Community Leader Dianne Davis Recalls Growing Up in Segregated Cape Charles

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Dianne Davis

By Stefanie Jackson – Dianne Davis, a retired educator in Cape Charles, has lived almost her entire life in Northampton County. Davis, who is African American, was only one year old in 1949 after her father died and she and her mother and siblings moved from North Carolina to Cheriton, then the home of Dianne’s grandfather, James Henry Davis.

Dianne Davis and her family stayed in Cheriton for a few years, but most of Davis’ childhood was spent growing up in on Fig Street in Cape Charles, the town where she lives today.

But life was different back then, before the Civil Rights movement and integration mixed Black and White together in schools and all aspects of public life.

Cape Charles had a distinct Black section and White section, which were north and south of Fig Street, respectively, Davis recalled.

The Black community in Cape Charles had its own movie theater and soda fountain in two connecting buildings on Jefferson Avenue. The soda fountain was in a place locals called “the Carver spot,” which also served ice cream and had a jukebox.

Davis remembered kids skating up and down the sidewalks on Jefferson Avenue. They also had a playground on Washington Avenue, she said.

Black children in grades one to seven attended Cape Charles Elementary School over “the Hump” – the overpass that connects the town’s historic district to its harbor.

Students also enjoyed dances at Cape Charles Elementary School, but to get there, they had to walk over the Hump at night, Davis said.

Some people know the school today as the Cape Charles Rosenwald School because it was one of the schools built through the partnership of educator Booker T. Washington and businessman Julius Rosenwald, but Davis reminded a reporter that the correct name of the school is Cape Charles Elementary School, not the Rosenwald school or Cape Charles Colored School.

Davis had to walk to and from school every day until her last year at Cape Charles Elementary, when the school finally got its own bus.

She moved on to the local Black high school, Northampton County High School, in Machipongo (which later became Northampton Middle School), not to be confused with the similarly named White high school, Northampton High School, in Eastville.

White students in Cape Charles attended grades 1 to 12 at the combined school that was on the corner of Madison Avenue and Plum Street. Some older White students stayed with family or friends out of town so they could attend the Eastville high school, which had a wider variety of academic programs.

Cape Charles’ Black residents also were not permitted to sit at the counter at Savage’s Drug Store, but they might be served if they stood and waited at the end of the counter. Some of the White employees were polite; others ignored customers who were Black.

Neither could a Black person use the Cape Charles library on the corner of Tazewell Avenue and Plum Street, which occupied the church building that is now used for Cape Charles Town Council meetings.

Living through segregation wasn’t easy, “but we made it,” Davis said.

She graduated from high school in 1967, about two years after Black students first were permitted to attend Northampton High School. Racial integration in public schools was not mandatory until the next decade, around 1971, Davis said.

Her mother was a field and factory worker – the only two places Black people could work at the time were fields and factories, Davis noted.

Typical factory work included canning vegetables in Cheriton at G.L. Webster Canning Co., which later was renamed Kane and Miller Canning Co. Products packed at the facility included sweet potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes, and ketchup.

Davis came of age during a transitional period in African American history, in which she both worked in the fields and pursued a professional career. Perhaps fittingly, it was the farm work she did the summer after high school graduation which paid the $200 tuition for her first semester at Norfolk State University (then Norfolk Division of Virginia State College).

Every field worker filled 5/8 bushel baskets (a bushel equals eight dry gallons). Davis remembers clearly how much a worker got paid for each basket of vegetables picked: 50 cents for green beans, which filled a taller basket, 25 cents for cucumbers, 25 cents for pink (unripe) tomatoes, 10 cents for ripe tomatoes, and 8 cents for a bag of potatoes – the equivalent of two baskets.

When field workers were doing labor other than picking vegetables, they were paid 50 cents an hour and earned $25 a week, Davis said.

She went to college and earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in executive secretarial science and the other in business education. Davis later earned a master’s degree in urban education with a concentration in administration.

(Davis noted that an urban education degree is applicable to any educational setting, and the Norfolk State University website states urban education students “learn culturally relevant teaching strategies related to diversity and inclusion that affect urban and rural student populations.”)

Davis was employed as a department secretary at Norfolk State for seven years. During that period, she gained experience providing students academic counseling.

She returned to the Eastern Shore and became a teacher in 1978 and “never thought about teaching anywhere else,” Davis said.

She taught business at Northampton High School and became the department chair in 1979 after Joyce Boggs died, who was the previous department chair.

Over her 32-year teaching career, Davis taught a variety of courses, including typing, stenography (shorthand), office administration, office technology, business law, and computer applications.

During her last three years of teaching, she was Northampton schools’ career and technical education deleted coordinator.

Davis remembers the exact moment she was officially retired: June, 30, 2010, 4 p.m.

In her retirement, she has been an active member of national, state, and local organizations, including the Norfolk State Alumni Association, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the Philadelphia Church of Christ Disciples in Cape Charles, the Eastern Shore Area Agency on Aging/Community Action Agency board and advisory board, the Senior Medical Patrol, Project Horizons at Eastern Shore Community College, and the Food Bank of the Eastern Shore Advisory Board. She has volunteered distributing hot meals at Myrtle Landing (formerly Heritage Acres) in Cape Charles and has served as a Northampton County jury commissioner.

Davis also is a frequent volunteer at Kiptopeke Elementary School and serves on both its leadership team and Title I Community and Family Engagement committee, working closely with one of her former students, Principal Subrina Parker.

Perhaps one of her most important volunteer roles she took on as a teacher was as an advisor for the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) for 20 years.

Students in the FBLA prepared for their future education and careers through activities such as visiting business schools, attending conferences, and conducting mock job interviews. They also did fundraising for the Joyce Boggs scholarship, which was awarded to a student planning to pursue a business degree.

During the time Davis and business teacher Angela Smith volunteered with FBLA, student Wisteria Webb won an award in word processing and the FBLA raised money for her to fly to Chicago to compete on the national level.

Davis also was a Virginia state youth supervisor for the Progressive Women of the Eastern Shore, a group in which she was active for 15 years and is under the umbrella of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the world’s oldest Black women’s organization, founded in 1896.

Her advice to high school graduates today might seem counterintuitive to locals who hope to attract young families to live and work on the Shore: leave and acquire a higher education and develop the skills needed to get a job with good pay and benefits.

In the meantime, the Shore needs to create more good-paying jobs and give its children a reason to come back.

Northampton County must cut the “red tape” that discourages or prevents the location and growth of industries, prompting them to move elsewhere – sometimes Accomack County, Davis said.

Northampton needs industries like the Cape Charles concrete plant, which has been in town since 1964 – longer than many of the current residents who moved to Cape Charles to retire, Davis pointed out.

She would like to see a company like Amazon (which opened two new delivery centers in Hampton Roads this past fall) open a facility in Northampton County.

Furthermore, existing businesses must stop discriminating against qualified job candidates based on race or showing favoritism to friends or family members.

Race relations have improved on the Shore over the years but incidences of racism still occur  and it remains difficult for Black people to get some of the top jobs, Davis said. Sometimes a job applicant who is Black and has a college degree will get passed over for a candidate who is White and has only a high school diploma, she noted.

“We need people who have more compassion, love … where they’re concerned about all mankind and willing to hire these young people who are educated and can do the job,” Davis said.

Employers must be willing to pay well so qualified employees stay on the Shore instead of moving away, she added.

Davis would like to see the Eastern Shore and especially Northampton County increase teacher salaries to be competitive with other school districts, provide residents with opportunities to acquire “real affordable housing,” and be “concerned for all mankind … all nationalities, all economic statuses – everybody,” and “make things happen for the betterment of us, whether it’s jobs, education, transportation, and all.”

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