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City By the Chesapeake Bay

ISSUE:  Winter 1996
Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. By Thomas C. Parramore, with Peter C. Stewart and Tommy L. Bogger. Virginia. $20.00.

Sixteen years after Norfolk celebrated its tercentenary, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries, is off the presses and sold out. Actually, this still-new history, commissioned by the city, goes all the way back to 1561, when Spanish explorers anchored in Chesapeake Bay. It proceeds to where Virginius Dabney began his 1971 opus, Virginia, the New Dominion: A History from 1607 to the Present. In Chapter 4, “The Foundling,” it catches up with Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s starting place in Norfolk: Historic Southern Port,which appeared in 1931 as the city’s only other contracted account of its past written by a qualified historian.

Thomas C. Parramore, professor emeritus of history at Meredith College in North Carolina, establishes Four Centuries with breezy anecdotes of colonial life in Tidewater Virginia. Choosing as principals the pioneering Adam Thorowgood family, especially Sarah, its matriarch, he describes a region “of exotic religious enthusiasms, witchcraft and conjuration, “bad water and bad air,” the resort, in the eyes of upcountry aristocrats, of the same species of outlaw and scapegrace who lurked in the adjacent wilds of Carolina. It challenged the imagination to foresee how a town of such circumstances might benefit a tobacco colony.” If today’s Norfolk is—well, different: “the Hong Kong of the Albermarle,” author-journalist Jonathon Daniels once described it, linking it more to Carolina than Virginia— it’s faithful to its heritage.

But it was not the assignment of Professor Parramore and his “research collaborators,” Norfolk professional historians Peter C. Stewart and Tommy L. Bogger, to mine the long-long-ago; it was, rather, to enliven what Wertenbaker covered, and, rejecting Wertenbaker’s advice that history authors should leave a 50-year margin, to bring the past to the very day—indeed, with judgments and projections, to extend it into tomorrow.

Further, the Parramore team was instructed to produce a multi-cultural work, correcting Wertenbaker and his school’s neglect of blacks and other minorities and of women. It hardly was by chance that way up front the three authors pronounce Sarah Thorowgood (Cooking Yeardley) to be “as entitled as any man to be considered a founder of Norfolk society and its special character.”


Sixty-some years ago Professor Phillips Russell would introduce his writing classes at Chapel Hill to a “fruit basket” of literary styles. An essay, or story, or book, he would say, could have the shape of a smooth, round apple. It might be as bloated as a pumpkin or as rough-surfaced as a pineapple, or as flat as a mashed kumquat. There were other comparisons, including a pear.

In “pear-shaped” authorcraft, Professor Russell would explain, a topic is introduced along a figuratively straight, simple, downward story line. Soon the line is turned outward. Characters and events are added; once they are secure the line is extended around and up, bulb-like. Digression is carefully controlled through sentence and paragraph linkage. Then the story line is narrowed to its original topic and simplicity, and ends parallel to its beginning. The “pear” is rendered. This literary design, like the flashback and leap ahead, is familiar—and easily messed up. In Four Centuries it is overworked to absurdity.

When the idea of Four Centuries was introduced to a 12-member “advisory panel” in 1988, sponsors made it clear that a cardinal purpose was to bring African-Americans into the Norfolk story. One might read the Wertenbaker history, a spokesman complained, without learning that a person of color had figured in civic development. In a brief reference to Wertenbaker, the new history salutes him as “a Princeton professor of sound scholarly credentials” but adds that his book, “in keeping with the tenor of the times, was shamefully abusive and dismissive of the city’s black people, early and late.”

Tommy L. Bogger, who has been archivist as well as professor of history at Norfolk State University, a traditionally black institution, makes up for his people’s slight as a researcher—and, indeed, a source—for the new history. He pioneered in African-American studies and is an authority on the Norfolk black community. For the most part his contributions flow smoothly on the four-century tide, some Spanish coins among flotsam and jetsam.

Nevertheless, only minor attention is given to what Norfolk’s principal newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, in June 1938 called “Norfolk Negroes’ [most] formidable demonstration” against racial injustice—the City School Board’s dismissal of a highly qualified black teacher for lending her name to a law suit, Black [later Alston] v. School Board, brought by the black Norfolk Teachers Association, along with its Virginia parent organization and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to close the 27.9 to 43.4 percent salary gap between white and black teacher pay. The newspaper referred to the rally at a black church of 1,200 blacks and a few whites denouncing, with speeches and banners, the school board’s action.

Since the updated-history project was undertaken, two books about black Norfolk have appeared: In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia, by Earl Lewis; and P.B. Young, Newspaperman, a biography of the founding publisher of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, by Henry Lewis Suggs. Both authors are African-American academicians. They review Black/Alston in detail, with Professor Suggs fitting it into the context of a black teacher pay-equalization movement elsewhere in Virginia. But neither author understands the case’s transfer by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP counsel, from a state court, where he lost, into the federal court system, where he won a stunning victory capped by a Supreme Court ruling. And Professor Lewis does not explore the enormity of a compromise with the school board that publisher Young engineered, costing black teachers the immediacy of a pay raise in exchange for the promise of an additional black school, which was a long time coming and after five years had done little, as Suggs relates, to lift black schools from “notorious inferiority.”

Meanwhile, Young’s compromise, which he defended as a contribution to “good race relations,” infuriated the young Thurgood Marshall. But the NAACP’s “ultimate victory in the teacher salary case put the issue of teacher pay inequities into sharper focus and accelerated salary parity in Virginia,” Suggs concludes.

Between a three-page sketch of Black/Alston clarifying or extending nothing and a two-page wrap-up, the Parramore team stuffs nine pages with bits and snatches about the Great Depression and its ramifications, including a city deficit; Communist recruiting among blacks (more briefly scanned than the Lewis account); the New Deal’s arrival; the genesis of Norfolk International Airport; development of Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities; flowers and music; construction of a grain elevator and terminal; opening of the downtown Federal Building; a revival of shipbuilding; black slums and social classes; and so on. You could slice that pear for a salad.


The author’s reliance on Professor Russell’s “pear-shaped” literary form is nowhere more distressing than in the chapter playfully titled “A Sojourn in the Byrd-Cage,” meaning Norfolk’s entrapment, while the world watched, in U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd the Elder’s “massive resistance” to court-ordered school desegregation. Not only is Norfolk’s pioneering redevelopment program stunted and misjoined with the city’s lockout of 10,000 upper-grade students; social trivia and irrelevancies are scrawled into the picture as with a crayon in a child’s fist.

Two years before the publication of Four Centuries came Pride and Prejudices: School Desegregation and Urban Renewal in Norfolk, 1950—1959, in which Forrest R. White, a concerned young witness to the unfolding, documents a relationship between the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s slum erasures and the extension of racial separation. Parramore and his associates follow White’s approach and accept the gist of his findings. In so doing they fail to present a definitive, or even satisfactory, history of either Norfolk’s urban renewal or its response, as captive or not, to the Supreme Court’s 1954 start of America’s race revolution.

Introducing Mayor W. Fred Duckworth as one “who could be blamed for the agony [of closed schools] as much as anyone,” the Parramore team quickly moves with him to NRHA scheming. The Honorable is named as the brains behind a “package of projects . . . [that] would raze five hundred commercial buildings and displace more than twenty thousand people. . . . Elements of the black community, led by Joseph A. Jordan . . ., detected a hidden agenda in NRHA’s bold projects. . . . Most painful was the abolition of deeply rooted community ties and institutions. . . .”

But the Parramore trio exaggerates when it narrates the authority’s ruin of “revered architectural relics” and a threat to further damage comparable to the “razing that happened in 1776 when war swept the colonial town away.” The most that can be said for suchlike is that it provides a limb from “Norfolk’s new interest in preserving the past” to four pages of prose about an art blossoming; a rash of stage and sports entertainment, from the Little Theater’s summer bill to how things used to be at the Plaza Hotel at Church and 18th; an outbreak of high-rise apartment construction; the end of Norfolk’s isolation with construction of the Chesapeake Bay bridge-tunnel; and urban renewal’s removal of winos and hopheads from downtown to East Ghent, Berkeley, and Lamberts Point.

Right in form, the chapter closes with the reopening of Norfolk’s six high and junior-high schools after eight months, their student bodies including the 17 young blacks whose applications at last had been stamped by the Virginia Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John E. Eggleston, of Norfolk, who is not mentioned, as well as by an unnoted three-judge U.S. Appeals Court panel.


“Norfolk has been better served by its historians than its history, “journalist-historian William L. Tazewell has written. If Professors Parramore, Bogger, and Stewart, the latter collaborator retired from Old Dominion University’s history department, have created some doubt about that pronouncement, they have not neglected the old burg’s miseries. Some chapter subtitles read like the Book of Job: “Norfolk in the Ages of Pirates and Witches,” “Late Colonial Norfolk: Riots and Epidemics,” “Norfolk and the Revolutionary War,” “Black Norfolk and the Insurrection Panic,” “The Yellow-Fever Epidemic,” “Norfolk Under Union Occupation,” “Norfolk in World War I,” “The Great Depression,” and “Norfolk in World War II.”

In Four Centuries’ treatment of war and pestilence, with narrative, anecdote, and chaff as well as what’s standard, that of Norfolk’s occupation by Union forces during most of the Civil War may be unique. Where else is there an account of that dreary period written with black as well as white reception in mind? Titled “A Question of Insanity,” the occupation chapter centers upon the arrest, trial, and hanging of Dr. David M. Wright, an otherwise kindly physician who shot to death a white Federal lieutenant whose command of black troops enraged him. (Wertenbaker described the incident more tersely.)

A military court, rejecting Dr. Wright’s plea of insanity, found him guilty of murder. President Lincoln reviewed the case and upheld the verdict. “But Lincoln may not have appreciated the underlying issue,” the Parramore team writes. “For fourteen months Norfolk’s civil and military officials had been locked in conflict over who should rule the city, and inhabitants were caught brutally in the middle. Dr. Wright was a pawn of the struggle, but the wider ramifications included the continuing Union blockage of Norfolk—almost as if it was still a bastion of the Confederacy. Provisions were scarce and expensive for a teeming and mostly destitute population, streets were unlighted at night, filth abounded, pavement was broken, and Norfolk’s “lamentation visible at every turn and corner was nobody cares for me now.”“

If that is a tear for Dr. Wright, it is blinked away. For this “sorry state of affairs,” while owing “something to military incompetence and corruption,” owed more to “civilian leaders whose misplaced loyalties consigned Norfolk to at least three years of needless misery,” the history continues. The 10,000 slaves of the Norfolk military command, but briefly freed under an ambiguous Federal policy, suffered more than the white population from the stultifying blockade.

Surely Four Centuries is singular, in Southern histories at least, for its blessings upon the occupation commander, Major General Benjamin F. (Spoons/Beast) Butler.

General Butler’s reputation had preceded him to Norfolk, where in October 1863 he took control of the city as Federal commander of the Departments of Virginia and North Carolina. He had acquired his sobriquets the year before in New Orleans from a story that he stole the silverware at the house where he stayed and, more to his infamy, for his General Order No. 28 warning the “women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans” that if any of them continued to insult his officers and soldiers “she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”

H. W. Burton in his 1736—1877 history of Norfolk, fuming from memories of Butler’s outrages, promised that in an enlarged addition he would, presumably with his nerves under better control, call “particular attention to the events that transpired in this city while “Beast” Butler had command and persecuted our people.”

As unrestrained as any Butler critic was W. H. T. Squires, a Presbyterian minister of hyperactive pen. His Through the Years in Norfolk, a borough bicentennial book, has a Butler subordinate “and comrade of his own heart” leading two black regiments through Norfolk and Princess Anne counties on a rampage that “plundered every farm, burned every home and barn, drove off the livestock and left a desert. . .”

William Tazewell in Norfolk Waters, a tercentenary-inspired history, writes that when Butler returned to Norfolk in 1867, two years after the war, in connection with a deal to drain the Dismal Swamp, “an Irish hackman named Adams became a local hero by refusing the general a ride.” Butler soon departed.

Relying on the disgust of Virginia’s Union “governnor” in Alexandria, Francis H. Pierpont, Wertenbaker emphasizes that “the Butler regime was as corrupt as it was oppressive. No man could do business without a permit from the military authorities, and permits were distributed to those who offered the highest bribe.” A monopoly on liquor imports to Norfolk cost two Massachusetts dealers a particularly pretty penny. “Perhaps the most heartless act of Butler, “Wertenbaker writes, “was the seizure of the funds of the Howard Association, used to support children who had lost their parents in the yellow fever epidemic of 1855.”

Four Centuries, on the other hand, credits Butler with having been “an administrator of considerable energy, resourcefulness, and determination” who opened an Office of Commissioners for the Poor “with revenue from his new taxes and fees to provide necessities for over three thousand poor in Norfolk and Portsmouth.” Also, he established integrated schools operated by 30 teachers from the North and saw to it that black children attended them, although he “was unable to control graft and corruption among the horde of opportunists who descended on Norfolk . . . Nor is it proven that many of his remedies for poor relief, schools, and so on were fully or even substantially effective. . . .”

Yet, the Parramore team insists that business was invigorated and “Butler’s success can be measured by Norfolk’s recovery before the war ended.”


Four Centuries has 29 chapters. The 27th is subheaded “Norfolk and the Navy.” In the Norfolk-Navy partnership trading as the world’s premier naval base, Norfolk is “the dependent partner; it might not be able to survive without a conspicious naval presence, “observe City Hall’s historians. One is left to wonder, then, why they wait so long to tell how the union came about and blossomed and how thoroughly it affects Norfolk’s character. It would seem that the controlling partner, amounting from its beginning “to a whole new city on the south shore of Hampton Roads,” should be treated as seriously as its dependent.

World War I placed the Navy in Norfolk. Four Centuries caricatures the war’s outbreak in Chapter 20, titled “Kaiser Willi’s Boomtown.” There it devotes just one page to the naval base’s authorization and start in mid-1917, ignoring the political maneuvering that Senator Calude A. Swanson of Virginia, acting chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee, and the Virginia Congressional delegation applied to the project. Quickly it shifts to nostalgia like the arrival at Virginia Beach of the surf board; jams of jitneys, trolleys, trucks, and wagons on the streets; the war’s ramifications “in such phenomena as passage through town of 132,000 horses en route to France;” the spread of David Fender’s grocery store into a chain; the flow and ebb of Gin-Gera and its ginger-flavored sweetwater; such successful black businesses as Little Bay Beach and Brown’s Savings and Banking Co.; the interspersed cafes and shops operated by Greeks, Chinese, Italians, and Jews; women’s stirrings for the right to vote; watersupply problems and a pressing need for housing; new employment for blacks and women; the closure of dance halls because of the influenza epidemic; the Monticello Hotel fire; and that ubiquitous yet phantom sign, “Sailors and Dogs Keep Off the Grass.” The history returns to the Navy’s commitment to Norfolk for a single paragraph.


“The air-raid business became a cottage industry,” it is noted in the World War II chapter of the Parramore book, titled “Red Lights, Blackouts, and “Norfolk County Insurance.”” “Never mind that the enemy had about the same capacity to bomb Norfolk as to simonize San Antonio [;] scanning the skies over the Royster Building for Messerchmidts had about it an air of total immersion in the common cause, almost like arm-wrestling with Mussolini himself. By Tuesday evening [after the Sunday attack on Pearl Harbor], the army had ringed Norfolk with antiaircraft batteries. And just in time, new Chief Air Raid Warden Richard M. Marshall warning on the same day that this city may be attacked by German airplanes any night now. “People should not throw water on a bomb that fell into their homes—it will explode and probably kill you.” (Not to mention the need to conserve water.) On Thursday, two hundred people signed up as air-raid wardens.”

That mocking paragraph poorly complements these from Conscripted City: The Story of Norfolk in World War II, by Marvin W. Schlegel; civil defense in none of its phases was funny to Norfolk people in the opening months of the conflict:

Though no bombs fell, the war soon seemed to be moving right in on the city’s front doorsteps. As Hitler unleashed his U-boat pack to snap at America’s vital coastal supply lines in the middle of January [1942], four ships were torpedoed in six days. The fourth vessel went down off the Carolina coast early on January 18, carrying with it a Norfolk sailor. That night thirteen survivors were landed at the Naval Base, and six of them were taken to the Marine Hospital.

The next day a Latvian ship, one day out of Norfolk, was smashed by a German torpedo. By January 30 the Nazi wolf pack had claimed its fourteenth victim, the Rochester, sunk in a daylight attack off the Virginia coast. Day by day the submarines took their toll of the coastal shipping, while the Navy tried desperately to organize a counterattack. One U-boat commander boldly surfaced almost within sight of Cape Henry light to shell a helpless tug towing two coal barges to Boston.

Soon “the survivors were landed at the Naval Base” seemed to be almost a daily line in the papers. Several times Nazi torpedoes found their mark in passenger vessels, bringing in civilian survivors in numbers too large for the Base to handle. One April day the Red Cross took a call from the Navy to learn that care was needed for 133 submarine victims and hastily set up quarters wherever it could find vacant rooms. When a second call came on April 23 the Red Cross was better prepared. Even though the message from the Naval Intelligence routed officials out of bed at 4:30 AM, by 8:00 AM all the needed supplies had been collected, and by 1:45 PM the first survivors were being admitted to the temporary quarters established in the Brith Sholom Center where cots had been set up and food was being served. Thirteen seriously injured passengers were rushed to the hospital.

These testimonies of the nearness of the shooting war brought a sense of urgency to the people of Norfolk. The tempo of life speeded up as work went on, day in and day out. The new spirit brought a more enthusiastic response to the war drives.

As things were rough off the coast, so were they ashore—shortages of everything; expanding rationing and small-time racketeering; prostitution in the city’s shabbier hotels and the trailer parks springing up in Norfolk County; and the discontent of sailors and war workers. Schlegel covers that melancholy period in Conscripted City(and also in an updating of Wertenbaker extending through Norfolk’s redevelopment and school crisis) with a sympathy that shames the Parramore team.

Although the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” of 1807, in which an American frigate, having just cleared Norfolk poorly rigged for trouble, was battered by a trouble-seeking British man-o-war, rates a chapter heading in Four Centuries, there is no mention of Norfolk’s 1962 “Cuban Missile Crisis” connection. Yet the U.S. Navy’s blockade of Cuban ports to prohibit the spread of Soviet nuclear weaponry was managed by Admiral Robert L. Dennison, commander-in-chief of Atlantic Forces, from secret headquarters somewhere in the Norfolk naval zone, and implemented by Admiral Alfred G. Ward, commander of the Norfolk-based Second Fleet. Because of the operation’s sensitivity, it was without public announcement that 150 warships and auxiliaries would take station in Cuban waters. Thus motorists crossing Lynnhaven Bridge on October 20 were astonished to see two columns of fighting ships steaming seaward.

Just one sentence is meted to Norfolk’s NATO identity: “In 1952, when Supreme Allied Command Atlantic offices opened, Norfolk became headquarters for the first peacetime international navy.” Actually, the six-ship “navy” is taken; the all-forces command is weighty.


Four Centuries is as curious for what it includes as for what it neglects, particularly for its attention to the minutiae of life among the masses—social history, to be sure, but at the cost of orderly arrangement, chronological or thematic, of subjects like education; the many phases of transportation, from canals and railways to tunnels and airports and superhighways; Norfolk’s peculiar place in Virginia geography and politics, and among its neighbors; and how a seaport differs from every other community.

Although there is disesteem for Wertenbaker’s Historic Southern Port within the new history’s advisory panel, it is difficult to quarrel with his dictum that, contemporary history being “exceedingly difficult” to collect and to write with authority and without impropriety, concluding chapters of a work should be “inserted more as a sequel to the main body of the story, than an integral part of the history itself.” Closing chapters of Four Centuries would better suit a periodical or journal of limited currency than a tome for the ages. Predictably, some present and recent City Councilmen have been dismayed by implied questioning of their bold spending for future benefits.

A six-member subcommittee chose the author and researchers for the new history and, from all accounts, scrupulously oversaw their progress. Yet errors abound. Norfolk’s ablest popular-history writer counted 60. There must be others, and not all will be corrected, along with the flawed index, in a promised reprinting.

A history of this sort, commissioned for libraries and classrooms as well as the general public, ought to be authoritative to the last detail. It should have the flavor of the subject city. For instance:

This book should not have included such silliness as its suggestion that increased seaborne traffic in the 40’s and 50’s contributed to the death of 30 sailors in the swamping of an overloaded boat returning a liberty party to the aircraft carrier Kearsarge, at anchor in the harbor; or to the 146-death collision at sea, from human error, of the exercising carrier Wasp and destroyer-minesweeper Hobson.

It should have put the k in USS Merrimack, the warship named for the New Hampshire river Merrimack that became the CSS Virginia(although the collier USS Merrimac, named for the same river, was registered without the k). And it should have identified the commanding officer of the Virginia as Catesby ap R. Jones, Lieutenant, Commanding, rather than as a lieutenant commander, a rank not included in the Confederate Navy chain of command.

If that is nit-picking, no less than astonishing is the error that “Lincoln stayed long enough to ride through the streets of Norfolk” on the day he viewed, across the harbor at Craney Island, Merrimack’s wreckage. The fact is that although the president saw the surrendered city, he did not enter it.

And, by no means should Norfolk: The First Four Centuries have coined the simile, “like fishhawks above a trawler’s net”—the endangered fishhawk being, like its cousin the eagle, as lonely as a seagull in a chicken coop.


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