Hidden History - Lessons Overlooked




Virginia has an amazing number of unknown historical events

Lessons Overlooked

A few Hampton Roads “firsts” your history teacher didn’t tell you about

By Ben Swenson

We’re number one” is more than hyperbole in Hampton Roads.

Really, we were first—are first—in a number of ways that helped shape the character and direction of this land. That’s why hordes of pig-tailed third graders from miles around descend on the region's historic and cultural sites, taking home from their field trips a couple quirky historical facts to accompany the gift shop feathers that adorn their hair.

But history lessons sometimes fall short. Not that local educators (myself included) are intentionally misleading their charges—it’s just that legend sometimes eclipses truth. Here are four “firsts” in Hampton Roads that your history teacher, for whatever reason, likely overlooked.

Settling These Shores
Hampton Roads has always been hot real estate, and the water is the dealmaker. Explorers knew from early on that local bays, creeks and sounds provided safe harbor from those obnoxious hurricanes, not to mention that any number of these waterways might have been the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. This is why, when Englishmen established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown in 1607, colonization had been attempted at least twice before in greater Hampton Roads. You’ve likely heard of the Lost Colony, the ill-fated attempt by English men and women to start a colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina in 1585, a venture that ended with all 117 colonists’ mysterious disappearance.

Less well known, however, is a small mission that Spanish Jesuits established near present-day Yorktown in 1570, opening a saga that involves kidnapping, lies, deceit and ultimately the violent demise of this ill-fated outpost.

The Reason for the Season
Thanksgiving often conjures gradeschool notions of happy Pilgrims and Indians dining together on the bounty of a rich harvest during a crisp Massachusetts autumn. Admittedly, there’s a sense of warm nostalgia about that tale. In fact, however, an American Thanksgiving occurred on the James River nearly two years before New England’s stiff Puritans hung up their blunderbusses to feast with Native Americans. In December 1619, a full year before the Pilgrims even arrived in the New World, 38 men landed at what’s now Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County. Under the direction of Captain John Woodlief, the crew, grateful that on their harrowing trans Atlantic journey they hadn'’t ended up as fish food, knelt on solid ground and gave thanks to God, a tradition repeated annually thereafter.

There were no turkeys, yams or silly construction paper hats. All those would come later. This was a group of men who established the simple essence of a now-renowned holiday—giving thanks for life's blessings.

A Dry Head Start
It was a teetotaler’s dream and an alcoholic’s nightmare —nearly 14 years when a drinking man couldn't legally indulge in the United States. On the day in 1920 that Prohibition became the law of the land, supporters held a mock funeral for “John Barley corn” in downtown Norfolk.

Despite all the fuss and fanfare, however, Prohibition was nothing new in our corner of the world. Indeed, intoxicating liquors had been illegal in Virginia since 1916—. That did not stop it from having it's share of speakeasies, rum running and illegal stills. Maryland’s lax enforcement along with the hiding places afforded by the Chesapeake Bay guaranteed that Virginia’s prohibition on alcohol was that in name only.

Sitting for Justice
Rosa Parks’ refusal to move for white patrons on a city bus paved the way for desegregation throughout much of the United States. Nonetheless, she wasn’'t the first African American to take a stand, or in this case a seat, against injustice; several others preceded her. In 1944, 11 years before Parks' arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Irene Morgan, a Baltimore resident visiting her mother in Gloucester, struck a blow for civil rights. Morgan boarded an interstate bus in Gloucester for a return trip to her home in Baltimore. When the bus got crowded, the driver asked Morgan to move. Not only did she not move, but when a sheriff’s deputy boarded the bus to arrest Morgan in Saluda, she tore up the warrant and kicked him in the groin, which made him, in her words, turn “blue and purple and all colors.”

Morgan’s arrest attracted the attention of some heavy hitting attorneys—,among them Thurgood Marshall who took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, commanding that, on interstate transportation, folks of all types and stripes could sit anywhere they please.