Saturday, September 30, 2023

Tidewater’s lost towns: Camp Peary’s legacy in Williamsburg

Camp Peary isn't as well known to tourists in Greater Williamsburg as Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Camp Peary isn’t as well known to tourists in Greater Williamsburg as Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Just over 20 years after the federal government seized one Tidewater community on the banks of the York River, another was set in its sights.

It was 1942, bombs were dropping in Europe while, in Hampton Roads, men were shipping off by the thousands to go fight in World War Two. That’s when the United States Navy took over a vast swathe of land in upper York County.

Magruder, named for Gen. John Magruder, the Confederate who defended the area against the Union Army’s Peninsula Campaign during the Civil War, was settled mostly by African Americans.

That’s according to historian and journalist Brian Palmer, who said the area grew out of informal hamlets after the Civil War ended. It was a place where black families could live a little freer, even in the days of Jim Crow.

In the intervening 76 years Between the end of the Civil War and the start of American involvement in the Second World War, Palmer said Magruder grew to be about 200 families.

Black and white families both lived in the farming community. They had a store, two churches, and a two-story school house.

Frances Bingley Baker, 97, said she remembers the rows of corn and beans growing in the town.

In the summertime, townsfolk would find their way down to the beach on the edge of the York River and swim.

Her father, Ellis Bingley Sr. moved to Magruder from New Kent County after the First World War to run a grocery store and raise a family.

“He wanted to run a store, and he heard that this store wanted help, and that’s why we left New Kent and came to Williamsburg,” Baker said of her father.


A U.S. Navy training ship at Camp Peary, Virginia, circa 1945. (Courtesy photo/U.S. Navy)
A U.S. Navy training ship at Camp Peary, Virginia, circa 1945. (Courtesy photo/U.S. Navy)

Bingley’s two children, Baker and her brother Ellis “Buck” Bingley Jr. spent most of their lives there; that is, until World War Two.

Baker had just married, and her husband had already been sent to war. She was living above what is now Aromas Coffeehouse on Prince George Street in Williamsburg when Magruder’s death warrant was signed.

The Second War Powers Act, a federal piece of legislation signed in early 1942, allowed the government to seize land from private landowners across the country.

By the end of that year, Magruder had ceased to exist as a town.

The U.S. Navy took the town and told its residents to get out.

“It just disappeared completely, because people didn’t have nowhere to go,” Baker said.

“It was hard to find a place to live, and the blacks had it worse than we did because they didn’t have as much place for them.”

Baker’s white family was forced out just the same as Palmer’s black family in Magruder, Palmer said.

“This was a majority black community but white people did get displaced,” Palmer said before adding that during the racist era, black families often didn’t have as many options as white families.

“A fair number of white families in Magruder had resources that African Americans didn’t have: money and the social capital that whiteness got you back in Jim Crow days.”

Connections between families, both white and black, were strained or severed by the government’s forced removal program.

“I think it was bad for everybody that was out there,” Baker said. “We all had been out there for such a long time. I grew up there.”

In December 1942, The Flat Hat student newspaper at the College of William and Mary published a story titled “‘Inhumanity’ Of Navy Cited In Petition To Roosevelt” on the forced removal.

“Navy action against residents of Camp Peary area…has been un-American in manner, in that property is being seized in a very inhumane manner,” the article states. “White farmers and poor, uneducated negroes are being made to move all of their belongings with as little as three days notice. They are not being given any assistance by the Navy.”

Baker remembers her father not receiving any notice that the Navy was kicking him off his land.

One day, Baker said, earth moving equipment just drove into his front yard and parked.

“When people came to take over out there, they had parked all their equipment in my dad’s yard,” Baker said. “My dad said ‘please would y’all get those outta my yard. I don’t want them in my yard. And they said ‘we’re sorry. You gotta get out.’ That’s what they told him. My dad and them didn’t know what was going on.”

The Navy took the land first to construct Camp Peary, Baker said, and paid the family for the land two years later.

Palmer’s grandfather made it out a little bit better than other residents, Palmer said. He negotiated until the “Eleventh Hour” and wouldn’t leave unless he had cash in hand.

After Magruder, many black families moved to Grove in James City County, where a previous exodus of African Americans had moved after their land was taken to build the naval weapons station in Yorktown.

Palmer said other Magruder families left and never looked back.

People with ties to Magruder still wonder what became of their small town.

Palmer’s been working on a documentary about his family’s forced exodus, and Baker said she often wonders what remains of her childhood home.

When Ellis Bingley Sr. left, his house it was still standing, Baker said. Nowadays, she’s not certain.

“Nobody’s been able to get back in there,” Baker said of Camp Peary. “I’d like to go back and see just what it looks like. See if I even recognize it. I bet I wouldn’t even recognize where my parent’s house stood.”

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