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History, page 2

When my husband Hugh and I moved to Hampton from Brooklyn in 1988, we discovered that the history largely buried under pavement in New York is much closer to the surface in Virginia. Information was so much easier to find that we were upon it almost before we started looking. We stumbled over people who remembered, had our glances held by books lying on a table or protruding an extra one-half inch from library shelves, and found important articles in random magazines picked up at the doctor's office. It began to look as if the Ancestors were encouraging us in our search.

We started visiting Hugh's many maternal relatives, most of whom were named Charity, in Charles City County. Hugh learned that his Native ancestors on that side were Chickahominy, Pamunkey and Mattaponi. We also learned that this, especially the Chickahominy admixture, was a touchy subject. Some people didn't want to talk about it, some denied it, and one went so far as to say there was no such thing as 'Indians' - they were just the mixed offspring of Blacks and Whites. We were told of hard feelings of long standing between the Black and the Chickahominy communities, but we couldn't get at the reasons. All we heard was the result, members of one community speaking in private about the other with muted anger. It sounded to us like a place still dealing with the British invasion of 1607.

In 1993 we decided to see if we could bring the topic out in the open for discussion. We applied for, and received, a matching grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, and designed a six-month symposium series to take place at the local high school. Once a month we alternated speakers from the Native and African American communities, and supported them with panels that included authors and historians with roots in the county, tribal council members, professional genealogists, and individuals who were not necessarily 'degreed' but were generally recognized in the county as knowledgeable about local history.


We kept in mind that Charles City is a rural and unpretentious community, and made sure there was ample opportunity for discussion, both formal and informal. We inspired the Superintendent of Schools to borrow two photo exhibits from the VFH, one Red and one Black, and display them in the lobby. We got a different local church each month to bring and serve food - wonderful food, like at the potlucks from your childhood - and everybody ate together in the school cafeteria. We had performances of songs and dances from both cultural traditions. Every month we plastered the county with posters, some of which were torn down. We sent press releases to every newspaper and radio or TV station from Richmond to Virginia Beach, and we talked about it to everybody we could catch.


What was the result? On the surface, nothing has changed. The Black and Chickahominy communities are still separate. But apart from truly wearing ourselves out, we put the subject on the local map. The new Chief and a member of the tribal council greet Hugh warmly whenever they see him. Genealogical information is more widely known in the county. The Black congregation of St. John Baptist Church, whose building was the sixth in the area to be destroyed by an arson fire, was invited to continue their worship at Samaria Baptist, the Chickahominy church. More people from the Black community are applying for membership in the Chickahominy Tribe. We haven't yet heard of any who have been admitted.

We aimed the series at current and former residents of Charles City, but people came from DC and New York. Somebody quipped that the trip had been worth it for the food alone.

We did learn the reason for the antagonism. Some of the Chickahominy - as is the case with some other Virginia tribes - resist the idea of having relatives in the Black community, probably supposing, with ample historical precedent, that the White community will consider them less 'Indian' if they admit to having them. After all, Walter Ashby Plecker's statement as head of Virginia's Department of Vital Records that there are no more Indians in the state, and his policy of deliberate alteration of state records to reflect his opinion, were not that long ago. Many of their 'Black' relatives, in turn, aren't happy about having been chopped off the family tree.

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