Invisible History: Walking Tour of African American Sites in Cape Charles,Virginia,

A Community Service Project of the CC Rotary Club with a Grant Support from The Virginia Humanities and the Frances Bibbins Latimer Fund  

by Metty Pellicer

While Cape Charles has a walking tour brochure about the town’s Victorian architecture and historic sites there is hardly any mention of the African American sites that existed since its founding and thrived during its golden era. I became aware of this gap in the historical information after a chance meeting with Tom Godwin at the Palace Theater at the event celebrating the Library’s Centennial in May 2019. As one of the Story Tellers, he spoke about his experiences of Cape Charles back in the day. I learned of Tom Godwin’s wish to write his memoir as he was celebrating his 82nd birthday that year, but he didn’t know how. I offered to write it and Tom Godwin’s memoir, as told to and written by Metty Pellicer was published in October, 2020; Invisible History: Growing up Colored in Cape Charles, Virginia.

In February, 2021 The CC Rotary Club approved the project I had proposed. It would uncover the missing history of African Americans in Cape Charles and make it available to the public by creating a walking tour of significant African American sites and detailing the stories of individuals associated with each. I chaired a 10-member committee composed of Rotary members, volunteers or invited; Tom Godwin, Reggie Widgeon, Stan Plowden, Diane Dawson, Paul Strong, Bill Murphy, Jim Ritch, Joan Natali, Bill Payne and Walter Childs. It set out to identify the sites and having discovered no written accounts, it embarked on gathering information through interviews of current and former residents and their descendants. We have thus compiled their stories, pictures, and artifacts, as oral histories, incorporating them in this historic walking tour of the African American sites and the people associated with them. 

The tour will tell the story of the African American community in Cape Charles so that those who lived here will be remembered and their accomplishments acknowledged. Examining this past and bringing to light this historical invisibility will create awareness of the contributions of African Americans to the town’s development and progress. Their descendants will benefit from knowing about this community of educators, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists, spiritual, and community leaders, authors, and much more, who paved the way for their success. Making this history available to the public will contribute to the expansion of knowledge about Cape Charles and set a precedent for future historical accounts to include the African American community in its narrative. The tour will be a catalyst for discussion that should foster a better understanding of cultural differences and similarities and will contribute to the realization of a society that fulfills the promise of the nation’s founding, a society of equals in every aspect of human endeavor. 

A subcommittee was formed headed by Dianne Dawson. It was tasked to develop a training workshop for members on conducting oral history interviews. Considerable amount of volunteer time was spent conducting these interviews in order to gather sufficient information for the historical record. The next step was to make this information available to the public in the form of a web-based self-guided walking tour of all these sites.

 I was volunteering as a docent with the Cape Charles Museum and came across Melinda McPeek’s Clio walking tour of the Museum outer exhibits and reached out to her to help us with the project. She was an enthusiastic partner who contributed valuable advice and expertise. We needed a consultant to undertake this part of the project for which we needed funds. With her help we applied for a grant with Virginia Humanities and obtained funding of $ 9800 in May 2022. This fund enabled us to hire a consultant to complete the project. We engaged Allison Blakeman, who was completing her graduate studies at the Salisbury University in MD and had just completed a Clio project for her studies, a walking tour of African American sites in Salisbury MD

We collaborated with the community by inviting residents to be members of an Advisory Board. The Board members are Richard Press, Chair, an artist who grew up in Cheriton and Cape Charles and who was also an interviewee of the project, and the members Dr. Paul Bibbins, educator, Apostle Irvin Jackson, who leads several Mt. Sinai Gospel Tabernacle churches on the eastern shore, Mr. Alvy Powell, an opera singer who sang for several Presidents, Professor Walter Gholson, Mrs. Juanita Brickhouse Godwin, a Minister and retired Educator, Ms Tevya Griffin, who initiated the Cape Charles Elementary School Restoration Project, and Ms. Odelle Collins, community organizer and educator who was a member of the CBBT Commission, and led the Alumni Association of Northampton County High School for many years. 

We envisioned the board to carry the project to its completion and gradually take over its management from the Rotary Club. The Board could initiate other projects, such as encourage African Americans to open a business or restaurant on Mason Avenue, or revive events like the May Day celebration so loved by everyone who went to Cape Charles Elementary School, or to restore the Greenleaf Tavern and Mitchell Store as a gathering place to help make visible the African Community in Cape Charles, and other initiatives, to ensure that African Americans will become part of the new story of the town. With expanded knowledge by the public about the  contributions of this group to the town’s development and continuing progress, solutions will be found towards achieving social justice and in easing racial conflicts.

At this POINT we are exploring partnership and support from our community, such as the Cape Charles Museum and Historical Society, the Northampton Historical Society, the Cape Charles Memorial Library, the Eastern Shore Public Library, Cape Charles Main Street, the Cape Charles Town Council, the Municipal Government, and the various Eastern Shore School Boards, among the many community organizations who might mutually benefit from this effort. We will seek to publish this project to area newspapers and other publications, to social media, internet sites, through area rental properties sites, through rack cards/brochures distributed at visitor welcome centers, to community groups, to churches, and other outlets. This effort will inform the public visiting Cape Charles for the season opening on Memorial Day in May, 2023. 

The Invisible History Committee will hold a formal launch of its Walking Tour: History of African Americans in Cape Charles, with a program at the Historic Palace Theater, on Sunday, May 28th at 2-6 pm, with invited dignitaries and a celebration party after.