By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Since 2017 if you are commuting from Norfolk via the Midtown Tunnel into Portsmouth you will hit the Martin Luther King Freeway.
This stretch of the thoroughfare slices through the Pinner Point Industrial areas as well as offering a view of the massive Port Complex along the Elizabeth River.
You may pass by a cluster of small homes nestled in the area near Scotts Creek and what remains of Sugar Hill.
It is a patch of North Portsmouth that juts into the river. It evolved from a mostly Black rural area where Blacks and Whites, migrating to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century, called home. They created family homesteads, worked on farms, and for the railroad and other industries to make a living and feed their families.
In a recent presentation before the Portsmouth City Council, noted NSU Author and Historian Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander provided a detail of her extensive research into how devious private-public schemes to erode the standing of Sugar Hill were concocted by political and business interests along with Jim Crow policies of Portsmouth, the state of Virginia and federal agencies.
Portsmouth City Councilman Dr. Mark Whitaker requested that Newby Alexander be contracted to research what happened to Sugar Hill.
Alexander presented her findings to Whitaker and his colleagues during a September 26 council meeting. Whitaker has a personal and civic interest in the old community. His grandfather migrated to the area to find work and start a family.
Annius Whitaker beat an abusive white overseer who would attack Black sharecroppers with a whip during a time years after slavery on a plantation near Scottland Neck, North Carolina.
His family sewed him inside a feather mattress to hide him from a bloodthirsty White mob until they could put him on a train to Portsmouth.
Evolving from farmland initially to a suburban neighborhood of 87 acres, Sugar Hill was part of the Pinner Point area, within the borders of Roberta and Quebec Streets and Marion Avenue.
The nearby Port Norfolk became the destination of the Norfolk and Carolina rail connecting passengers to the Norfolk ferry and exporting goods elsewhere by the Beltline, Seaboard, and Atlantic Coastline railroads.
A young Mark Whitaker recalls being enrolled at a daycare center in the Sugar Hill community. His late father James Whitaker escorted him and his brother to a barbershop in the area. His father was a leader of the congregation of First Baptist Church of Pinner’s Point which started in 1887. As part of the city’s ongoing effort to buy up Black-owned land in the area, the church moved in 1961 to Cavalier Manor and changed its name to New Bethel Baptist Church. From his vantage point, Whitaker first noticed and managed to trace how White-owned banks and real estate firms, the city, and developers colluded over time to marginalize and destroy the Sugar Hill community.
While adjacent White neighborhoods, such as Shea Terrace, were supported, Sugar Hill and other Black areas were deprived of resources over time and allowed to rot.
Whitaker said that one of the schemes used by the city, real estate firms, and banks from the early 20th century was to aggressively use liens against Black landowners delinquent on property taxes for short periods of time.
“They would not do this to White landowners,” said Whitaker. “Eventually, the city would get the land and sell it to the housing authority banks, which would sell it back to the city, and hold onto it until developers bought it to expand the port or other projects. The city is still doing the same today, and city leaders are aware of it.”
“Historically, this is a good example of how White business interests and cities conspire to destroy Black communities,” said Whitaker.”
Dr. Alexander said, “This is the behavior of a racist system. I hope this report brings attention to it because it happens no matter who or what party is in office.”
During her research, Alexander toured the area, “and found it cut-off and hard to get to. There are a few homes remaining. It was about developing the port, not saving a community that is now forgotten.”
Settled by African-American families in the post-Civil War years, by the end of the 19th century, Sugar Hill was inundated by migrants from the rural areas seeking jobs with the railroads and port-related industries. The land that Sugar Hill sat on was originally owned by David Culpeper in the early 1800s as farmland.
After his death 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.
The Sugar Hill neighborhood evolved from mostly farmland to a rural residential community during the Civil War when it was occupied by Union troops. Records show that Pinner’s Point, in particular, was once the site of Black freedom seekers who moved into Portsmouth and Norfolk County.
They used the remote location as a “hush harbor” (a secret gathering of African-Americans during slavery), according to Dr. Alexander.
Census records illustrate how the larger community of Pinner’s Point also was populated by mostly Black and White tenant farmers. The Ellet (Elliott) family still had descendant heirs living on farmland in Sugar Hill.
But by 1886, the intrusion of the Norfolk and Carolina Railroad would cut through Pinner’s Point and Elliott’s property, deterring their ability to farm.
During the 1890s there was a population explosion with Blacks and Whites moving into Portsmouth which lured railroad and other jobs in related industries.
The Norfolk Land Company purchased a privately owned farm and developed the Pinner’s Point area as a residential White middle-class community. The company platted the land into thirty city blocks and advertised it to railroad, manufacturing, and shipping workers. The area transformed into a beachfront “playground” for White residents with the construction of a bathhouse, hotel, pavilion, wharves, fishing pier, and streetcars.
Pinner’s Point became a site for various railroads to transfer connecting with the ferry to Norfolk or exporting commodities via ship or train elsewhere.
The Sugar Hill community inside Pinner’s Point developed into a thriving community for African-Americans.
By the end of the 1890s, however, Sugar Hill would be cut off from the northern area, (later known as Port Norfolk) by various forces bent on using the Sugar Hill community as an economic pawn and eroding its state as a viable Black community.
From this point onward, Alexander’s report reveals that various White-owned business interests and the city used every legal and political Jim Crow scheme in the playbook to destroy Sugar Hill while White areas prospered, even to this day.
… to be continued