Tuesday, 05 September 2023 10:06

Why the Destruction of a Black Neighborhood Matters to Me — and Should Matter to Everyone

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

As a high school sprinter in Virginia’s Tidewater region, I often participated in meets at Christopher Newport University’s Freeman Center, which had one of the few indoor tracks in the area. I won 500-meter races against top runners, and my high school was team champion.

Track and field was a huge part of my identity. I looked forward to crossing the Monitor-Merrimac bridge over the James River to Newport News, and I saw the opportunity to display my skill at Christopher Newport as a way to impress colleges and earn an athletic scholarship. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later that I understood the underlying irony. The construction of Christopher Newport, where Black athletes like me competed alongside our white counterparts, had displaced Black homeowners whose hopes and aspirations were dashed by racism.

That personal connection helps explain why I have spent more than two years exploring a largely forgotten tragedy: how Newport News officials and educational leaders eradicated the Black middle-class area of Shoe Lane to establish and expand Christopher Newport’s campus.

Month after month, first under a Columbia University grant, and then under a ProPublica/Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism fellowship, I pored over archival records in Newport News libraries and city offices, reconstructing Shoe Lane’s history. Often going back a century or more, I examined land deeds, voter rolls, newspaper clippings, City Council minutes, marriage licenses and obituaries. I also interviewed remaining residents, descendants of former property owners, eminent domain and civil rights attorneys, local historians, academic experts and Virginia legislators.

My investigation cast my home region in a different light. I thought about how racism had constrained where my parents and grandparents could live. My father managed a grocery store in Newport News, but I hadn’t known much about the city’s past. Now I recognized that housing patterns, such as the concentration of Black people in the impoverished downtown at the southern tip, didn’t simply reflect market conditions such as prices and availability. They also resulted from government actions, like redlining or eminent domain seizures, that have contributed to a widening racial gap in homeownership nationwide. About 73% of white households own their homes, compared with 44% of Black households, according to the National Association of Realtors.

I also realized that colleges and universities have at times exacerbated those inequalities. All too often, educational institutions also control the narrative about their role in society, including their expansion into diverse communities, and it’s the journalist’s responsibility to find victims and make their voices heard. “The University publicly acknowledges that residents of a valuable and well-established neighborhood were displaced by decisions made about the location of the University,” spokesperson Jim Hanchett said in a statement. “University faculty have spearheaded efforts to raise awareness of this history and its impact. At the same time, the University’s growth has fueled the economic revival of Newport News’ mid-city area.”

I first learned about the neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for Christopher Newport from an alumnus. I was looking for a reporting project near my hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. After a decade of reporting nationally, I wanted to make an impact in my home community. My source told me about the demolition of the Shoe Lane area, adding that a Christopher Newport professor, Phillip Hamilton, had written a paper about it.

Initially, I juggled my Shoe Lane reporting with my day job as a CBS producer in Washington, D.C. I spent nights and weekends researching the history of Black communities in Virginia and throughout the South. I found that a neighborhood of Black property owners was unusual but hardly unprecedented. In the late 19th century, freed slaves and other African Americans who were shut out of white areas formed communities where they could seek refuge from racism. Sometimes Black Civil War veterans pooled money to buy land, or Black people acquired property from white former slave owners with whom they had kinship ties. Joseph Clarke, a former slave, bought 100 acres from a white landowner and divided them among Black families to establish the town of Eatonville in central Florida in 1887.

In Virginia, rates of landownership among freed slaves and their descendants were consistently high. In one Virginia county, 76% of Black heads of household owned land in 1890. In 1915, about 60% of Virginia’s landowners were African American, according to Adrienne Petty, a professor of history at William & Mary.

When I spoke with Hamilton, I asked if he felt there was anything missing from his research. He said he wished that he could have talked with the families exiled by eminent domain, but that they were long gone.

I wasn’t so sure. The alumnus had mentioned that a few families remained in the area. I decided to look for them. Crossing the bridge again to Newport News, I drove around the campus. I noticed one house surrounded by Christopher Newport buildings and only accessible through a university parking lot. I knocked on the door but no one answered, so I left my business card in the mailbox.

I had better luck at a house on Shoe Lane, where an elderly Black resident, Barbara Johnson, opened her door. I introduced myself and told her that I had learned about the community that used to exist where the college is now and that I wanted to tell its story.

Standing on the front porch while keeping the door ajar, Barbara told me that I should speak with her husband, James, who grew up in the community. I told her that my experience covering national stories had ignited a passion to return to my roots and report on barriers facing the local Black community.

After a brief conversation about her memories of the neighborhood and race relations in Newport News, she gave me their phone number, which I called a few days later. James answered.

"I don’t know if I can be beneficial to you or not," he told me. “I don’t get involved with politics, because I like a quiet life. But if I can do anything to connect dots you already have, perhaps I can try.” He said he had some photos and documents that he might be willing to show me.

I told him I would appreciate anything he could share and asked if I could meet him and Barbara at their home. He agreed, and we scheduled a time.

Barbara and James Johnson in their living room Credit: Christopher Tyree/VCIJ at WHRO

When I sat down at the Johnsons’ dining room table two days later, I discovered James had more to offer than I ever imagined. He and Barbara told me about growing up on a farm there, and about how the seizure of the neighborhood’s core by eminent domain had thwarted their family’s plan to build a subdivision for Black families. He showed me albums and notebooks filled with his photos of the demolished houses and with newspaper clippings he had collected. He described how preserving these records had been cathartic for him. It became clear that this quiet, seemingly stoic man had organized and collected over 60 years’ worth of records out of a deep attachment to the only place he knew as home.

James Johnson looking through one of his scrapbooks Credit: Christopher Tyree/VCIJ at WHRO

I realized that, despite our differences in age and occupation, he and I weren’t that different. We both were dedicated to preserving the history of the community. James inspired me to work harder, and I often told him that he would have been a terrific journalist.

The Johnsons were well aware that the same forces that uprooted their community had devastated other Black neighborhoods across the country. As I continued reporting, I realized just how fiercely the Johnsons and other Black families had fought against redlining and other outgrowths of systemic racism, how doggedly they had pursued their piece of the American dream, and how much they had sacrificed.

As a Black journalist, I’m grateful for the unique access the Johnsons granted me. They and others from the Shoe Lane community gave me the rare opportunity to witness its history and shift the narrative.

Reach Brandi Kellam at [email protected] or [email protected].