Va library-turned-museum gives life to history

December 1, 2013, 9:00 am

By JANIE BRYANT

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — When the front door of 804 South Street first opened in the segregated world of 1945, it offered black citizens access to a library.

When that door opens this month, today's generation will revisit that time and understand what it meant for Portsmouth's black community.

The Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum, 10 years in the making, opens Dec. 22 with an exhibit titled "Forever Free: Portsmouth Stories of African-American Strivings and Successes."

The library-turned-museum could be one of those stories — as could the woman who headed up its creation.

Mae Breckenridge-Haywood has been president of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth since 2003, when the organization began pushing to save the landmark. She weathered ups and downs and stood firm in the face of doubters — even when she heard that a former city councilman was telling people that she didn't know what she was doing.

In some ways, she agreed. She'd never renovated an old building. Or designed a museum exhibit. Or applied for a grant or a place on a historic register.

But the 73-year-old had been a high school librarian for 36 years, and there was nothing she couldn't look up.

"I just went into a learning mode," she said.

This building was too important to lose.

In many ways, the library's story mirrors the people who made it happen, according to Dianne Swann-Wright, a historian, author and guest curator. Portsmouth's black community was close-knit and had an impressive record of pulling together, she said.

"They had established their own churches. They had established their own burial grounds... their own benevolent societies," she said. "They had a high school, and the high school was developing an excellent reputation."

When the library opened 68 years ago, it offered patrons about 3,000 books, 20 magazines and three newspapers. But the building was vacated after a lawsuit filed in 1959 by two Portsmouth dentists — Hugo Owens and James W. Holley III, who later became mayor — led to the integration of the city's main library.

The building would have been razed, but Ebenezer Baptist Church acquired it and moved it to their property for meetings.

But members of the historical society didn't forget its significance. In 2003, officials agreed to sell the building to the city, which would move it and lease it to the historical society as a museum.

Three years later, with no movement on the project, the church was ready to tear down the library. The City Council was told it was not worth saving.

A suggestion was even made to set aside a room in the new Churchland library to pay tribute to it.

Breckenridge-Haywood sat there listening and feeling the dream slip away. She later wrote about giving up in her journal.

But she and the members of the historical society didn't want to lose another piece of history.

They recruited Gregory Rutledge, an architect with experience in historical preservation.

They pulled together the civil rights history behind the building and garnered support from the state's Department of Historic Resources and the National Trust for Preservation.

And they enlisted the help of Ray Smith, then a councilman, who agreed to be their advocate.

The next year, a joyful group of museum supporters watched as the building was moved to its new location at 904 Elm Ave. The story made Jet magazine and The Washington Post, Breckenridge-Haywood said.

In 2009, the building was listed on the Virginia Landmark Register and, months later, on the National Register of Historic Places.

Members of the historical society received a round of applause from council members at a public work session last month.

A vote will come later, but the council gave the city manager the thumbs up on a recommendation that the new museum be placed under the city's wing.

Breckenridge-Haywood doesn't mind saying she's tired and glad to see things finally falling into place. For the retired librarian, another nugget of the past is safe. Even before this, she was preserving what she could.

She walked every inch of the city's historic cemeteries, where Portsmouth's black heroes are buried, recording inscriptions.

She poured over fading newspaper columns and copied everything written by Jeffrey Wilson, a former slave who documented life for black residents in the 1920s.

And she co-authored the book "Black America Series: Portsmouth" with Norfolk State University history professor, Cassandra Newby-Alexander.

Swann-Wright said if a community is fortunate, it has what she calls the "culture person."

"This person takes it upon his or herself to make sure that people remember the past and are able to benefit from it," Swann-Wright said.

That's the role Breckenridge-Haywood has played:

"I think she's tireless and she's brave, and by being both of those things, she's in keeping with the ancestors of Portsmouth," Swann-Wright said.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,

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