New partnership highlights history in Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – The city of Portsmouth has just teamed up with the African American Historical Society to give new life to a local museum.

The Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum started off as a Jim Crow-era library for blacks. Mae Breckenridge-Haywood was one of those who wanted to make sure the stories of African Americans in the city wasn’t forgotten.

“It was an arduous long journey,” Breckenridge-Haywood said. “It was not an easy journey. At the early stages, I said ‘Whew we’ll never get to the light at the end of the tunnel.’ We’ve got it. We’re there. Mission accomplished.”

The history of Portsmouth is rich, but not on many people’s radars. How many know that Frederick Douglass spoke in Portsmouth in 1867? The more time that goes by, the fewer people there are who remember having to drink from water fountains based on the color of their skin, like the one displayed in the museum.

“The Masonic lodge that was located here in the city of Portsmouth, Va., we have their Bible, ledger book, and dues book,” said Geraldine Deperry Moon, who also works with the Historical Society.

The African American Historical Society has collected these momentos for years. In 1999, they started to push for a place to present them to the public. And by 2007, the small former library Mrs. Bertha Edwards used to serve at became their big break. She was a 1937 graduate of I.C. Norcom and finished from Hampton Institute in the 1940’s. Today, a bit of both schools is on display.

“It is because of what she did for black history early on, she saved pictures, she saved newspaper clippings,” Breckenridge-Haywood said. “I used to call it diamond in the rough. We got a real bright shining diamond now. We got some gems. We got some gems.”

They wanted to tell the stories of African Americans’ positive contributions to life in Portsmouth. And now you can learn some things you may have never known before.

As a part of the partnership, the Historical Society paid for renovations to the building. The city will manage it and maintain the grounds.

The Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum is located at 904 Elm Street. It’s open Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and again from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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