Local organization helps restore Portsmouth library as museum

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Portsmouth organization is highlighting one of its historic museums.

The Portsmouth Community Colored Library was relocated and restored by the city in 2007 after the African-American Historical Society of Portsmouth urged the city to save the original building.

“This is a story we need to tell,” said the organiztion’s president, Mae Breckenridge Haywood, when she sat down with 10 On Your Side.

Breckenridge Haywood says the group has many projects, including African-American cemetery preservations, but their library project was special.

“It was an important feat. We were really excited. People walked behind it,” she said.

Breckenridge Haywood has been researching Portsmouth history for years.

She says when she was a librarian at I.C. Norcom High School, she found many files related to African-American history.

“I said ‘all this is here!’ I self appointed myself to be the person who would be out to publish this,” she said.

In the mid 1990s, Breckenridge Haywood says she and others decided to form the historical society to conserve history.

She says the group met for years at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the library sat in the parking lot.

That’s how they became interested in saving the building and approached the city.

Breckenridge Haywood says it took some negotiating, but the city moved the building in 2007.

The city now operates the facility.

Diane Cripps, who is the curator of history for Portsmouth museums, says African-American residents in the 1920s did not have library services and ran a reading room out of a local church.

Cripps says the city told residents they would build them a library if they raised their own funds, which they did.

The library was only open from 1945 to 1963, until Cripps says a lawsuit allowed African-Americans to start using the public library.

“Who would have thought something most of us take for granted, like library services, was something the African-American community had to fight for and go to court for. It’s not a story you often hear about,” she said.

Cripps says the museum and the original librarian, Bertha Winborne Edwards, were dedicated as Literary Landmarks in 2015.

Other Literary Landmarks include the homes of Tennesse Williams, Ernest Hemmingway and Mark Twain.

Exhibits in the museum include information about its history and life in Portsmouth during segregation.

“Without chapters like this, without understanding as how as simple as library services were denied to a whole segment of people, I think we misunderstand some of our modern issues we have today,” Cripps said.

Breckenridge Haywood also agrees it would help.

“When you look at the way things are being said and done now, people are not aware of certain periods of history. This is a story that needs to be told,” she said.

Breckenridge Haywood hopes that more people, especially younger generations, will visit the library to learn its history.

She one day wants to pass the torch of conserving history, but until then, she’ll continue to dream big about having a larger African-American museum in the region.

“Though it’s small, I want to think it’s the stepping stone to a bigger and fine place of African-American history. That’s my vision,” she said.

The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays until October.

You can also make group appointments by calling (757)393-8983.

The museum also has special events for Black History Month.

They are listed below.

Saturday, Feb. 10


What: The Not-Just-For-February Players

Where: Emanuel AME Church (Free and open to the public)

When: 10 a.m.

Come out and celebrate Black History Month and enjoy a moment in time with The Not-Just-For February Players as they portray local African-Americans and their struggles to prosper. The program is being held in the historical Emanuel AME Church on North Street in historic Olde Towne Portsmouth. This program is sponsored by the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth.


What: Oney Judge

Where: Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum (Free and open to the public)

When: 11 am

Shelia Arnold, master storyteller will be presenting a program based on the life of Oney Judge.


What: Keepin’ Heritage Alive

Where: Portsmouth Main Library (Free and open to the public)

When: 2 pm

Shelia Arnold, master storyteller will be presenting Keepin’ Heritage Alive.


Saturday, Feb. 17


What: Neighborhood Black History Sidewalk Parade

Where: Effingham and King Streets

When: 10:30 am

Wear your favorite costume representing an African-American, past, present, local, city, state, national or international. To register contact Joyce White Tasby at 202-812-2804. Registration fees are $10.00 for an individual and $50.00 for 10 or more. The line-up begins at 10:30 am at Effingham and King Streets.


What: STEMulating Minds with Little Bits Workshop

Where: Children’s Museum of Virginia (Included with Museum admission)

When: 10 am, 1 pm & 4 pm

Let Little Bits be a spark of imagination for your young inventor while they learn a little about influential black scientists and inventors. Bits are electronic building blocks that allow inventors to make amazing things, both big and small.


Wednesday, Feb. 21

What: Black History Expo

Where: Churchland Branch Library (Free and open to the public)

When: 5:30 – 7:30 pm

A choral performance by Portsmouth Public Schools with a presentation, author talk and book signing by Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander. Newby-Alexander is the author of Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad.


Saturday, Feb. 24


What: A Salute to African-Americans in the Military

Where: Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center (Free and open to the public)

When: 11am – 4 pm

A. United States Colored Troops, 35th Regiment of New Bern – Tryon Palace’s United States Colored Troops, 35th Regiment of New Bern will provide living history demonstrations of African-American soldiers’ lives in the Union Army during the Civil War (1863-1865). The presentation will include raising and striking of the United States’ flag, the regimental colors, marching drills, camp songs, and demonstration of camp supplies that the 35th Regiment of New Bern, NC used after being founded in June of 1863.

B. Marvin Greer, Yorktown Reenactor – Mr. Greer will present living history demonstrations as he recounts the American Revolutionary War as James Armistead La Fayette, an African-American spy who aided in George Washington’s and the Marquis de La Fayette’s defeat of the British at Yorktown. Mr. Greer’s presentation will feature period clothing and a black powder musket demonstration.

C. Howard Baugh, Vietnam Pilot – Mr. Baugh will present stories, photographs, collectible items, and airplane models from his father’s days of service as a Tuskegee Airman. He will also contrast his own days of service in the United States Air Force as a pilot during the Vietnam Conflict with those of his father’s.