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Seeking to Undo Jim Crow

ISSUE:  Spring 1992
In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. By Earl Lewis. California. $34.95.

When, not so very long ago, a black patriarch died in the Eastern North Carolina town of Tarboro, his body was shipped by train to Norfolk, prayed over and eulogized there, and next day returned for burial in his family plot. His postmortem travel was a matter of convenience and economy for the multitude of his kin and homefolks who had migrated to the Virginia port city.

In that period the black owner-driver of a small taxi company in Norfolk sent his two sons each summer to work on their grandfather’s farm in Brunswick County, in the Virginia Southside, so as to profit, as he was satisfied he had, from pure air and country manners.

And a white member of a Norfolk interracial committee was distressed that he could not get along with a black counterpart, a labor-union agent from Boston, until he rationalized that it was the man’s Yankeeness, not anything to do with the color of his skin, that turned him off. . . .

Of such was the composition of Norfolk’s large black community during the 30 years, until 1980, that I lived there. It could have changed little: families and individuals who had departed, or traced their roots to, rural Carolina and Virginia and urban centers in much of the East. As early as 1920 they numbered 43,392. Shipbuilding and shipping, especially during the two World Wars, and service jobs attracted them. Until Norfolk redevelopment messed them up they lived and did business, for the most part, in a district flaring off Church Street, a thoroughfare that might have passed for, without its greater length and commerce, the protagonist of Eric Lincoln’s novel The Avenue, Clayton City.

Municipal and landlord neglect characterized the community as much as the jumble of its tenements, the blocks of its stores, cafes, beer joints, movie houses, barber shops, and pool halls, and its sad schools and impressive churches.

Blacks began to collect in Norfolk during the Civil War, when Federal troops occupied the city, and in the years just afterward as former slaves sought to settle themselves. It is to this period that Earl Lewis, a Norfolk native who directs the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in this oddly titled book traces his people’s struggle for civil rights. They battled on two fronts that tended to cross, he shows: the workplace, where for decades they were, despite being workers, “locked out of the working class” as racial ethnics; and the home sphere, which he defines as “the community, the streets, the neighborhood; it was one’s church, friends and relatives; it was a shared culture and shared expectations; it was what one sought to improve, because it was a place worthy of improvement.”

If blacks became overly zealous toward bettering their lot on one front, they risked worsening it on the other. Better-job agitators, for example, couldn’t expect a sympathetic ear at City Hall if they petitioned it for decent streets, sewerage extensions, and a dearly wished-for bathing beach in a land of estuaries, bay, and ocean. Meanwhile, blacks had to hide their divisions in order to present themselves to the “white understanding” as a bloc, voting or not, entitled to political rewards.


Even so, a couple of individuals with minor grievances and then the black Norfolk Teachers Association (NTA) with a major one went into court for relief, which enabled their community “to take the next journey, one that more fully combined advancement in the workplace and the home sphere.” Professor Lewis’s account of Black and then Alston v. School Board is at some variance with one by Lewis Suggs in his 1988 biography of P.B. Young, publisher of the influential black weekly Norfolk Journal and Guide and first among his community’s conservative leaders. Between them they offer an engaging account of the 1939—40 proceedings, verdict, and extrajudicial finaglings, and of the role of Thurgood Marshall, the now retired Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here is the gist of it:

Black teachers in Norfolk were paid only 56. 6 to 72. 1 percent of the salaries of white teachers in the same categories. NTA’s parent organization, the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA), prodded as well as supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sponsored a challenge to the policy of discrimination. It was the first such court test in the state, although in 1930 black teachers in Buchanan County had petitioned Governor John Garland Pollard for salary fairness without effect—except the dismissal of the teacher who led the movement. Aline E. Black, a young high school teacher in Norfolk, was prophetically conscious of the risk when she lent her name as plaintiff in the VTA case. And Marshall, newly promoted from assistant to special counsel for the NAACP, knew exactly what he faced when he entered the courtroom on July 1, 1939.

As chief attorney for the plaintiff, he argued to Virginia Circuit Court Judge Allan R. Hanckel that the city’s undeniable right to fix teacher pay did not extend to it “the discretion to violate” Virginia’s Constitution and laws and the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection guarantees. Norfolk City Attorney Alfred Anderson countered that Miss Black, having voluntarily signed a salary-setting contract and performed duties under its terms, had no legal complaint.

Marshall lost his case. And Miss Black lost her job. The suit bearing her name by then was on appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court. Marshall withdrew it, persuaded that the plaintiff no longer had standing.

Finding a substitute for the unhappy Miss Black proved difficult. Morale among her colleagues sagged and community tension did not lift it. At length Melvin O. Alston, president of the NTA, agreed to take her place under a good many stipulations. This time Marshall found his way into Federal court.

U. S. District Court Judge Luther B. Way heard essentially the arguments made in state court. On Feb. 12, 1940, he ruled in effect what the state court had.

Right on the national NAACP’s schedule and amid doubts of its Norfolk chapter, which for 23 years had been stumbling without gaining a foothold, Marshall appealed to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It assigned the case to a three-judge panel composed of John J. Parker of North Carolina, Armistead M. Dobie of Virginia, and Morris A. Soaper of Maryland. In a June 18 opinion written by Judge Parker, who 10 years earlier had been denied confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court by the U.S. Senate in response to objections by the NAACP and organized labor, the appellate court overruled Judge Way and remanded the case to his court with instructions forbidding teacher-pay differences based on race.

City Attorney Anderson by direction of the City Council took the case to the Supreme Court, which on October 28 declined to review it. With its hand thus weakened, City Hall agreed to do what at earlier trial stages it had refused—to dicker with the plaintiffs’ more cautious allies.

Publisher Young had an idea. He bulldozed the teachers into agreeing to accept salary increases in stages over three years if City Hall would build the black community a much-needed new elementary school. Thurgood Marshall was furious. In a memo to NAACP headquarters he wrote:

The case was filed for two purposes: (1) to get a court precedent and (2) to bolster the courage of Negro teachers. We obtained this but the “leaders” built up the courage of teachers to file the suit but destroyed it during the last month by encouraging them to accept whatever the City might see fit to offer. The effect of this on other teachers and Negroes in general will be to set us back 75 years.

Black power brokers such as Young, Mr. Lewis indicates, were less interested in NAACP courtroom points and stiffer teacher backbones than in “immediate and tangible results; theirs was the world of civility and racial accord.” Promise of a new elementary school at the sacrifice of teachers “was a development for the home sphere.”

(Professor Suggs, who teaches history at Clemson University and whose Young biography had not appeared when the Lewis book was completed, reviews the teacher suit’s ending in less elegant terms. There were no immediate results, he says; the City delayed the elementary school for more than five years. And while Young no doubt sought racial accord, he breached civility on at least two occasions in dealing with Thurgood Marshall; they called each other liars and worse. Marshall observed that Young’s face, normally about the color of old ivory, in anger turned a flaming red.)


Black teachers were among a working elite, in a class with postal employees and, after 1945, policemen. Along with domestics, these persons were not candidates for the workplace status denied to black craftsmen and laborers.

Those who were began to move ahead at about the time of the Depression’s beginning. In a 12-year span of three periods (1929—35,1935—37, and 1937—41) that was notable for black acceptance of New Deal reform over revolution, plus the arrival of interracial labor unions, Afro-Americans managed to establish themselves as “workers at work and blacks at home.” Collectively, the author says, the three phases led to a “restructuring of social relations. Signaling a new view of what was possible, working-class blacks and whites began to question their allegiance to perspectives that validated racial differences at work,” freeing blacks to pursue without guise their home-sphere needs and interests.

Principal influences in black-worker advancement, Mr. Lewis summarizes, were 1) the Committee (now Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO), whose powerful waterfront unit, the International Longshoremen Association (ILA), blacks had dominated from the start; 2) a long history of assaying situations and formulating strategies; and 3) the Communist Party.


With the 1931 departure of the United States Fleet from its Hampton Roads home port for the West Coast as a warning to Japan for seizing Manchuria, the Great Depression hit rock bottom in Norfolk. To blacks it had been there for two years. And in that time they had been listening with great interest to an influx of Communist activists calling, in Professor Lewis’s words, for “a shift in social discourse.” He continues: “Even the most conservative leaders applauded the Communists for their willingness to challenge the government and working-class whites on behalf of blacks.” Up until the close of the black community’s third stage of progress and the eve of World War II, “Communists still spoke in black churches; they continued to promulgate their message whenever and wherever possible. But when the [economic] crisis ended, so did their influence.”

Professor Lewis presents an absorbing review and analysis of the Communist rise and decline in Norfolk, a phenomenon barely remembered—or, what is more likely, almost scrubbed from history. The city’s conventional press, he notes, “initially gave scant coverage to Communist activities among blacks.” Nor did The Virginian-Pilot and old Ledger-Dispatch ever sum up what the Communist recruiters were about or gauge their impact. Meanwhile, the Journal and Guide consistently reported and commented on Communist-led work stoppages, hunger marches, eviction protests, and street rallies, as well as open meetings in four black churches. Agitators ranged from Stephen Graham (né Grohavac), a pure Marxist not much concerned with meat and bread whose enthusiasm on occasion got him arrested by Norfolk and Portsmouth police for “inciting a race riot,” to Alexander Wright, a brown-skinned man of uncertain address with a country preacher’s ways and a considerable understanding of Southern blacks’ priorities. Featured speakers included James Ford, Communist candidate for Vice President of the U.S., and Harry Wicks, Communist candidate for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. Ford drew whites as well as blacks to the City Auditorium, where they defied a Norfolk ordinance by sitting together. Military intelligence investigator’s “described Norfolk as “the most sensitive” spot in the entire Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions” to Communist influences.

Yet the movement was probably doomed all along. “The inability of Wright and the others to fuse the struggle of the workplace and the home sphere brought it down,” Mr. Lewis writes. “. . . In spite of the concerns of government intelligence agencies, the threat never was as great as perceived.” Faithful to their history, Norfolk blacks would not allow an issue as explosive as communism to divide and discredit their community in the eyes of the white majority.


In contrast to the emphasis the author places on the 1939—40 suit by Norfolk black teachers for salary parity, he glosses over the more recent and more publicized (and less compromised) action by their community for educational equality—its 1958 triumph in Judge Walter G. Hoffman’s U. S. District Court over Virginia’s massive-resistance laws. But then, events flowing from the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision overturning the separate-but-equal doctrine occurred after the period of this study’s thrust; also, except for the intense preparation of 17 black pupils for entering formerly all-white classrooms and their peaceful reception there, segregation’s final collapse was hardly a local topic.

But to observe that is not to indicate that Professor Lewis believes the four-generation march of Norfolk blacks toward full citizenship has reached its goal or that their future is apart from national processes. The undoing of Jim Crow, he reflects, “in a number of ways has been an easier task than realigning the equal-opportunities structure and the culture of expectations.” He leaves this message:

We are still positioned today at a historical crossroads, searching for new strategies. What remains constant is a desire to share power in a plural society and the need for Afro-Americans to balance their interests at work and home. Until this is done, and unless economic achievements follow the notable political advancements, we jeopardize the longevity of hard-won gains.


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