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Local News in Virginia

Titustown, Bolling Brook: The Shared History of 2 Norfolk Neighborhoods

By Leonard E. Colvin

Chief Reporter

New Journal and Guide

Norfolk, is made up of many neighborhoods – which are huge cultural, racial, economic and social puzzle pieces coexisting to contribute to the city’s history, heritage and legacy.

Two of the most unique of the enclaves is Bolling Brook and Titustown which sit a mile from each other and have similar histories.

The first residents lived and worked in the mostly rural section of Old Norfolk County, before the city of Norfolk annexed them or they migrated there from other parts of Virginia or the Carolinas.

Both were formed when White landowners reserved large tracts of land and either donated or sold them to Black families.

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The families formed small islands of community, economic and social self determinations, surrounded by mostly White sections of the county.

They sat less than two miles from each other and the inhabitants of the respective settlements formed a close bond of racial kinship which exists today.

That bond will be on display August 8, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Titustown Community and Recreation Center, when long time residents of the two areas will have a reunion to celebrate and observe their long time bond.

Both communities are about five blocks in size and many of the original public buildings, churches and homes are still standing and well-kept.

Bolling Brook is bordered by the 7000 block of Granby Road, Filbert Street to the south, Thole to the north and Waynes Creek to the east.

New Mt. Zion AME Church on Seekel and First Baptist Bolling Brook on Filbert Street still exist, built by the first settlers.

About a mile away along the north and south of 1000-2000s blocks of West Little Creek Road sits Titus Town. It is bordered by Terminal Blvd., North Shore Drive to the south, Divan Street to the west.

One of the first buildings in the Bolling Brook area was New Mt. Zion AME Church, which initially sat at Restmere and Newport Avenue on land donated to Blacks by Minton Talbot, whose family owned huge chunks of land in that stretch of the county.

Later it was moved to Seekel Street in Bolling Brook in 1924, by some of the original inhabitants of the settlement.

Although she lives in Richmond now, Eloise Johnson Neal Moore was born in Bolling Brook . She is among the fifth of the six generation of Johnsons to call it home.

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Her father’s family came from Matthews County, Virginia and her mother’s kin came from Elizabeth City.

Moore said her great-grandmother Ella F. Mitchell Johnson, raised hogs and chickens on a small farm in what was called Frazier’s Row – now it’s Ward’s Corner.

According to Moore’s research, an F.A. Hancock a White man bought land and sold it to Black folk with the last names of Johnsons, Washington, Turner, Wyatt, Brown and other families who established the community.

As a child in the 1950s, she recalls while sitting on the porch of her family home at 205 Seekel Street, the neighborhood being quiet, close-knit and idyllic.

“The families were supportive of each other… like family,” she recalled. “You could leave your front door unlocked and did not have to worry. One family owned a phone and neighbors would walk into the house like they lived there to use it. Kids played all day outside and were always respectful of the elderly.”

On Saturday, families traveled downtown to Market Street to shop for food or to Church Street.

Everybody dressed in their best to attend one of the two churches in the community. One of the yearly highlights, she recalls, was the Sunday School Union Day, when members of area’s Black churches would congregate at Seaview Beach in Princess Anne County. (West Minister Canterbury sits there now in the Beach.)

Bolling Brook residents worked as domestics in White homes in the Talbot Park, Algonquin and Foxx Hall communities, or at the naval base or in downtown Norfolk.

Before desegregation, Black children walked to Titustown Elementary or walked or caught the trolley or bus to Booker T. Washington or St. Joseph’s Catholic High Schools.

Moore recalls the enterprising members of her community, James T. Holmes, Sr. who owned Ruth’s Grill (named for his wife) located at Filbert and Granby Street.

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“During the school year, (before school desegregation) the White kids from Granby High School would sneak over to his grill and buy hot dogs and sodas,” said Moore.

Also, Mr. McCoy Brooks owned a little place attached to his home where the adults hung out.

For haircuts and female hair care, Moore said Bolling Brook residents walked or drove to Titustown and used the services of Mrs. Corinne Brooks, who owned one of the first cosmetology schools in that section of town before she moved downtown.

Christy Frederick, four years ago wrote, “Titustown: The People, the Churches and the Clothes” – part memoir and tribute to the Titustown Community. Frederick is an Assistant Professor in the Fine Arts division of the department of Visual and Performing Arts, at NSU..

“There are so many inspiring things about the history and people of Titustown,” said Frederick. “People will leave but they never forget what the place instilled in them. I really wanted to inspire young people to make sure they do not lose sight of its history.”

Frederick discovered that in 1911, an Alphonzo T. Stroud, a freshly minted White lawyer, bought the land which made up the original site for Titustown.

He resold the land specifically to “negroes” and made a rule that they could not build on lots until they paid for them in full.

“For the longest, most people in the area built and owned their homes. This was unusual for Blacks at that time,” said Frederick, who regularly attend church in Titustown each Sunday, although she lives elsewhere in the area.

“Even from the early days, people remarked about the cleanliness of the areas, and the homes, which had neatly cut yards and flower gardens,” she continued. “I recall those old ladies would get after you if you walked through their flower beds.”

“”Everyone had the same values,” recalled Frederick. “It was like an expanded family. You never passed an elder and did not say hello Mr. or Mrs. by their first name.”

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Titustown residents, like their Bolling Brook brethren, worked at the nearby naval base, as domestics in the middle class White homes in nearby neighborhoods or as longshoremen.

They could only cook or clean at nearby DePaul Hospital, but during the early 1960s, Frederick said Blacks were hired as nurses aides or nurses. Her mother started out as a nurse’s aide and was later trained as a lab tech.

The entrepreneurs in Titustown made the area commercially independent. There were grocery stores, (Mr.) Nelson’s Barbershop, Sarah Lee Braxton’s Charm School; and the boys and girls club and scout troops, educator Teresa Johnson, and others.

Today along with the new homes and other public facilities, many of the old churches and the Masonic Hall still stand and are used.

Clarence Holmes, 76, and his wife, Gracie, live four doors down from the home he was born in on Divan Street.

With the exception of a year and half, he has lived all his life in the area.

He is the President of the Civic League now.

“The place has changed. But some of the old values are still there,” he said. “People work, take care of family, their homes and yards. A lot of the people I knew all my life still live here. People leave for college, military or employment. But many of them wind up right back here living in a new home or the ones built years ago.”

Holmes is retired now, but he stays busy with “honey do’s” and serving as a crossing guard. He said Titustown is more racially diverse and still economically strong.

“But we don’t get enough turnout for the civic league meetings. Back in the day, everybody attended,” said Holmes. “We get 37 people. Other civic leaders say they can barely get ten.”

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“I recall the names … the Tallys, Braxtons, Fitchetts and Johnsons. They laid the foundation,” said Holmes. “A lot of people don’t know the history of the place. But you can see the foundation, and the pride laid long ago, still existing.”

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