By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The first people of African descent to live among the British Colonists in North America took their first steps along the shores of the Virginia Peninsula, an area that includes the cities of Hampton and Newport news.
According to the Jamestown Foundation, the first colonists sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at a spot they called Point Comfort. From there they embarked and settled at Jamestown and elsewhere.
The next time you enter the mouth of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, when heading west to Hampton from Norfolk, look left for Port Comfort, if you want a current point of reference.
In 1619 the first “20 and odd Blacks” arrived at the colony. They were neither indentured, slave nor free, but bounty taken on the high seas from a French vessel by Spanish pirates.
The pirates traded these Black captives to the colonists, that is clear, for supplies, and continued their journey.
But what is not clear is whether the first steps of the captives were taken at Point Comfort or on to the shore of Jamestown.
Most ships which arrived at the colonies, according to the Foundation, first landed at Point Comfort to “check in” before moving to other parts of the new frontier.
Regardless, these two sites, deserve to be along the ‘Hallowed’ and Sacred Sites” being celebrated during February 2016’s Black History Month because they are where Blacks spent their first moments in the American Colonies.
Later in the 1800s when the nation fought a civil war, this same area gained new status as a “hallowed and sacred site.”
As the Union army gained ground in defeating the South, Fortress Monroe in Hampton became a major refuge for runaway slaves from nearby plantations who sought protection and freedom there.
This Fortress Monroe or the Fortress of Freedom is a short distance from Port Comfort, the portal where the Black slaves’ ancestors arrived during the colonial era. But during the Civil War, Fortress Monroe would be their portal to freedom.
After the war, Blacks settled in encampments all over the Peninsula.
Confederate forces burned the city of Hampton to deter use of the land by the Union Army or the slaves and freed Blacks. But Blacks claimed it and built a settlement called Slab Town located where the Hampton City Tennis Courts are today.
From that hard scramble enclave, freed Blacks began to build more formidable communities, on the Peninsula, often separate from White ones.
Today it is known as Hampton University. The private Historically Black University (HBCU) was founded in 1868 as a “normal school” by the American Missionary Association after the war to provide education to freedmen.
Vanessa D. Thaxton-Ward is the Interim Director and Curator of Collections at the school. She was born and raised in the Newport News-Hampton area, in the “colored” section.
“Hampton University is a history museum on its own,” said Thaxton-Ward.
“On the campus are buildings which exhibit the school’s connections as a place where ex-slaves and native Americans were educated to help guide their people after the (civil) war, in Virginia and around the world.
After the war, a normal school was formalized in 1868, with former Union Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893) as its first principal. It was settled on an old plantation “Little Scotland” with the original school buildings fronting the Hampton River.
Legally chartered in 1870 as a land grant school, it was first known as “Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.”
Thaxton-Ward said the Virginia Cleveland Hall is 130 years old and served as a women’s dormitory. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Memorial Chapel was built in 1896 and was the last building built during the Armstrong administration. The old Academy Building was the first classroom building.
The Mansion House was the main building of the plantation and became one of the school’s first buildings on the campus.
In the Academy Building, one of the original structures, according to Thaxton-Ward, is the hallowed site where Booker T. Washington passed his entrance exam and as a student served as the building’s janitor.
Washington was one of the first Black faculty members and was director of student housing.
When Tuskegee Institute was being formed, Black leaders in Alabama recruited Washington to become the school’s first principal. After Washington died in 1915, Robert Moton, another Hampton Administrator, was named principal of Tuskegee, a position he held for over 20 years before he retired.
Long before Hampton Institute opened its doors, Mary S. Peake, a free Black woman from Norfolk, was hired by the American Missionary Association (AMA) to teach Black children, under the Emancipation Oak which was planted in 1831. Her grave is in downtown Hampton.
Emancipation Oak is believed to be the place where President Abraham Lincoln’s famous proclamation was first read to Hampton slaves.
The school cemetery, said Thaxton-Ward, is also a hallowed site, for many of the school’s early leaders and Black and native American students are interred there.
Phenix High School was a school for African-American students which was opened on the campus of Hampton Institute (formerly Normal School) immediately following the conclusion of the Civil War. The original building survives as Phenix Hall on the University’s campus.
In 1958, Phenix High School relocated to a newer building off campus which was affiliated with the Hampton City Public Schools system. In 1968, the second Phenix High School was renamed Pembroke High, which closed in 1980. It now houses the Hampton Family YMCA and Hampton social service department
Aberdeen Gardens is a national historic district located at Hampton, Virginia, USA. The district was part of a planned community initiated by Hampton Institute (University) under New Deal legislation. The neighborhood is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The district encompasses 157 contributing buildings.
Two of the original Africans to arrive at Point Comfort were Antoney and Isabell, servants of a Captain William Tucker, who was commanding officer at Point Comfort.
Antoney and Isabell were Christians and the couple’s first offspring was William Tucker, the first documented African child born in America in 1624.
William T. Harper III is the Executive Director of the William Tucker 1624 Society whose members are Tucker’s descendants. The society is dedicated to promoting an interest in family and community history through its programs of education, preservation, and exchange.
Shree Green says she is among the fifth generation great-great grandchildren of Mr. Tucker, who is buried in the family plot off Aberdeen Road in Hampton. Tucker later became a free Black and was a merchant and farmer in New Kent County
“Our family over the years in Newport News and Hampton developed a tradition of being in business, to support themselves and their community,” said Green. “My mother was constantly researching and educating me and my siblings about our grandfather and the Black business district in the East End of Newport News which I think is a very historic and hallowed ground.”
On or near Chestnut Avenue, she said, her family owned and operated various enterprises, including the Tucker Grocery.
“As a child, I recall the Masons would march from their building down Chestnut in full regalia on holidays,” said Green. “After the parade they would come to the store. The store was not just a store, it was a meeting place for people to come and talk and exchange information.”
Newport News Landmarks: Smith’s Pharmacy and Others
Another Newport News landmark on Chestnut is the building which once housed Smith’s Pharmacy. It was the pharmacy of Dr. Charles Calvin Smith, an African-American pharmacist who opened the first Black-owned pharmacy in Newport News in 1921. The Smith’s Pharmacy was sold to the Eckerd Corporation in 1999.
Other hallowed sites in Newport News:
The Salter’s Creek neighborhood was called “the creek,” and originally was part of the property of Salter’s Sawdust Mill in Elizabeth City.
African-Americans bought land between 27th Street and Shell Road and established homesteads there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
• Cooke Brothers Funeral Home, 1601 27th Street, is one of the city’s oldest businesses. The Cooke Brothers mortuary service was founded in Richmond, Virginia by Henry Cooke in 1873 and expanded services to other Virginia cities. In 1891, a funeral chapel was established in Newport News by his sons, John O., William S. and Jacob A. Cooke.
• The Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center, at 2803 Oak Avenue was built in 1899 as the home of Joseph Thomas Newsome (1869-1942). He was an attorney, newspaper editor (The Newport News Star), churchman, and early civil rights leader.
• Whittaker Memorial Hospital, 1000 Block of 28th Street, opened in 1908 as a four-bed hospital on 27th Street. This existing structure was built in 1943 and served over 3,000 patients until its third building on Marshall Avenue was built.
For many years Whittaker Memorial Hospital was the only hospital for Blacks in Newport News before it closed.
• In the 1000 Block of 28th Street is the former site of the Carrie C. Bolden Nursing Home. It was named for “Nurse Bolden” (1884-1973), the school nurse for African-American elementary schools in Newport News from 1916-1949, and one of the founders of Whittaker Memorial Hospital.
• A marker at 2905 Jefferson Avenue commemorates the site of the Peninsula Business College where on June 9, 1952, Jessie Rattley founded the school for careers in business. Rattley later became the first African-American to be elected to the Newport News City Council in 1970. She was elected vice-mayor in 1976 and mayor in 1986, the first woman and first African-American to hold that office in Hampton.
• The Doris Miller Community Center at 2814 Wickham Avenue is named for Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Texas-born African-American who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Miller was the first Black to receive the Navy Cross for devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and disregard of personal safety during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
• The Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center at 2410 Wickham Avenue has the distinction of being a site through the years which has been used to teach, heal, inspire and change lives.
Built in 1917 as Walter Reed High School, it was converted to an elementary school in 1921, serving students for 53 years. From 1971-1990, the edifice was the Wickham Avenue Neighborhood Facility which included social services and the city’s first branch library for Blacks.
Renamed for Norvleate Downing-Gross (first executive director of the Newport News Office of Human Affairs from 1964-1981), the transformed structure opened again in 2003 as a cultural focal point for the Southeast Community.
• Huntington Middle School at 3401 Orcutt Avenue is the site of former Huntington High School, the first high school in Newport News for African-American youth built in 1919 as a one-room school. Attorney J. Thomas Newsome was instrumental in securing the land for its construction.
• C. Waldo Scott Center for H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People Emerge) at 3100 Wickham Avenue is named in honor of Dr. Scott, a local surgeon and civil rights advocate. His son, Robert C. Scott, is a current member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The center offers comprehensive training programs and support counseling services to families and young people to promote positive strong values.
• The James A. Fields House at 617-27th Street was home to James Apostle Fields (1844-1903), a former slave who escaped to freedom during the Civil War. He was a member of Hampton Institute’s first graduating class of 1871. One of the wealthiest members of the Black community, he served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a Commonwealth Attorney for Warwick County during the Reconstruction era. After his demise, the structure became the first site of Whittaker Memorial Hospital.
• The Pearl Bailey Public Library at 2510 Wickham Avenue is named in honor of Newport News native, singer, actor, author, and goodwill ambassador, Pearl Mae Bailey (1918-1990). The library opened on October 19, 1985, with Ms. Bailey as the honoree.
• First Church Newport News at 2300 Wickham Avenue was the earliest church to be organized within the original city limits. Religious services began in the 1900 block of 28th Street in 1864; the present structure was built in 1972.
• Booker T. Washington Elementary School (now Booker T. Washington Middle School) at 3700 Chestnut Avenue was founded in 1902 as Colored School #2 and subsequently renamed. This was the first school in Virginia recognizing an African-American. On its grounds stands the Clark Oak, which grew from a seedling taken from the Emancipation Oak at Hampton University.
• Newsome Park Middle School at 4200 Marshall Avenue was built in 1943 to serve the children of Newsome Park, a 1,124-unit for Black defense workers. The housing community was one of the nation’s largest U.S. government housing projects during World War II. It was named in memory of J.T. Newsome.
• The present-day King-Lincoln Park at 600 Jefferson Avenue includes land of the former Pinkett’s Beach, a beach front property named for its original owner, William Ward Pinkett (1876-1944). Pinkett was a successful African-American tailor and musician, whose dance pavilion here was a noted landmark. The waterfront was also popular in the early 1900s for mass baptisms. The tract was subsequently acquired by the City of Newport News.
• The United House of Prayer for All People at 1811 Ivy Avenue was begun by Charles Manuel Grace (a.k.a. “Bishop Daddy Grace”) who built a handsome two-story stone and steel church in 1928 at 19th and Jefferson.
• Pleasant Shade Cemetery is the oldest and largest public African-American cemetery on the lower Virginia Peninsula. Comprising approximately 20 acres, it is an amalgamation of three burial grounds created in the early 20th century along Greenlawn Cemetery’s eastern property line.
The earliest portion, Mount Zion, was begun in 1888 on the main road between Hampton and Newport News.