On Sunday, Feb. 9, 1975, the Daily Press published a full page of local black history called "Their Past Catching Up With Their Present." The page also included a listing of six famous black heritage people, and an information box featuring African words, the corresponding "Afro American" word and the meaning of each.
The images that ran on that page are no longer available. I searched for them in the archive photo files in the newspaper's library. I did, however, come across two compelling images, both of them from what is now the city of Hampton.
A few weeks ago when we began this year's Black History Month series, "Lincoln's Black Legion" about black troops in the Civil War, I received a call from an 82-year-old reader in Hampton.
Lillie Mae Jones wanted to know why the newspaper was so focused on the contraband of war, the slaves who made their way to Fort Monroe where under decree of Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, they were declared contraband of war.
"We need to let young people know that history is all the way until now," she said.
"Lincoln's Black Legion," written by staff writer Mark St. John Erickson has taken a look this month at the United States Colored Troops, those soldiers and former slaves who were given uniforms and arms and pay and dignity as members of the Union Army. That we are in the middle of a years-long observance of the Civil War at 150, taking a look at this little-reported aspect of the war was the perfect project for Black History Month. The details in some of the stories have been harsh. But the times were harsh, for blacks and for whites, for the Union troops as well as the Confederates. But that history took place here and the stories needed to be told.
Mrs. Jones asked me why we didn't do Hampton's other history, the history of achievement of black residents through the years. As proof that it existed and that the Daily Press actually reported it, she referred to that Sunday, Feb. 9, 1975, page of black history. She was so moved by it, she said, that she had the page laminated and it hangs in her Phoebus home.
Our librarian, Susan Connor, was able to pull a copy of that page from our microfilm files. Its resolution is too poor and too small for reproduction, but we could read it. And the reading was interesting.
Written by Ellen Betts Rowe, the page consisted of facts from "research into black history of the Peninsula" done by the Hampton Association for Arts and Humanities, the Hampton Bicentennial Committee, Hampton Institute, the Newport News Bicentennial Committee "and various interested citizens."
The following are some of those facts gleaned by that 1970s research and reported by Rowe:
•"The first black baby born in English-speaking America was christened in a church in Kecoughtan, Elizabeth City County, which later grew into Hampton."
•"Hampton has the oldest continuous black population of any town in the United States."
•"Many blacks from this area helped fight the British during the American Revolution."
•"One Negro who played a role in the American Revolution was Joseph Ranger, a free black born in Northumberland County. Hampton claims Ranger as part of its history because he owned land in the town at the end of the Revolutionary War.
"Ranger joined the Virginia Navy as a seaman and fought the British alongside white Americans until he was taken prisoner when the British attacked the Navy in 1781. He survived and received a land bounty warrant in the 1830s which gave him property in the West."
• "Another black who played a significant part in the Revolution was Joseph Harris, a mulatto slave who belonged to Henry King. King was a merchant and owned the Red Store, now Wyatt Brothers.
"Harris chose to join ranks with the British instead of fighting with Americans. He was accused of giving information to the British and helping British boats navigate tricky waters near here. ... No one knows what happened to Joseph Harris after the battle of Hampton."
• "James Bailey became a very prominent citizen and at one time owned four houses as well as a prosperous hauling business. He later sold the city the site for First Baptist Church, the oldest black church in the community."
• "Newport News has also lost a number of black landmarks to urban renewal ... . Although the city does not have a history that dates as far back as Hampton, Newport News, which began in the 1880s, has been the home of many prominent blacks. Among them was N.B. Clark, the first black school principal and a well-known educator. His home on Madison Avenue has been torn down."
• "Many descendants of outstanding black citizens still live in Hampton. One family with a history that reaches far into the past is that of Inez Fields Scott, one of the first black women to receive a law degree from Boston University.
"Mrs. Scott's father, George Washington Fields, was born a slave in Hanover County. During the Civil War, he managed to escape with his mother and brothers and sisters, and was protected by Union soldiers. He came down the York River on a chain of barges full of other slaves seeking refuge at Fort Monroe.
"George Washington Fields later became the first black to receive a law degree from Cornell University and he served the city of Hampton and Elizabeth County for many years."
• "Another outstanding name in Hampton is the Bassette family whose ancestors have lived in the area since before the Civil War.
"The Bassettes still live in a house built by the family during the 1880s."
The information that Mrs. Jones preserved all these years has its roots in the wars that have played out on the soil we walk today. History's archives have many stories to tell. Sharing them lets us all respect and remember that which set the foundation for the living history we now make.
Felicia L. Mason can be reached at 757-247-4621.