Rest, Relaxation, & Race: Reinvigorating Citizen Solidarity and Historical Leisure Spaces in Norfolk Part 4

by | Mar 14, 2022

Housing Crisis After WWI: Norfolk’s Changing Laws & Neighborhoods


In 1896, the Supreme Court affirmed the “separate by equal” doctrine could be added to the Constitution, introducing segregation into local laws across the nation. At this time, Norfolk had several thriving, vibrant, integrated neighborhoods full of leisure spaces that historian Earl Lewis described as a “keyboard pattern of alternating row houses.” The year 1914 brought the start of World War One and the first racial street segregation ordinance in Norfolk, which created more segregated blocks than any other city in the country. Sadly, the rule was strictly enforced upon Black citizens using menacing police dogs. 


The war accelerated the Great Migration of freedpeople moving North to find job opportunities and escape the white terror in the Deep South. When Norfolk passed a bill to construct its Naval base in 1917, 34,000 enlisted men and their families came to the city. Though the city readily built affordable housing for white military families, Black service members and relatives were legally forced into decrepit areas, lacking essential services, sewers, sanitation, or recreation. 


Norfolk did this by law, using racially restrictive covenants in housing contracts, discriminatory ordinances, and rail line additions that placed steely, impassable barriers between segregated neighborhoods. So methodical were their tactics that our slums became nationally notorious for being among the most disenfranchised, unsanitary, and deadly. By 1920, Norfolk’s death rate for Blacks was more than twice that of whites, while one in six Black babies passed away versus one in 20 white infants.


Regrettably, the city also used terror to maintain housing segregation. Desperate for decent housing that wouldn’t make them sick, a few Black families purchased homes close to white neighborhoods. White civic league residents, and even a Norfolk city council member once, would take up arms and threaten the Black residents until they moved. As all of America’s veterans returned to their hometowns after WWI ended in 1918, they found their town governments in the throes of a housing and jobs crisis created by poor policies. Nevertheless, the Norfolk Race Riot became one of 26 instances that defined the Red Summer of 1919. White mobs attacked Black gatherings (even welcome-home gatherings for Black veterans) across the nation, erroneously blaming their fellow citizens for fewer work opportunities and less affordable housing after the war.


This reasoning was, of course, pretzel logic. 


Black Norfolkians had (by law) minimal alternatives for meeting the most basic human needs like suitable housing, let alone leisure spaces. In 1923, City Park underwent a redesign that transformed into a free formal walking garden and zoo that operated under Jim Crow laws, creating just one bench and one water fountain for Black citizens. Norfolk quickly built better, affordable housing for white families in new areas. The city rezoned the formerly segregated neighborhoods to sell now-aging homes at an inflated value to Black families (via predatory, high-interest mortgage loans). These are the methods by which Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood became predominantly African American through the 1960s and 70s.


The divestment from the once-grand City Park is painfully easy to trace. It began with Virginia’s (particularly Norfolk’s) Massive Resistance to school integration after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v Board of Education. Many parks across the nation became departure points for local civil rights marches or buses headed for peaceful protests in Washington, DC. In response, Virginia began systematically shutting down state parks starting in 1956 and threatening to sell public land to private bidders to resist the country’s racial progress. Norfolk’s City Park was no different.


Eventually, the city placed the famous zoo behind a paywall in 1968. It fenced off a parcel of land that became Lafayette Park. By 1980, the park had become neglected and remained that way for decades until a modest redesign in 2016 resulted from a shooting. The historically covered entry structure and the skeleton of lovely old brickwork remain, as do many gorgeous, swaying trees. But the grass has turned bristly and weed-filled, with many of the walkways cracked. 


But what if it was really something again?


How much pride and value it would give us as a city to see Park Place and the park of its namesake once again bursting with potential, having its attractions on postcards, and drawing visitors from all over to enjoy its offerings, vittles, and rejuvenated greenspace. Historical successes tell us the economics are simple: substantial investments in collective citizen joy have always reaped hefty returns. 

De-Integrating Norfolk: Removing Culture and Assets In East Ghent and Atlantic City


There’s no easy way around it: Norfolk has a pernicious history of intentionally blighting Black and integrated neighborhoods to create slums and reneging on promises of affordable replacement housing. The lovely planned area of Ghent was built in the 1890s and successfully integrated. Yet, it was racially split (using the aforementioned legal housing tactics) over the decades into Historic Ghent and the predominantly black East Ghent. At this point, the city stopped services and repairs in East Ghent, allowing it to degrade to an “unfixable” condition by the late 1960s. After the neighborhood’s demolition, Norfolk promised these residents a right to return and affordable housing in its place. Instead, they developed the Botetourt Garden and its high-priced homes. Most of East Ghent’s Black residents ended up in other impoverished communities further away from basic conveniences, a sore subject for those families even now.


This intentional slum-making practice qualified the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 1949 for federal subsidies to facilitate slum removal and affordable housing redevelopment. The policy’s goal was to solve the tremendous problem of housing veterans returning from WWII. The dangerous slums where St. Paul’s now stands were demolished during Project One of this national effort and replaced by the still-segregated public housing you see there today. These units barely made a dent in public need at the time, and the situation in St. Paul’s remains stubbornly unchanged. 


The City of Norfolk will only provide 288 affordable housing units for the 1,700 mostly-Black families forced to move, placing the others on the housing voucher program waitlist. Norfolk currently has almost 13,000 households on the waiting list for housing vouchers. Applicants have to call every 2-3 months to make sure their name is still on the list. The vouchers allow renters to pay 30% of their income toward rent. The government subsidizes the balance of a fair market rental rate: a desperately needed program for the families of St. Paul’s, whose average annual income of $12,000 per household. Alarmingly, one displaced resident already on the waiting list stated on record that she had been living in a roach-infested public apartment, awaiting her housing voucher for the past 11 years.


Slum clearance projects accelerated in 1954 when schools underwent legal integration. Although Norfolk’s Black students had to use umbrellas inside their classrooms due to their schools’ state of disrepair, Norfolk leaders still saw it fit to utilize a loophole to prevent every student’s access to quality schools. They used federal redevelopment subsidies to create large enough distances between Black and white neighborhoods that they wouldn’t have to integrate by law. These efforts destroyed slums and flourishing communities that had integrated without issue for decades after the Civil War ended. 


Project Two, The Old Dominion Project, began shortly after in 1957 and sought to prevent Lambert’s Point schools and Larchmont schools from integrating by demolishing the area between the neighborhoods to create a buffer zone of land. After clearing it, Norfolk deeded the land to Old Dominion University for their campus. 


Project Two also included the destruction of the fully integrated Atlantic City neighborhood to make way for Eastern Virginia Medical School. The devastation created an intentional buffer between nearby white and Black neighborhoods to prevent school integration. The closest school for all the children who lived in Atlantic City was for white students only; even that closed after the area’s beloved culture and leisure spaces were cleared from the map. The year it was being demolished, The Virginian-Pilot described Atlantic City as “bohemian” and “cosmopolitan,” with a “Greenwich Village flavor.” Thanks to its location on the Elizabeth River, the area had robust oyster and cotton industries, which made exporting easy. The neighborhood also had extremely active civic organizations, churches, businesses, and its own football team called the Atlantic Citys, who played other teams in town. 


Proximity to the natural resources of the Elizabeth River brought not only copious work to Atlantic City, but leisure and community spirit. Crabbing and fishing was a favorite pastime of local children and adults, and stories of block parties still live brightly in former residents’ memories.


Historical Leisure In Norfolk: Beaches & Resorts


If one sifts through more photos from Norfolk’s past, it becomes clear that waterways, boating, and the resources of the water have always played a central role in our economic growth, as well as our natural desire for rest. Because Norfolk had banned Black residents from its 20 miles of coastal shores in the early 1900s, there were no large public beaches. They were forced to swim in dangerous creeks to cool off. A famous Black newspaper of the time, The Guide, began tracking drowning deaths to pressure city officials to make a safe public beach available.


For 20 years, there was only one far-too-small but beloved creek destination for Black citizens in Norfolk to swim, and that was the 3-acre Lem Bright’s Place or Little Bay Beach. It was opened in 1905 and operated by Lem Bright until he died in 1924. Unfortunately, the shelters there were destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1929, and when the beach sought a permit to rebuild, nearby white citizens protested. The city denied the permit, thereby closing the beach. 


City Beach


Several prominent Black people in business tried to buy their beach but couldn’t find anyone to sell the land with no place to recreate. With that, they assembled an interracial committee to research the possibility of Norfolk purchasing land for a public beach. In 1934, despite a protracted five-year battle with neighbors that landed in the State Supreme Court, City Beach was finally permitted and built partly using Civil Works Administration funding. More than 140 local African American workers built a beautiful “floating hotel and amusements as well as bathhouses, pavilion, boardwalk, and a keeper’s cottage.” 


This new Black public asset was quickly a profitable enterprise—an expected outcome of proper investment in public goods. 


City Beach was on the edge of where East Beach sits today. Although it was nearly impossible to reach for Norfolk’s many Black residents without personal vehicles, it was a rare and hard-won example of an investment in the quality of life improvements for citizens who remained deeply disenfranchised in daily life. Prominent leader William T. Mason, one of Virginia’s first Black millionaires, long managed the beach. Norfolk took over management in 1949. Like clockwork, the city annexed the space in 1959 as that tidal wave of anti-government, anti-taxation thinking began washing over the country during the civil rights movement.


Seaview Beach Resort


In 1947, twenty-one local Black business people from Norfolk and Portsmouth, known for their success and community charity, gathered their resources and sought to open impressive for-profit leisure and social space for Black citizens in nearby Virginia Beach: the Seaview Beach Resort on Shore Drive. Dudley Cooper was a Jewish optometrist who often set up free vision clinics in Norfolk’s local slums and would go on to open the Ocean View Amusement Park 10 years later. Cooper had to write the purchase orders for the Seaview’s amusement rides and act as operator because the proprietors couldn’t legally buy or manage them due to discriminatory laws. 


Seaview went on to have two decades of enormous success with all-Black ownership, staff, management, and public safety officers, which was a rarity for the time. Each Sunday, 8,000 to 12,000 visitors came to socialize in the sun and enjoy the fruits of the personal investments they’d made in their community.


Once integration opened up white recreation spaces for Black citizens, however, local Black-owned beach resorts, shops, and businesses couldn’t compete with the more convenient, established locations off public transit afforded to white citizens. Like so many of our best public investments (even the ones made possible by robust cross-cultural citizen alliances), these spaces of fun, music, dancing, and swimming had all been downgraded or shuttered by the 70s.


Invest In Joy & Open Up Doors: A New Vision of Solidarity For Norfolk


We’ve been trying to find our way through some challenging shadowlands for several years now as a nation. Yesteryears’ lessons show us that the road out of disorientation is paved with the resources of an uplifted citizenry. The rickety road we all walk now hides deep sinkholes that good people are one emergency away from falling through—all simply because the infrastructure underneath once gutted our shared pathways by way of poor policies and evil intentions of the past.


Those circumstances were out of our control, but it’s now our responsibility not to miss the fleeting opportunity we have to fix our underpinnings. After significant divestment, the new American ethos became all about the quality of your effort is proportional to your outcome. Those telling others to pull themselves up by the bootstraps have inherited the benefits of our lopsided history–whether they like it or not–while never acknowledging that many of our citizen’s boots don’t have laces.


The proven successes of our once-glorious public investments are worth a second look to a new generation of Norfolk leaders and citizens who imagine a more robust, cohesive community genuinely ready to help one another achieve a decent quality of life. With knowledge, our shared needs and assets come into sharp relief if viewed through the clear crystal lens of positive future intentions. 


As Americans, the core of our patriotic duty is quite simple: to notice when our neighbors are balancing a load they can’t easily handle, then help. In that pivotal moment when things are about to crash down, we as individuals and leaders must stop hesitating to step up and say:


“Here, let me get that door for you.” 

Kayce White

West Ghent, NFK

Kayce White is a community organizer and advocate passionate about creating unique conversations via artistic and inventive mediums, with the goal of engaging citizens in important local and national civic issues.

Raised in Myrtle Beach, SC, Kayce and her family happily washed ashore in Norfolk after 11 years in Brooklyn, NY. They found a true home for their two little boys and two black cats in West Ghent, where Kayce now heads up the civic league’s safety committee. By day, she runs her sustainable home goods brand HAVEN®.

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