Three Centuries Of History
African Americans from Portsmouth made significant contributions to the early and present history of the city, region, and nation. Their influences and contributions are traced from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, both World Wars, through segregation, the fight for civil rights, right up through the Black Lives Matter movement. The people of Portsmouth added greatly to the fields of eduction, journalism, arts and culture, sports, politics, national security, and more. This article examines Portsmouth’s places and people of interest when learning more about Black History in America.
Emanuel A.M.E. Church
Located at 637 North Street in Olde Towne Portsmouth, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest of any black denomination in the City of Portsmouth. The congregation dates to 1772 when it was known as the African Methodist Society. It met independently until Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. Afterward, they met with local white methodists for about three years and then under white supervision until 1864. Members occupied a methodist church on nearby Glasgow Street until it burned in 1856. About a year later, both slaves and Free Blacks provided the labor and funding to build the church that currently serves the congregation. In 1871, the congregation adopted the name “Emanuel” (meaning God with Us) and became part of the African Methodist Episcopal movement.
Since the church is not open for tours except for special occasions, you can only view it from the exterior unless you attend a service. Inside, you will find most of the architectural detail was crafted by hand. There are nine hand-chiseled posts supporting an upper gallery that’s surrounded by wrought iron railing. The wooden pews were built to fit together without nails or glue. From the outside, you can see the six stained glass windows on the front of the church.
Emanuel A.M.E. Church was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Men and women seeking their freedom from the tyranny of slavery would often use the secret door located in the sanctuary that led to a hiding place beneath the church or enter the attic through the choir loft and hide until it was safe to move on.
The Underground Railroad in Portsmouth
Portsmouth is one of Virginia’s oldest and most historic seaports. Since the 1600s, the waterfront has seen the importing and exporting of goods from around the world. Slaves often landed here and were sold at markets just a few blocks away. Conversely, it is a port where many of these same slaves found their path to freedom on the Underground Railroad. There were many agents on the Railroad who would assist the slaves in their effort to board ships heading north out of Portsmouth. One such agent was Eliza Bains. A member of the African Methodist Society at Emanuel A.M.E., she also worked at the Crawford House Hotel, a luxury hotel on the Elizabeth River (The Crawford House apartments, a new building, sits on the same site at the corner of Crawford and London Streets). She used her proximity to the waterfront and secretly reported the arrivals and departures of ships so that travelers along the railroad could sneak aboard ships heading north to freedom. As you walk through Olde Towne today, notice the homes at 300 and 316 North Street. Both were known stops for slaves to hide before they boarded the ships. You can even take a virtual tour of Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad “Tracks of Our Tears” sponsored by the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, Virginia.
Ten Points of Interest
- Grove Baptist Church Cemetery (5910 W. Norfolk Road)
Built around 1840, the church has the original headstones in the church cemetery dating back to the 1800s. One headstone reads, “Stephen, Servant of A.J. Wise died October 12, 1852” without even giving the benefit of a last name. The original church was destroyed by fire in 1953, but today, it houses the largest African American congregation in Portsmouth.
- Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex (Deep Creek Boulevard and Pulaski Street)
Mount Calvary Complex sits on 13-acres and is made up of four separate cemeteries: Mt. Calvary, Mt. Olive, Fisher’s Hill, and a potters field, where the poor were buried without headstones. One of Portsmouth’s oldest black cemeteries, it is estimated to contain between 8,000 and 15,000 graves. It formally opened in 1879 but many were buried here earlier than that, as graveyards were also segregated. A few of the more famous buried here are slave-turned-newspaper-columnist Jeffrey Wilson, educator I.C. Norcom, namesake for the I.C. Norcom High School here in Portsmouth, and child rights advocate Ida Barbour.
- Lincolnsville (North Street across from Emanuel A.M.E. Church)
Four original houses remain, representing Portsmouth’s first middle-class African American community, established in 1890. Lincolnsville was an area of about 34 acres and operated as a city within a city with schools, churches, and lodges. After years of economic decline, Portsmouth’s City Council designated Lincolnsville as its first urban renewal project during the 1950s. The site is included on the Path to History Walking Tour.
- Truxtun Historic District (bordered by Portsmouth Blvd, Deep Creek Blvd, Frederick Blvd, and Elliott Ave)
Truxtun Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. It serves as the first housing development built by the U.S. government exclusively for African Americans. It encompasses 241 contributing buildings and was developed between 1918 and 1920 as a planned community of Colonial Revival style single family residences. The housing was necessary to accommodate the influx of Norfolk Naval Shipyard workers at the outset of the First World War.
- Hattonsville (bordered by Airline Blvd, Victory Blvd, and Greenwood Drive)
Now a middle-class neighborhood with homes constructed from the 1950s to early 2000s, the area known as Hattonsville was originally settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. Some fourth and fifth generation families still reside in this community.
- Portsmouth Colored Community Library (900 Elm Avenue)
On December 20, 1945, the tiny 900 square foot Portsmouth Community Library opened on South Street. Unlike other communities where “Colored” or “Negro” branch libraries were created as smaller or separate off-springs of segregated white libraries, the Portsmouth Community Library is the recognized brain-child of the African American Society itself. Not only did the community count on the library for books, but it became a community resource that housed clothing drives, organized Negro History Week programs, and provided other services. In 1963, the library closed its doors as a result of a lawsuit that led to the integration of the city’s public library, opening those doors to all of Portsmouth’s citizens. In 1967, the building moved a few blocks to the parking lot of Ebenezer Baptist Church saving it from demolition and giving it new life serving as a meeting space for the church. And in 2007, the building was put on wheels and moved to its current location. You can learn more about the museum by visiting their website.
- Billy Flora Monument (on the corner of London Street. and Middle Street)
A small monument recognizing Portsmouth’s first blacksmith and the hero of the battle at Great Bridge during the early days of the Revolutionary War is located next to the parking garage. Born in 1755 to Free Black parents, William Flora served the Patriot Army throughout the war but is best known for his role in defeating the British at Great Bridge in 1775. Read more about the American hero William “Billy” Flora.
- Courthouse and Prison Squares (Court Street at High Street)
A confederate monument stood at this location for over a hundred years. It was destroyed by demonstrators on June 10, 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation. The statue was one of only three in the nation to honor the confederate Navy but its placement between the original Courthouse and Jail made it a lightning rod for protest. This is the location where slaves were sold at auction and where they were punished for attempted escape. The June 10th protest received national attention and amplified the calls for racial equality and justice throughout the world.
- I.C. Norcom Historical Marker (I.C. Norcom High School on London Boulevard)
Israel Charles Norcom was an educator who served the Portsmouth Public Schools for more than three decades. There has been a school bearing his name in Portsmouth since 1920. Students from I.C. Norcom High School staged sit-ins during the 1960s to benefit the cause of desegregation and many alumni have gone on to become local, state, and national political leaders. This is the 4th school called I.C. Norcom and it opened in 1998.
- Ruth Brown and Sissieretta Jones Historical Markers (North Street and Green Street)
Born Matilda S Joyner in 1869, Sissieretta Jones performed opera and gospel music on stages throughout the world during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Ruth Brown, Portsmouth native born in 1928, helped establish Atlantic Records in the 1950s, ushering in an era of rock and roll. She won a Tony award for her Broadway show Black and Blue, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 as the “Queen Mother of the Blues”.
Take a Living History Tour
Want to meet the hero of the Battle at Great Bridge, Billy Flora, or maybe the most important Black spy of the American Revolution, James Armistead Lafayette? Well know you can with Portsmouth’s living history group Mary Veale and the Colonials.
James Lafayette was the most important spy of the American Revolution. James Armistead, at the request of the Marquis de Lafayette, posed as a runaway slave to General Cornwallis. In this way, he was able to gather vital information on important troop movement, aiding George Washington in winning the war.
Billy Flora was born to Free Black parents and was the owner of a livery stable at the corner of London and Middle. He was both respected and well-liked by the Portsmouth citizenry. A hero of the Battle of Great Bridge, he fought under Colonel William Woodford.
The Portsmouth Museums and the Portsmouth Public Library worked together to develop virtual learning about Portsmouth’s Black History.