Thursday, September 21, 2023

Paper focuses on African-American neighborhoods in Virginia Beach

The history of Princess Anne County extends back for more than 400 years, but for African-American residents whose ancestors have been here for much of that time it’s a challenge to find inclusion for themselves anywhere in those centuries of history.

In an effort to begin that inclusion, two Virginia Beach historians have completed a paper that will help to fill in at least some of the obscurity surrounding the lives of Princess Anne County’s and Virginia Beach’s black residents.

The authors of the research paper entitled “History of African-American Communities in Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach,”  Joanne Lucas, a retired American history teacher, and Edna Hawkins-Hendrix, a Virginia Beach historian and author, have known each other for years. The two were in complete agreement that the history of African-Americans in the community needed to be put to paper.

“I think it’s a human characteristic to want to keep up with other people and to be included,” said Lucas, who taught American history in high school for 28 years. She likens black history to the old gospel song “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

“We want to be in that number. I want to be in that number. But if there’s nothing written about us…,” Lucas said.

During their research — which involved digging through census records, deed books, Civil War veteran’s pension records, Freeman Bureau records, and old maps — Hendrix and Lucas not only uncovered information about the places in the county where African-Americans settled and built, but also about the churches, schools, and lodges they established.

Hendrix travelled to historic sites like the Cape Henry Lighthouse and the Surf and Rescue Museum in search of information, but she didn’t go alone.

She took her children along, with her son taking photos and video.

“He was just amazed and so excited to go back to school and tell the other children that he learned something about African-American history,” Hendrix said.

Children, she added, need to know their history.

“When they pick up a history book and look at it there’s very little in there for African-Americans,” Hendrix said. “We so desperately need that.”

The two traveled to various parts of Virginia Beach, but mostly the northern half, which was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War and is where much of the black settlement occurred. They sought information on small communities with names such as Beechwood, Doyletown, Gracetown, New Light, and Queen City — an area according to local lore that got its name because “so many beautiful women lived in the area.”

Although it might be assumed that people would be happy to talk about their African-American history, that wasn’t always the case, Lucas said.

“People can be skeptical of strangers asking about their past and their family and their school, and what happened to them in their community,” Lucas said.

Lucas has lived and taught in Virginia Beach for more than three decades, but she was born and raised in the small town of Hopewell, near Petersburg in central Virginia. Her father, Curtis West Harris, was active in the civil rights movement, serving as a confidant of the movement’s best known leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1965 Harris marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, and later was elected as the first black mayor of Hopewell.

Hendrix agreed that doing the research wasn’t effortless.

“It wasn’t easy. Nothing about it was easy,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find African-American history because nothing was recorded. In all of the books about Princess Anne County there’s nothing about African-American history.”

Hendrix herself was born and raised in Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach. Until her junior year in high school she lived in Reedtown. Then her father moved her back to the neighborhood where he grew up and where her grandfather still lived, in the area across from Bayside High School.

She admits that having family and local connections helped with their research.

She compiled a long list of names of people to contact: teachers, families, and others who would eventually provide information and photographs for their paper.

Both were at least somewhat surprised by how different life was for blacks here, even as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, when many African-American neighborhoods were still without paved streets, access to the city sewer system, and even mail delivery to their front doors.

Lucas recalls talking to people who lived in neighborhoods where “gang mailboxes” were used. Instead of delivery to their homes they had to walk to the end of the road to pick up their mail.

“This is a multicultural city,” she added. “How can you write about the history of this city and just write about one group of folks?”

The pair is now researching African-American history in Princess Anne County prior to the Civil War and plan to write another paper.

In addition to “History of African-American Communities in Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach” being online and free, the library maintains a copy. There’s also a video on YouTube that includes many of the photographs used in the research paper.

Hendrix and Lucas will discuss their paper and their research Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library during the Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission’s annual meeting.

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