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The importance of Black History and the contributions made by African-Americans over the past centuries is highlighted nationally each February with Black History Month. In Portsmouth, we recognize those contributions year-round at the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum, located at the corner of Elm Avenue and County Streets.
When visitors come to the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum, they are often struck by the fact that this little building had such a specific purpose. It’s always a very satisfying moment when I hear them say, “I never knew that even libraries were segregated.” I always hope that means that we have successfully planted a seed of knowledge in their minds about the post-WWII era in Portsmouth, and maybe even sparked their curiosity to learn more.
Once you begin to look for evidence of the era of segregation, it’s easy to come up with some pretty blatant examples. Like the early 20th century architectural drawings we have on display at Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum of new designs for ferry and railroad terminals in Norfolk and Portsmouth. The plans for those buildings have “Colored” and “White” waiting rooms clearly labeled right on the drawings.
Segregation in transportation, like buses and railroads, are some of the most widely-known examples, along with segregated bathrooms. And there are plenty of people here in Portsmouth who remember separate entrances for blacks and whites at local businesses in the postwar era.
The practice turned up in the leisure activity of attending sporting events as well.
In Norfolk and Portsmouth, stadiums that were home to minor league teams had separate entrances and separate seating areas for black and white fans. This practice continued for years after Jackie Robinson broke through the “color line” by being named to the Brooklyn Dodgers team roster in the major leagues in 1947.
The Norfolk Tars, a (white) farm team for the New York Yankees, played at Myers Field in Norfolk in the 1950s. Around 1953, ballfields that hosted minor league games in both Portsmouth (Frank D. Lawrence Stadium) and Hampton (War Memorial Stadium) desegregated their entrance gates. Myers Field held out. Black fans in Norfolk staged a boycott, taking their baseball dollars with them to the integrated fields.
“Our eyes were opened by the sincere protests of the fans…” Tars General Manager Roy Dissinger was quoted as saying, after the decision was made to open the gates to all fans. “We want every baseball fan in Norfolk to support the team, which is now owned and operated by local people, and that includes colored fans.” The Tars had recently been purchased from the Yankees by a group of local owners, who made the decision to add black players to the team’s lineup. In addition to the noble purpose of eliminating segregated gates and stands, I’m sure the general manager gave more than a passing thought to the admission revenue the team would lose from its absent fans.
This April 10, 1954 article is from the Norfolk Journal and Guide newspaper, which has chronicled happenings in the African American for more than a century.
Nineteen fifty-four was also the year of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown Vs. Board of Education, which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. In Virginia, the backlash to that ruling included U.S. Senator Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” strategy in which many white schools were closed for lengthy periods of time in the late 1950s as a way to resist mandated integration.
Compared to the widespread and lengthy unrest caused by the Brown decision, it would seem that stadium integration was a little more straightforward. But this process was taking place around the country, as every team, stadium, and sports-loving community had to face the reality that their past biases, habits, and laws were subject to painful reexamination under the spotlight of the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
And this one local incident of integration as it applied to America’s Pastime is a reminder that racism reared its ugly head not just in the acts of selecting a seat on a bus or attending a separate school. It also encompassed the simple acts of checking out a library book or taking in a baseball game. The rest of the 1950s and ‘60s would see boycotts, protests, sit-ins, lawsuits, and even violence, in pursuit of liberty and justice for all, whether at school, at a ball game, at the library or on a train. An eye-opening period of American history, indeed.
Note: The article above turned up in our research for an exhibit at the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum about mid-20th century African American Baseball in Portsmouth, coming in 2021. If you have any ideas or leads or personal knowledge of black baseball in post-WWII Portsmouth, please contact Diane Cripps, Curator of History, Portsmouth Museums. (757) 393-8591 or firstname.lastname@example.org