The Invisible History of African-Americans In Cape Charles, Virginia


In examining the historical account of Cape Charles, we became aware of the absence of reference to the vibrant and separate parallel community of African Americans that evolved during the Jim Crow era since the town’s founding in 1884. It is the aim of this project to uncover this invisible history through oral history interviews and make it available to the public by this historical walking tour of African American sites and the people associated with them. Through this tour we hope to tell the complete and full story of African American life for subsequent generations to know so that those who have lived here may be remembered and their presence, acknowledged. We hope to examine how this community contributed to the towns’development and progress and to shed light into what is relevant in understanding the past and to reflect on the significance of this historical invisibility in the present reality of African American life in Cape Charles specifically and to the larger community in general.

Back Story

If you are new to Cape Charles and visiting for the first time, you might be curious about how the town evolved and would look up its history and you will discover that there is no reference to the presence of the African American community in the historical account of Cape Charles. You will read that it was built as the southern terminus of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad, the realization of an audacious vision of two well-connected gentlemen, William L. Scott the “Coal King”, a congressman from Erie Pennsylvania, who in 1883 built the city from scratch after purchasing 2501 acres from the plantation of former Virginia governor Littleton Tazewell. You would have to research to know that Tazewell owned 109 slaves, and that he owned the biggest plantation in Northampton County. Scott built a horse racing venue in his estate named Hollywood and farmed the rest of the land that he purchased and operated the biggest truck farm in the area that shipped produce in the trains to markets all over the Eastern seaboard. This horse racing and farm operation would require many hands to run but we have no account of the people who worked to maintain this enterprise. They are part of the invisible history of the founding of this town. 

Scott’s partner in this venture was Alexander Cassatt, an engineer. Born to privilege in Pittsburgh, Pa., he dredged the harbor and designed the steel floats that could carry up to eighteen freight cars across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk and laid the railroad tracks that connected the new city to the Maryland border. When the “rails ended on the water” in 1884, trains from the North pulled up directly on to the steel barges to complete their journey to Norfolk, and to all points South thereafter. 

This was in 1884, nineteen years after the civil war that abolished slavery and seven years after the end of Reconstruction, a period that saw African Americans gain freedom, and lose them again by the passage of Jim Crow laws that was intended to disenfranchise them and to keep them subjugated and restore white supremacy. By the time Cape Charles was incorporated as a city on March 1, 1886, Jim Crow laws and separate but equal doctrine laws controlled the lives of African Americans everywhere in the USA. 

Many African Americans who heard about the new city by word of mouth, traveled from the farms where they were working as sharecroppers after emancipation, to try their fortunes by working for the railroad, as laborers, and service providers like cleaning and cooking and serving, and in whatever way they could be creative in earning a living. 

In 1884 the new city had already a tavern, boarding house, residences for white railroad employees known as Cassatt row, a newspaper and a grocery store owned by Taylor Daniel Jefferson, an African American, the first grocery store in Cape Charles, and the following year Albert Morris opened his barbershop in a shanty built on railroad property and constructed out of materials he found in the railroad yard, such as car doors, cardboard, and scrap lumber and what not. The massive project provided employment and attracted many from the surrounding areas to move to Cape Charles. Many of the African Americans had parents who were enslaved, who did not have education, but managed to earn a place in their community, which grew rapidly as the railroad and harbor ferry operation needed many laborers to haul the farm produce and seafood catch from the Eastern Shore to their markets in the North. African American workers worked side by side with their White counterparts but earned less and did most of the work. Many still could remember the violence of lynching and pursuit by slave patrols and witnessed floggings and loved ones being sold and enduring separations from families. They have learned to comply without protest and felt grateful for whatever the white establishment allowed them to have.

Cape Charles like all places in the south observed segregation, and since white owned establishments do not serve African Americans, the latter developed a parallel establishment to serve their own. These ranged from churches, to civic organizations and fraternity organizations, to businesses that cater to every need identified, such as beauty salons, barbershops, taxi service, car dealership, funeral parlor, builders and cement contractor, apartments and boarding houses, restaurants, convenience stores, grocery, speakeasies, taverns, movie theater, dance halls, schools, music teachers, art shops, flower shops, service providers such as laundry and home health care, not to mention businesses that are run from the home such as food catering and sewing and repair, child care, chair caning, etc. Cape Charles had a vibrant business and entertainment section that is referred to as Jersey by the locals, and the street is filled with patrons having a good time on weekends. Children were prohibited from going to the establishments on Front Street, now Mason Avenue without an adult accompanying them. Until Children grow up to attend High School in the County they were insulated from the daily indignities of segregation and grew up relatively happy and without feeling any deprivation since their parents provided for their needs. Shortly after Cape Charles opened a school for white children the African American community established their own, first in a house on Washington Ave and later on in the St Stephen’s AME church and later at the Cape Charles Elementary School, a Rosenwald school, which was built in 1928 and opened classes in Grade 1-7 in 1930-1966.

On the surface Cape Charles then may appear as inclusive since a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue co-existed with the region’s predominant Baptist church and congregation mixed in these churches, but if you were an African American you will endure daily humiliations intended to make you feel unworthy and inconsequential as detailed in the oral histories provided by elders who graciously accepted the Rotary Club’s invitation for an interview. 

Nobody talks about it now but there were signs all over town about separate public facilities marked Colored and Whites, and African Americans were not served in restaurants or soda fountains, they can’t book hotel rooms, and they must sit in the back of the bus or give up their place in any queue for a white person. They could deposit money in the bank but they could not obtain a loan with equal credentials as a white man, unless a white man sponsors them and guarantees their credit worthiness. They could not charge a fair price for their labor and would have to accept the low price paid for equal work with a white man for protesting would be futile, even the courts are stacked against them if they litigate for the judge and jury are white, and most would have the same attitude and beliefs about African Americans that had been programmed into their system since birth, that African Americans are inherently inferior to the white man and must accept the white man’s rule in governing them. In the bulk of these oral histories we find stories of families who are close knit and enjoy the life they can provide to their children who grow up with kindness and lack of hatred for the perpetrators of cruel injustice experienced by their parents, but have been influenced by their experience and had modeled or subtly transmitted to their children, our historians, their survival mechanism of bearing up this injustice, by minimizing their impact, or by their denial that they were affected by it, or by avoidance or isolation or disengagement. 

We must reflect on this in order to understand why the African Americans of Cape Charles were made invisible in the past, and to prevent continuing invisibility. We hope that with the stories of people who lived here we could preserve their memory for future generations to reflect that their lives mattered and that they were human beings who were citizens of this country and deserve equal respect, and rights that are the privilege of all citizens.

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Metty Pellicer

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