To understand Laura E. Titus’ legacy, you must first understand the context within which she lived. Born around the start of the Civil War in Norfolk County, she would waste no time making progressive moves for Black women and the greater Black community for centuries to come. She would spend her time in higher education at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) during the Reconstruction era of the South, alongside contemporaries such as the well-known Booker T. Washington, emphasis on well-known.
And this is where an issue presents itself.
We all know Booker T. Washington—at the very least, you have heard his name at some point in time. Yet, Titus is next to non-existent. Titus and Washington were one year apart from graduating, with Titus graduating from Hampton Institute in 1876 and Washington in 1875. Most recognize Washington as being monumental in the founding and success of Tuskegee Institute; yet, the recognition is sparse for the numerous accomplishments Laura E. Titus fulfilled in her lifetime.
Titus lived a life of advocacy and activism. She was steadfast in her vision to provide self-assuredness and empowerment through education and community-building efforts. Whether it was raising money for the Hampton Institute during her tenure in the Hampton Singers, teaching in Norfolk’s public school systems, or participating in philanthropic organizations (National Association of Colored Women), Titus fervently worked to better the future of the black community. That passion led to one of her most significant achievements—establishing the YWCA South Hampton Roads. Titus garnered support from fellow Black women leaders in her community and Captain John L. Roper, a prominent philanthropist and former slaveholder in Norfolk, to establish the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1899. Titus would eventually apply for a charter in 1906 and receive approval in 1908, deeming the YWCA Norfolk branch a legal entity. Through Titus’ tireless efforts, Black women would have a place to grow and develop their identity in an uplifting way.
And here we are today. Despite these monumental achievements, Laura E. Titus’ name is hard to come by. One will find it a challenge to find Titus’ name in any historical accounts on “About” pages on affiliated sites like Hampton University, the Hampton Singers, or any records of the YWCA South Hampton Roads branch—including the official website (except for the Reckoning our History exhibition)! The newly appointed CEO of the YWCA South Hampton Roads, Michelle Ellis Young, noted that before her arrival, the listed founding date was 1911. According to Ellis, the founder of the South Hampton Roads location was a white philanthropist. There were two YWCA locations, with Titus’ branch being the precedent. The two branches were segregated by color, eventually merging into one spot in the 1970s, and as a result, adopted the “white” YWCA’s history.
Fortunately, those wrongs are being made right. The exhibition, Reckoning our History: The Untold Story of YWCA South Hampton Roads aims to give Laura E. Titus her long-overdue acknowledgment. Partnering with Teens With a Purpose and local artist Chris Green, the YWCA will have an opportunity to shed light on Titus’ legacy and uplift the art and voices of the youth in the Hampton Roads community.
Laura E. Titus’ name and legacy will live on.
Reckoning our History will be on view at the Chrysler Museum until March 13th.
Jasmine Rodriguez is a culture and music enthusiast based out of Virginia. When she's not writing for music blogs, you can find her working on her latest themed playlists, scouring for more new music, and taking pictures of her friends and life around her.