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Monday, June 9, 2014

Historic Truxtun, Nation’s First Planned Black Housing Community @ 95 Years Old

Blog #33. June 09, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

One of the joys and honors I have come about with telling the history of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard over these past few years is being asked to speak in public.  Well, speaking is something that comes easy concerning certain well known subjects.  The challenge to becoming a well rounded historian concerning our rich history is to be asked on short notice to speak on something you might have only heard about but never really had time to study. 

Last month I found myself in such a situation concerning a topic I knew little about.  I could have said no, I am too busy on a Saturday but again I am glad I did not.  With a little research and a visit to walk the streets of my new subject I learned a great deal about the community of Truxtun, the nation's first planned Black housing Community which was founded 95 years ago.


Historic Truxtun Marker on Portsmouth Boulevard (traveling west)
photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, June 4, 2014  


On Saturday May 31, 2014 I gave the following brief comments:

I want to thank Mr. Chester Benton, Chairman of the Historic Truxtun Civic League for allowing me the honor to speak briefly to you all today as we celebrate the 95th anniversary of the formation of the Truxtun housing community.

I am Marcus W. Robbins, an employee at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for the past 36 & ½ years that currently serves in the Executive Support Branch as the Command Facilities Manager and in addition fulfills the role as the volunteer Historian and Archivist for the installation.  Facilities at the shipyard have been my life and now education and preservation of our great NNSY heritage is my passion.

The reason why I was asked to speak today is Mr. Benton wanted you all to recognize and appreciate the inseparable history and heritage dating back to 1919 that your community of Truxtun has enjoyed over these 95 years with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard; a true win/win. 

Often when I publicly speak or write about the shipyard I make a comment that you cannot speak about one institution (either the City of Portsmouth or in this case the community of Truxtun without also discussing the influences of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  You cannot separate one and not talk about the other, like threads in a tapestry.

We all stand here today because of decisions made on the world stage over 100 years ago as war raged in Europe.  Take a minute to think about that and reflect to the direct relationship between world events and workload increases to support a war effort.  The Navy Yard needed labor and grew practically overnight with vast increase of its industrial capacity due to World War I.  Due to the great masses of workers coming in from all over the country and coming very quickly these workers and their families needed decent homes.

As taken from the City of Portsmouth’s website, I offer the following historical reference:

Truxtun is the first planned community for African-Americans; it was built as a project of the U.S. Housing Corporation to house shipyard workers.  It is significant because Truxtun is among the first government-funded and planned communities in the entire country.  The design concept of this district reflects what we today call “new urbanism,” a wholly contained community where residents could live, play, and shop within an easy commute to the workplace provided by public transportation.  Truxtun was designed with 200 detached and 50 semi-detached 5-room houses on 42 acres.

It was a different time back then, segregation however unfair was a hard cold fact of life.  The white shipyard workers lived in their own recently built planned community that we still refer to today as Cradock.  Both Cradock and Truxtun were also laid out to where the two communities were totally independent and their workers did not have to cross paths yet they shared the same employer.  It has taken decades to change this culture yet it is important that we not forget our past but also mindful not to dwell on its ugliness.

So let us look back on the historical facts of Truxtun and its relationship to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Again to accurately reflect history I offer in complete text the official background as transcribed by the Greater Historical Truxtun Foundation:

After World War I in 1918 the Government purchased seventy acres of land for $67,097 from land-owners in Portsmouth and Norfolk, for a planned community of ship yard workers.  The land was divided into two parts in order to house the then segregated community into two areas for both black and white ship yard workers.  The divided area was called Cradock for Whites, and the area of Truxtun was for Negros.  This was the first and only constructed housing development for Negros in the United States (U.S. Housing Project #150C.)  The town was named after naval commander, Thomas Truxtun.  The original design also included plans for a school, church, community house/center, Movie Theater, small railroad station and 35 shops and stores.  The area was designed for 253 families, 1265 people, 203 detached homes, 50 semi-attached homes.

As you can see Truxtun was a planned community.  Given the chance for home ownership was to give opportunity to become middle class for the Negro worker.  The Truxtun community can be proud by being the first in the country to do so.  The shipyard gave the residents a decent living wage.  With this, independence and the self-sufficiency followed.  Truxtun was on the way to middle class by the 1920’s.

So as I conclude I want to revisit my title Historic Truxtun ~ A Community Effort, Strong at 95 Years.  Three weeks ago I met the Chairman of the Historical Truxtun Civic League, Mr. Chester Benton.  In that 45 minutes we spent walking these streets and looking at the surrounding of modern Truxtun I was impressed with his passion for both his and your community.  Passion is not something you force a person to exhibit; it must come from within the soul.  You are very fortunate to have such a visionary in Mr. Benton as Truxtun approaches its next milestone at 100 years.
The stories he told me of his growing up on these streets and the fact you could not get in trouble because by the time you got home the parent network had already relayed the facts so there was no need to make up a story gave a sense of responsibility and pride to do the right thing.  Growing up in Truxtun gave many people in this audience today their jump on a successful life because  – history matters.