This women’s club helped Black southerners look out for their own during Jim Crow. Now, preservationists want to save its history.
During Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, Black southerners didn’t have the same resources as whites. Then, as now, their incarceration rates were much higher. Black Virginians had to look out for their own — they did so through groups like the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
“When you share the story of the Virginia Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, it tells a much more important narrative about the work of Black women attending to the social, emotional, spiritual and developmental needs, educational needs of Black people,” said Dr. Colita Fairfax.
Fairfax is a professor at Norfolk State's Center for African American Public Policy. She says one of the Federation’s founding members, Janie Porter Barrett, was a turn-of-the-century advocate for Black youth. One story has it that in 1914, Barrett heard that there was an eight-year-old Black girl who had been jailed in Newport News. Fairfax continues:
“She personally went to the judge and asked that the young lady be remanded into her custody, and there began her work with finding places for particularly Black children who had been bereft of family due to either civil war era conditions or reconstruction era conditions.”
Barrett and her contemporaries in the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs created a network of care throughout the state, Fairfax said.
“They were able to create a network in the Commonwealth of different clubs from the different cities and counties in the state, to come together, to share ideas.”
The last headquarters of the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs is a historic home in Hampton.
It’s one of two buildings in Hampton Roads on this year’s endangered historic sites list. The other is Maury High School.
Fairfax heads the Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to preserve the Foundation’s final living piece. Their goal is to open a museum on the ground floor to tell visitors about the Federation of Colored Womens’ clubs and its work.
Fairfax said that work was critical during Reconstruction and in the Jim Crow South.
“Governmental agencies were absent and negligent with creating services, agencies, healing centers, healing spaces for the community to be able to take advantage of,” she said. “Black people had to find ways to heal, be whole, and nurture one another."
At the headquarters, they’re putting up sheetrock and updating the plumbing. Fairfax said she wants to install a lift for wheelchair users. That’s where funding comes in.
To raise money for the museum, Fairfax turned to Elizabeth Kostelny and Preservation Virginia. Every year, they put out a list of the most endangered historic places in the state — their aim is to save a site, whether that’s turning it into a museum or updating it so it can continue to be used.
Kostelny said many sites that come to her attention as endangered have been ignored, and haven’t been viewed as traditionally historic until recently.
“Our history is complicated,” said Kostelny. “Parts of it have not been acknowledged. We are using the list to elevate those places.”
Most of all, Fairfax said, she wants the museum to show the resilience and resourcefulness of the Black women who did this work.
“It's not a woeful story. It's a triumphant victory story,” she said. “In that, yes, here is the racism, here is the degradation. But here is then our response to it. And the response was not in war and in fighting, but it was in the response was to heal and to attend to the human condition. And that's the beauty of these women.”