Residents recall Jim Crow era here

Published 1:48 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The discussion of whether Confederate monuments should stay or go continues, and a key argument for their removal has been based on the assertion by the Southern Poverty Law Center that many went up during the start of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras to assert the authority of southern whites over blacks.

The flurry of monument-raising occurred around those two periods of history, according to “Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

But fewer and fewer people alive today remember the Jim Crow laws in the south, which sprung up after Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 declared laws ordering mandatory segregation to be constitutional, and after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional. Many today probably do even not know where the name Jim Crow, which represented discrimination and segregation against blacks, came from.* {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Jim Crow era

In Smithfield, Jim Crow was quietly practiced, said several who were born immediately prior to or around the time of the Great Depression.

Former state Delegate William K. Barlow, former Smithfield Mayor James Chapman, former Isle of Wight Electoral Board member Edward Blount and his wife, Doris and Smithfield resident John Delk shared some memories of that time before the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964.

“There was a lot of things that went on, but it was quiet,” said Edward Blount, 91, of race relations during his childhood.

His father owned a country store and he often overheard gossip. Probably the biggest point of friction was the concern over interracial personal relationships, Blount said.

All agreed that it was quiet because blacks had their own areas of town — Wharf Hill and what is known as “Joe White’s Bottom,” mostly. Black businesses included establishments that served food and drink, barbershops, a funeral home, a clothing store and more. 

Most black residents simply did not challenge the status quo, said Delk, 88, whose father was a live-in butler for a wealthy Suffolk family, and whose mother worked a cookshop on Wharf Hill.

All have a few memories in common — of the drugstore that would only serve ice cream and sodas to black residents from the back of the store and of the movie theater where whites sat on the first floor while blacks entered from a side door and sat on the second floor.

“You would take that cone and you had to leave,” said Delk of the drugstore.

Blount said an uncle tried to buy a house in Morgart’s Beach and was threatened by whites with induction into the army, so he backed off.

If he had gone to another part of town, it wouldn’t have been a problem, Blount said.

On the flip side, Delk’s mother obtained their Riverview property by going down to the courthouse and paying the back taxes on a piece of foreclosed property. The entire family worked to clear the land of trees and build the house, he said.

Records kept at the courthouse during that time typically indicated whether someone was colored, a term used at the time.

The schools were segregated, with the Isle of Wight Training School for black high school-age youth and where Delk, Chapman and Blount attended. The Georgie Tyler School was added as a high school in the central part of the county in 1949.

White youth went to Smithfield High School, once located where the library is now.

Delk remembers walking to school — the training school was where Westside Elementary is now — and having to pass by the white high school.

The kids would call out racial slurs, he said.

Chapman, 91, said the white kids would throw stuff at him as they passed by on the school bus.

At the same time, though, he was often offered a ride by white folks when it was raining or bad weather.

Delk said the Isle of Wight Training School did not have a gym, an auditorium or a cafeteria, and indoor bathrooms did not appear until the late 1940s.

Delk said the white kids got out of high school about 30 minutes before black students, “so we wouldn’t meet on the street.”

He remembered that if a white person was walking down the street toward a black person, they would get off of the sidewalk out of fear.

“You know they had that in them. You had to put up with it,” Delk said.

Delk said there was no formal “black history” taught when he was in school.

It depended on the individual teacher, he said.

Meanwhile, one Virginia history textbook, published in 1950, related stories of what was supposed to have been an idyllic Virginia prior to the Civil War.

The book described “Mammy” as “a woman sitting on a nearby porch or in the shade of a tree and the youngest (white) baby slept on her lap or toddled round her knees” while other children played under her supervision.

Another chapter was devoted to Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was described as the South’s beloved leader.

In August, the proposed removal of a statue of Lee in Charlottesville reignited the debate over Confederate iconography, which hit a flash point in 2015 when nine members of a black church were murdered in South Carolina by a white supremacist wanting to start a race war.

As a child, Chapman said he was charged with overseeing a white child five years his junior and they often went to the white boy’s house where they spent time together. For that reason and others, Chapman felt a bit different.

“I was a different type of person. I didn’t run into it,” said Chapman generally of discrimination prior to the Civil Rights Act.

Delk said it wasn’t all bad. His sister owned Paradise Inn on Wharf Hill and on the second floor was the former Elks Lodge where parties were held.

“We had some good times in those days,” he said, laughing.

Delk also pointed out that there were many good white people who were not filled with hate.

“It was manifested by how they treated you,” he said.

Former state Delegate William K. Barlow, 81, graduated from Smithfield High School in 1954. While he does not recall the racial slurs hurled at passing black students, he does remember the schools being strictly segregated and the black and white students really not knowing much about each other.

“It was a time when we didn’t have many friendships across racial lines,” he said.

Barlow recalls a summer when his mother asked him to help with vacation Bible school at Little Zion Baptist Church, which had a black congregation but was located not far from his family farm.

Barlow remembers questioning his mother about why they had to do that and she said it was the right thing to do, he said.

So he went.

Barlow said that experience led him to have friendly acquaintances he would not normally have made.

Overall, however, there was little animosity because the two societies were so separate.

“There wasn’t that much contact,” Barlow said.

Doris Blount’s family moved to Philadelphia when she was in fourth grade in an attempt at a better life, she said.

Delk, who is Doris’ uncle, moved to New Jersey after he graduated high school in 1948. He was surprised to find that the same attitudes he grew up with in the south were up north too.

They were just better at hiding it, he said. 

When Delk came home for a visit, he heard stories. One was that blacks boycotted a local grocery store until they agreed to hire them, he said.

Jerry Tenney, 69, who taught at Smithfield High School for 36 years, remembers being a child in New Bern, N.C. and later in Los Angeles during the Watts riots in 1965.

The attitude among whites was that blacks were inferior somehow, he said, adding that during the Watts riots, they had a housekeeper who lived in the affected part of town.

No one in his family asked her about it, he said, adding that he found her phone number and called her to see how she was.

She was appreciative of the concern, Tenney said.

“People swim in racism, whether they are racists or not. It affects everyone’s behavior,” he said.

One reason Delk moved back home to Smithfield in the 1970s was due to a race riot in his New Jersey neighborhood in the 1950s. After that, the neighborhood deteriorated.

When Delk returned to Smithfield, the atmosphere was different.

By then, the Civil Rights Act was made law and Blount, along with a black woman, had been appointed to the county’s Electoral Board in 1964.

Blount served on that board for 32 years.

It would be another 11 years before a black person was elected to the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors. Henry Bradby was elected in 1975 and served for 30 years.


One of the more tense periods for race relations in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County came as a result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

Up until that decision, schools operated under the notion of “separate but equal” — a premise overturned by the Brown case, in which the Justices found segregation unconstitutional.

Shortly after that decision, meetings began being held in Isle of Wight concerning its schools. One meeting was held in the Isle of Wight Courthouse school auditorium in 1956 — a building that later became Isle of Wight Academy — on behalf of “state sovereignty and individual liberties,” according to an announcement put in The Smithfield Times at the time.

And in Virginia, some localities practiced what has since been called “Massive Resistance,” the wholesale closing of schools in an effort by whites to keep their children from attending school with black children. That move was also deemed unconstitutional.

It was in 1959 that talks began concerning the creation of Isle of Wight Academy, one of many so-called “segregation academies” that sprung up in Virginia during that time.

What followed next was called “Freedom of Choice,” from 1965-70, which meant black or white students could elect to attend each other’s school if they chose to do so.

There were numerous local newspapers stories written in the 1950s and 1960s as Isle of Wight grappled with changes to its longstanding culture of racial separation.

In 1950, blacks represented 52 percent of the county’s population, a number that swelled to nearly 55 percent in 1960. By 1970, it had begun to shrink, and was down to 49 percent.

By the 2010 census, white residents represent 72 percent of the population as compared to nearly 25 for blacks.

The Blounts’ three sons came of age during that time, and as elementary school children, attended the then all black Hardy Elementary School. When in high school, the two older boys initially resisted moving from Westside to Smithfield, but switched when the latter became fully integrated.

Isle of Wight Academy opened for its first school year in September 1967.

Barlow said he and his wife Taylor decided to keep their children in the public schools and did receive some criticism for doing so.

“For the most part, people made a decision, everyone made a decision and there was respect for that,” he said.

In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in again, declaring Freedom of Choice to be unacceptable.

Those that graduated in Smithfield’s first fully integrated class in 1972 remember that it was a rather quiet transition.

Larry Pleasant, who is black, was named class president, twice. He was also in the band, the Science Club, Beta Club, Spanish Club and Student Senate.

It worked itself out, said Pleasant in a 2012 story in The Smithfield Times about the 40th reunion of his graduating class.

The Blounts remember that there were fewer problems here during integration than in Newport News and Hampton.

“If there was any bad feelings, they kept them to themselves,” said Edward.

“People didn’t want to get too far in left field with it.”

Doris was relieved there was no fighting or violence, such as that had occurred in other localities.

Confederate statues

When it comes to Isle of Wight County’s Confederate statue, located in front of the historic portion of the courthouse complex, Edward Blount, Delk and Chapman have differing views.

Delk thinks the statue should be taken down.

“Get rid of them. Put them in a museum. They’re still fighting the Civil War,” he said.

Edward Blount was unaware of the statue until someone pointed it out to him.

What gives him pause is when he sees a Confederate flag.

That flag makes Blount worry about being harmed.

Chapman doesn’t really have an opinion other than it’s a statue. He is unsure of what needs to be done about lingering monuments to the Confederacy.

“I don’t know. I’d have to think about it,” he said.

Despite the current controversy, Tenney said if there is cause for optimism, it’s with the youth.

While there are still regressive elements, high schoolers are more open-minded than they used to be, more tolerant and more aware of diversity — from race to homosexuality, he said.


*Who was Jim Crow?

The name Jim Crow comes from a white actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who performed in the theater in the 1830s in the north and painted his face black. Rice did a song and dance he claimed was based on a slave he saw. The act was called “Jump, Jim Crow” or “Jumping Jim Crow.” It demeaned blacks, and from that, Jim Crow became a shorthand way for describing black people in the United States, according to National Geographic.