The hidden history behind Norfolk’s ‘City Beach’

Image courtesy of Norfolk State University

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Hidden under the sands of an affluent array of homes in Norfolk is a history worthy of recognition.

The clues of which are viewed through weathered beach fences. Junita Smith remembers it as a world viewed in black and white.

“We knew that we couldn’t go to Ocean View, and we knew that this was City Beach, and it was designated for colored people, and so we were colored, and we came here.”

Smith is referring to City Beach, a small plot of sand in East Ocean View, on the edge of what is now East Beach, and the neighborhood that Smith now calls home.

As a teenager of the 1950’s, it was the only beach she knew.

“We’d come down here as children and go to my grandma’s house, and go crabbing and play on the beach until we were sunburned to a crisp. Black people still have an affinity for City Beach. You start a conversation, they might not tell it to you, but you start a conversation, and they say ‘let me tell you what happened at City Beach!'”

Smith’s stories mirror those of other African Americans growing up in segregation. This was their summer home by the bay, a social center, the backdrop for teen romance, and a gathering for baptisms.

“And so on Sunday morning, we’d be at ma’s house. And of course the windows were open, and we could hear this singing.”  Smith then softly sings the words that have long drifted over the bay,

“Take me to the water. Take me to the water. Take me to the water to be baptized.”

But that Christian spirituality soon became a call for justice.  It was the age of the “Norfolk 17”– African American students who helped integrate local schools. But as segregation fell, Juanita Smith had a simple observation of the local world that was for “whites only.”

“Oh, I mean why were you trying to keep me out of this?” Smith asked with a tone of indignation. “I mean it really was not paradise.”

Then Smith offers this lesson learned from City Beach that even applies to our time.

“Racial prejudice in this country is real.  A lot of where you think we have come from is so shallowly covered that anything could send us back to it.”

The City of Norfolk will soon recognize this plot of sand with a plaque to be unveiled in the coming months. It will remind us that it wasn’t long ago when African-Americans who wanted a day at the beach didn’t have many choices on where to spend it.

But Juanita Smith moved past her obstacles becoming a teacher for a brief time before spending 30 years with the defense department, then coming back to a place she always knew.  So did Smith believe something greater than her brought her back to East Ocean View?

“Absolutely, my whole life is greater than me.  Every move in my life was not my own. Every move. God made it happen.”