By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
“Go into the background of all of the neglected slum areas in this state at least – find the cause – and the answer is ‘Virginia Law.’ A century of sanitary law evasion; a century of exemption from building codes for Negro tenement investors; an impossible formula for laying sidewalks; a general indifference and callousness of conscience on the part of the city officials are at the bottom of blighted spots.”
This is an excerpt from a GUIDE editorial which appeared in the paper on December 12, 1959. It summed up the catalog of institutionally imposed laws and practices historically to allow mostly Black sections of cities in Virginia to deteriorate over decades. Then the locales were free to move in and force out the residents, bulldozing their homes and businesses, and repurposing the space for use by whites.
Today that practice is called “gentrification” and it is used all across the nation, including Virginia.
A textbook local example of this formula was Lincolnsville. It once existed in downtown Portsmouth until it fell victim to the “Virginia Law” in the late 1950s.
On the land of two plantations where they lived and worked, free Blacks converted some 37 acres of land into a community called Lincolnsville on the outskirts of the city of Portsmouth before the Civil War.
It would be annexed into Portsmouth in 1905. Through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movements, Lincolnsville evolved into a self-sustaining Black community in Portsmouth.
It was similar to other self-sustaining and prospering Black communities like the ones in Rosewood in Florida or Wilmington, North Carolina, or the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as the “Black Wall Street”.
Lincolnsville overcame the barriers of Jim Crow to create two banks, eateries, food markets, and other enterprises that provided goods and services to the residents.
The difference between it and Rosewood, Wilmington, and Tulsa was that Lincolnsville was not destroyed by mobs of scared, jealous, and hateful white people.
Some of these communities sought to revive themselves, but never regained their pre-violence footing.
In the case of Lincolnsville, benign neglect of its housing stock over decades eventually eroded the area by the mid-1950s.
According to Mae Breckenridge Haywood, the Vice President of the Portsmouth African American Historical Society, Lincolnsville was the home
to not only the poor, but working-class people and “Black movers and shakers” including business owners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and other viable civic leaders.
By the mid-1950s, the city viewed the old enclave which circled what is today’s downtown as an opportunity to redevelop and repurpose the area.
Large portions of what once was Lincolnsville are now called Olde Towne, the centerpiece of Portsmouth’s downtown commercial, and tourist district.
Instead of using the torch and guns, Portsmouth used the law on the books to undermine the Black residents of Lincolnsville, according to former Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright.
Wright said instead of using the housing codes over years to force landlords of rental properties and single-family dwellings to keep their properties up, the city deliberately did not enforce them.
By the mid- 1950s, many residents of old family homes did not have the money to fix them up. Or they left property to family members who rented the properties and did not reinvest in them to keep them viable.
Wright said the city, in coordination with white real estate interests by 1956, used the housing codes to justify classifying old family homes and rental properties as blighted, substandard and to target the area for redevelopment.
“They used the codes as a racist institutional double edge sword,” he said. “Let the structures erode, then use the codes to condemn, run
the Black people out, confiscate and then tear them down and redevelop the land for white businesses and homes.”
Wright’s point was verified by a May 17, 1958, edition of the GUIDE, in an article “Urban Renewal Program: Lincolnsville Homeowners Concerned about Future” written by the reporter Johnnie Moore.
According to the article, the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority (PRHA) had hired an inspection team to invade the Lincolnsville community and determine the quality of every one of the 300 plus structures.
By May of 1958, the residents had grown fearful of the city’s plan to acquire some $8,000 plus from the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency in Philadelphia to conduct the inspection and another $52,000 for a relocation report borne by the city and the authority.
The aim of the city, according to various articles in the GUIDE’s digital archives, was to clear 35 of the 37 acres of Lincolnsville land for commercial development.
There were 381 dwellings; 265 were rental units in bad condition. Of the 94 homeowners, 74 were Black and 20 were white. Only 110 of the 271 units were deemed standard.
Newspaper comments from Lincolnsville residents affected by the displacement were alarming.
“Where would I go?” asked Mrs. S.M. Wallace.
”At my age, I would never finish paying for a new home.”
“We should not have to move from our homes like this… because rental property owners have failed to keep up their buildings,” said one resident. “They ought to make the people that own those rent houses over on Green Street either fix them up or tear them down.”
One article noted, a Federal Grant of $2.5 million plus dollars would pay for the entire project of purchasing, razing, and rehabilitating the areas.
A December 12, 1959 editorial in the
GUIDE summing up the city’ efforts to get council approval to begin its plans, said, “In the past Portsmouth and other southern cities were
reluctant to take federal money for such projects.
One of the reasons was to avoid the application of federal laws regarding use of it to benefit Black people.”
That principle, the article said, was the “Virginia Law” part of a catalogue of racist Jim Crow-era laws which said that none of the land being developed would be “resold to Negroes.” This would bar any
enterprising Black person or business entity from investing in an area where they had lived before the Civil War.
Also, many whites who owned land in the city used restrictive covenants barring Black from buying land once owned even by Blacks in Lincolnsville.
Recently Virginia state lawmakers have been seeking to erase these laws from the state code.
The residents of Lincolnsville in the mid-50s put up a fight to save their community after the City Council approved the redevelopment plan and were drawing up the finals details in late 1959.
A suit was filed by 57 property owners. Thomas H. Reid, an African American Attorney in Portsmouth represented them and the Emmanuel AME and Zion Baptist Churches.
Florence G. Maupin, who was white, owned considerable land in the area and was represented by a lawyer from Newark, NJ.
The city and PRHA were defendants and Reid pointed out in the suit that Lincolnsville was not a total slum although some blight existed.
Reid also noted that the city deliberately did not enforce housing codes, thus contributing to the erosion.
He said in various articles in the GUIDE, “the
redevelopment programs were a real estate business deal and would deprive many Black owners of property that could not properly be
considered slum buildings.”
The city brought in housing authority officials, inspectors for the agency, health officials, and even a real estate consultant, who verified its contention that the area was a slum and thus must be revitalized.
The homeowners lost the case and Reid tried but failed to appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court, according to a September 17, 1960 GUIDE Article after Judge Robert F. McMurran, who lived near the community declared it a slum.
According to the article, the city had already begun “razing buildings in preparation for clearing the whole area and preparing it for sale and development for use by higher income groups.”
Wright said those who could afford to moved to the newly built Cavalier Manor section of Portsmouth or Truxton or any “other place in the city or Tidewater they could afford to live.”