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From slavery to space travel
Black history, heritage abundant in Hampton
By Judy Colbert
With blacks making up nearly half its population, Hampton, Va., offers as authentic a setting as any for a Black History Month trip through the past.
And not just in terms of the demographics. From its numerous water attractions to its museums and dozens of family-owned restaurants, everything has a casual feel to it. And it only takes about four hours to reach by car.
The Hampton History Museum and visitor center (120 Old Hampton Lane; 757-727-1102; www.visithampton.com.) is a great place to start a heritage trip. If you don't have it already, pick up the Family Tree brochure that includes information about black heritage sites throughout the area. A walk through the galleries will take you from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 through the antebellum period, the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond.
A Hampton Day Pass, available for $31 for adults and $21 for children from April through October, includes admission to the history museum, the Virginia Air & Space Center, the Riverside IMAX Theater, the Hampton Carousel, the Miss Hampton II Harbor Tour and the Bass Pro Shops rock-climbing wall. It's less expensive the rest of the year, when the boat and carousel aren't operating.
A visit to the Hampton University Museum (11 Frissell Ave.; 757-727-5308; www.hamptonu.edu/museum) is essential and can take as little as an hour or as long as a week. Many consider it to be the oldest black museum in the country, and it has an extensive and delightful collection of artworks and artifacts.
Fort Monroe's historic impact is related in the Casemate Museum (Casemate 20, Bernard Road, Fort Monroe; 757-788-3391; www.tradoc.army/mil/museum). This is the place where runaway slaves were accepted, then employed, housed and educated. Prior to your arrival, schedule a viewing of a black history film, then see the Chapel of the Centurion, Lt. Robert E. Lee's living quarters, the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for treason following the Civil War, the Flag Bastion atop the fort walls, and Old Quarters Number One, the oldest building on post and the quarters where Abraham Lincoln stayed when he visited. You do need photo identification to enter Fort Monroe.
Five churches present a view of religious training and observances throughout Hampton's history. The First Baptist Church is the city's oldest Baptist congregation. The Zion Baptist Church, started in 1873, was led by the Rev. William Thornton for 39 years, and through his sermons the congregation grew so that a large structure had to be constructed in 1869.
Once known as the Second Baptist Church, the Queen Street Baptist Church was established in 1865 by blacks from Williamsburg. The congregation held services at various sites around the area until it put up its own church building in 1893. On the campus of Hampton University is Memorial Church, an Italian Romanesque structure built in 1886 with a bell tower that measures 150 feet. These churches are open for Sunday services.
A fifth church, the Little England Chapel (4100 Kecoughtan Road; 757-722-4249), is Virginia's only known black missionary chapel. Built in the late 1870s, it was used by black landowners from an integrated Hampton community called Newtown. Vacated in 1989, it was renovated and reopened in 1993 and offers a permanent exhibit and video program that explains religious life for post-Civil War blacks in Virginia. It is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by appointment.
For those who enjoy visiting cemeteries, a stop at Elmerton Cemetery will reveal two noted gravesites. The first is of Mary Peake (1823-1862), the black schoolteacher who instructed free and enslaved blacks prior to the Civil War. Activist Janie Porter Barrett is also buried here. Educated at Hampton Institute, she founded the Locust Street Social Settlement in 1890, the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, in Hanover County.
New Deal neighborhood
The Aberdeen Gardens Historic Museum (57 N. Mary Peake Blvd.; www.hfag.org; 757-826-1281) celebrates the historical importance and future of this community, built by and for blacks in 1935 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Designed by Howard University architect Hillyard Robertson, the settlement comprised 158 houses, typically having one-and-a-half stories, made with locally handcrafted bricks. Each had an attached garage, two bedrooms, bathroom, living/dining/kitchen area and a large fenced-in yard.
Officially dedicated on Sept. 28, 2002, the museum has been restored, although officials are still looking for artifacts to restore the exhibit to a representative mid-1930s timeframe. The museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by appointment. There is no admission charge, but the museum accepts donations.
Hampton's Virginia Air and Space Center (600 Settlers Landing Road; www.vasc.org; 757-727-0900 or 800-296-0800) has opened the first phase of a new exhibit, with a hands-on space gallery, "Space Quest: Exploring the Moon, Mars & Beyond." It includes planetary models (look up!), planet surface samples, an Inter-planetary travel agency, even a Mars transporter.
The center also highlights the contributions of blacks in the fields of aeronautics and aviation. A permanent exhibit chronicles the Tuskegee Airman, the World War II aviators who were the first blacks to fly combat missions for the United States.
Each February the center presents special programs, displays and films in recognition of Black History Month. The center is open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission fees vary according to your age and how many IMAX films you want to see.
For more history, stop by The Way We Were used and rare book store (32 E. Mellen St. in Phoebus; 757-726-2300). Watch where you step, for books are piled high and deep, and who knows what you're going to find where. Owner Charles Felts will help you navigate when you're ready to focus on something in particular instead of just browsing.