agencies created the concept of “redlining” and other devices declaring Black areas too risky to be beneficiaries of loans and economic development.
Educated Black professionals spoke out and organizations such as the Virginia Commission in Interracial Cooperations (VCIC) were formed with the help of progressive whites.
When the Eisenhower administration introduced its massive interstate highway project that built 41,000 miles of highways across the nation, the impact was felt in many majority Black communities.
A good example in Portsmouth was the construction of I-264 and the construction of the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels connecting Norfolk to Portsmouth and a commuter way to Virginia Beach and Suffolk.
In 1962 the 4,194-feet Midtown Tunnel was built through land in Sugar Hill which became part of the
Portsmouth International Terminal at the end of the decade.
From 1968 onward to 2019, low-cost land purchases, eminent domain, and tax lines chipped away at the remaining residential land of Pinners Point and Sugar Hill, despite several instances of protests from Black landowners.
In 2005, the Greater Portsmouth Development Corporation (GPDC) was formed as a private arm of the City of Portsmouth and was used to erode private land ownership in Sugar Hill for development by and for white business interests, according to Newby-Alexander’s research.
The GPDC acquired properties and buildings using government grants.
In a partnership with the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority (PRHA), GPDC purchased properties at bargain prices, and sold them to developers, to produce revenue split between the two.
Newby-Alexander’s research concluded it was these partnerships and devious efforts between government and white business interests that resulted in the once thriving Black community of Sugar Hill being destroyed.