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Part III: Local Hallowed Grounds – Portsmouth School and Church Sites Continue Today

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

The theme  for the 2016 edition of   Black History Month (BHM)) is Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.

After 263 years, the historic fingerprints and the civic and cultural contributions of Black people are very prominent in the historical landscape of the  City of  Portsmouth, Virginia.
Before Emancipation,  the craftsmanship, muscles and hands of free and enslaved Black men and women contributed to building the city’s early infrastructure, homes and industrial base.

There is no doubt that many of the old – historic – homes, business buildings and other “hallowed” structures in the city owe their birth to Blacks. They either contributed to building them  with nail and hammer or generated the wealth which paid for them from their toiling in the fields or factory.
Slavery,  nor Jim Crow,  deterred Blacks   from building their own churches, neighborhoods, businesses  and schools to pursue their vision of the American  Dream.

Today these sites are increasingly being recognized  as sacred and hallowed examples of how visionary Blacks created places of their own.
Jim Crow sought to limit Black vision, but  it did not restrict the Black community’s  energy and pride – the source of  their  enterprise and empowerment.

Instead of a restrained minority, Portsmouth’s  Black population today is  now in the majority and is seeking to sustain and revive  the city economically with White citizens and others who share their vision.
Even the now demolished public housing communities, such as Ida Barbour are claimed as hallowed grounds, by the likes of Nathan McCall, a journalist who wrote his bio, “Makes Me Wanna Holler” chronicling his life living in downtown Portsmouth.  He and  others left  the pockets of poverty to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and community leaders.

Mae Breckenridge-Haywood is the chair  of the  African-American Historical Society  of Portsmouth.
She and her organization have done extensive research on the city’s history and have compiled a roster  of sites where historic businesses, educational, medical,  and cultural sites built by Black people still stand or once did.
The  Society, with the help of  the city, reclaimed  the old “Colored Community  Library” building which once stood at   Effingham and South Streets before it was moved to the Ebenezer Baptist Church’s  parking lot.
When a court mandate forced the integration  of the Portsmouth Public Library, the city shut down the Community Library in 1964 which Blacks had raised money to build in 1945.

Instead of being demolished, the Society worked to move the library to its current location on Elm Street where it houses artifacts related  to the history of the city’s Black community.
“Many of these sites are sacred or hallowed because of their  sentimental value to the  people  who remember them, touched and  saw them,” said Haywood, “Historians are the only ones who want to recall and reclaim them. A lot of our history was painful, but there a  larger portion of our past that was about what we built, taught and used to   show that we could value the American dream too.”

I.C. Norcom

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The current I. C. Norcom High School  which now sits on Portsmouth’s London Boulevard  opened its doors in 1998.
But the school’s legacy is 103-years-old. It was first known as the High Street School, and opened in  1913 as the first high school for Black students  in the True Reformers Building at 915 High Street.
After World War I, it was moved to  the  corner of Chestnut and South Streets. A building on Turnpike Road opened in February, 1953.

Renamed I. C. Norcom in 1953,  it carried the name of  the first supervising principal, Israel Charles Norcom (1856–1916).
Other historic Black high schools  were closed or converted to other  uses  when   segregation was ended in the early 1970s. But Norcom and Norfolk’s  Booker T. Washington are the only two in this region to retain their heritage and tradition.

Historic Churches and Cemeteries

In Portsmouth are some of the oldest churches in the  region.
Built before and after the Civil War, historical Black Portsmouth churches include Emanuel AME Church,   Zion Baptist Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Third Baptist,  St. James Episcopal and  Mt. Herman Baptist Churches.
The city’s hallowed grounds also include its graveyards which served Blacks during segregation such as the grounds  of Mt. Calvary and Mt. Olive, Fisher  Hill and the Potters Field Cemeteries.

The Lincolnsville neighborhood, established following the Civil War  is the home of  Emanuel AME Church and was a station on the Underground Railroad.
While little remains  of historic Lincolnsville, the Truxton community does which was built as a federal model community to house shipyard workers.
Linda Holmes is the Supervisor of the  Portsmouth  Colored Library Museum which is part of the Portsmouth Department  of Museums.

Business Corridor

The city along with the African-American Historical Society   are seeking to increase recognition of the significance of Portsmouth’s old Black business  corridor.
From the 1940s until the mid-60s when urban renewal began to sweep the country, one of the  best example of   Black enterprise, educational, civic and religious self-determination  was the Portsmouth Black business district.
The heart of the business district  was on Effingham Street. The business corridor also included Chestnut Street.
Over the past three decades urban renewal has transformed Portsmouth’s downtown business district and most of the old Black business enclave is gone.

Many southern cities with large Black populations  and long-standing business corridors have either totally disappeared or can no longer be recognized as a base for Black enterprise and culture.
The Church Street business section of  Norfolk is one of those corridors. Today it is mostly residential.
“They call it urban renewal, but many Blacks  call   it Urban Negro Removal,” said Holmes. “Now is the time to influence community leaders to unite  in preserving what is  left of the former Black business districts. Otherwise, we risk losing all memory of this important chapter of Black History which was  a source of pride for so many for so long.”

According to Holmes, the Mutual Pharmacy Building located  in the 600 block of Effingham  housed a pharmacy, a soda fountain as well as offices of    Black physicians, a dentist and other professionals.
It was built and owned by enterprising Portsmouth Blacks including businessman Bruce Watts and family which had  extensive capital investments in  the city and Norfolk County.  The Watts family built their wealth  from land holdings.

Watts founded the  Safeway Cab Company, which still exists today,  and ran A bus transit in Portsmouth and Norfolk County.
Built in 1945, the Mutual Pharmacy building,  or the  Jones building is currently located on Effingham and County Streets.

There was no hospital servicing African-Americans in Portsmouth until the l960s.
But behind this building sat a two story building built and run by Dr. Harry Boffman which  still stands on County.  Black  women could stay overnight with their new born  babies and   receive care when White hospitals refused to care for Black mothers and their babies.
The Capital Theater, once on Effingham, is gone now, but that is where African-Americans watched movies  and other and national entertainers.

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Portsmouth Journal and Guide

The  Portsmouth bureau  of the Journal and Guide made its home at  621 Effingham. John Q. “Rover Reporter”   Jordan, ran the shop. He was among the Guide reporters who were   highly regarded correspondents covering the exploits of  Black soldiers during WWII.

Up until the early 1960s the Guide printed a national, Norfolk, Peninsula, Portsmouth and  North Carolina edition of the paper, making it the most widely distributed Black owned publication in the South.
Newly minted dentists Dr. James Holley and Dr. Hugo Owens, in the mid-1950s opened offices in  the same building as the Journal and Guide before moving their operations to other parts of the city.

Bailey’s Barbershop, owned by Lynwood Bailey   on Effingham  and County was a gathering place for civil rights activists promoting change. Bailey joined Owens and Holley in court challenges to desegregate the city’s golf course and other  city  public facilities.

According to Holmes, Roger Brown’s Restaurant on High Street,  once housed the Woolworths  Department Store.
It has no  historic designation now, but it was the target  of I.C. Norcom students and other students  in the Tidewater area who organized and conducted sit-ins demanding that Woolworths and other department stores desegregate.

Holmes said student leader Ed Rodman, later an Episcopalian Priest, and other  Norcom students received international attention as the first high school in the nation to stage  sit-ins in the early 1960s.   In  Greensboro, North Carolina and in Norfolk, sit-ins were  staged by college students.
Nancy Wheeler was a well known business  woman who made her fortune running a  funeral home at 610 County Street, where the building still stands.

She devoted a lot of resources to charitable and civic causes, including the NAACP. She opened the first licensed nursing home for the  aged in the city.

Notable Women In Business

Another woman-owned  property in Portsmouth was the Prefix Beauty College owned by Mrs. Marion McGlone. She  developed and sold trade products such as McGlone Pressing Oil and  McGlone Hair and Scalp Ointment, etc.
Holmes said some remember her as  Hampton Roads’  Madam C.J. Walker.

Another notable and industrious community servant was  Ida Barbour.    Born around 1878 in Portsmouth, she lived  with her family in the first free Black section of the city,  “Lincolnsville.” After attending the Institute for Colored Youth in  Philadelphia, she returned home and worked as a teacher in the Portsmouth Public School system from 1898-1909.

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After initially taking  in five orphans, Barbour and 20 other women (known as the Women’s League) established the Miller Day Nursery and Home for them and other neighborhood children in 1911.
The Miller  Day Nursery, the area’s first daycare to take in infants, continues today.

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