A Glimpse into the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s Black History

“In a gossamer way history moves around us, touching us gently, reminding us that what we are and what we have become is connected to the past.” -Frances Latimer

History in the Making

Gerald Boyd moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia when he was 7 years old with his family as a migrant worker from Mobile, Alabama. He spent his life between the two places, sometimes going to live with his Aunt for a while back in Alabama. Growing up, he loved the Shore. He would wander the quiet forests and dream up poetry.

Boyd’s mother always wanted him to pursue an education. She saw the opportunities a strong education could offer and wanted a better life for her son. She instilled these values in Boyd and he went on to find great success in his studies.

Today, Gerald has an MDiv and honorary Ph. D. in Transpersonal Psychology. Additionally, he is a nationally and internationally certified alcohol and drug counselor, a certified anger management specialist, certified domestic violence specialist, certified life coach, certified mediator and consultant specializing in diversity, conflict resolution, and personal and social transformation.

gerald boyd

He is a co-founder of Eastern Shore Training and Consulting Inc. (ESTACI) an organization that aims to reduce the number of families involved in the criminal justice and child welfare systems. The organization focuses on peer counseling and treatments of substance abuse and addiction. A humanist, Boyd sees all people for who they are and is well versed in being the hand that reaches out to those in dark places.

Along with Boyd’s passion for people lies his passion for history. He is at the forefront of black history preservation on the Eastern Shore, bubbling with ideas on how to convey the Shore’s vast history.

He revitalized a blacksmithing shop on Boundary Avenue in Onancock, Virginia. Owned and operated by Samuel D. Outlaw from 1927 to 1991, the shop and memorial museum is a rare intact blacksmith shop and has many of Outlaw’s tools on display. The shop is open for tours with advance notice. The grand opening is scheduled for May 30th, 2020.

Boyd now has his eyes on his next project. He wants to continue revitalizing historically black landmarks, starting with cemeteries, churches, and businesses, and create a trail for visitors to easily learn and visit each location.

Boyd believes the key to being a good historian is inclusivity. Always ask, “Who are we leaving out?” Through his work, he exercises this sentiment by bringing attention to and improving accessibility to the Shore’s extensive black history.

A Glimpse Into the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s Black History

Samuel D. Outlaw

samuel d outlaw
Samuel D. Outlaw hard at work in his blacksmithing shop in Onancock.

Samuel D. Outlaw was born and raised in North Carolina. In 1920, he enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agriculture Institute for a four-year blacksmithing program. He graduated in 1925, moving to Onancock to open his own blacksmith shop. Outlaw was the town’s blacksmith from 1927 to 1991, serving watermen, farmers, and neighbors. A prominent figure in the community, he served as the Clerk for Bethel AME Church for 46 years and Sunday School Superintendent for 58 years. Additionally, Outlaw was a founding member of the Eastern Shore Building and Loan Association. In 1994, Samuel Outlaw passed away at the age of 95 to the dismay of the community. His shop was donated to the town by his heirs in his memory. Gerald Boyd revitalized the shop, turning it into a memorial museum in his honor, and opened it to the public in 2019. Discover more here.

Harry Hosier

harry_hosier_black_preacher-273x300
Photo Credit: True Tales of the Eastern Shore, Kirk Mariner

Harry Hosier broke boundaries back in the 1780s. Born into slavery in North Carolina, he was granted his freedom likely in Baltimore, although there is little record of his early life. He began traveling and preaching alongside Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, two white men, to black and white people alike. Together, these men aimed to organize the scattered Methodist societies into one independent church in America. Hosier and Coke came to the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s Accomack County in 1784 and preached in Oak Hall, Chancetown, Locustville, Mappsburg, and the courthouse in Drummondtown, modern-day Accomac.

Hosier was the first black preacher to preach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and he was extraordinary. He was unable to read or write, but many believed him to be the best preacher they had ever heard. Coke wrote, “I really believe that he is one of the best preachers in the world, there is such an amazing power [that] attends his preaching.” Hosier went along to Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New York City and more. Through his work, Methodist churches across the country were integrated. However, about a decade after his death in 1806, American Methodism no longer reflected racial equality and the church became segregated. Hosier is buried in Kensington, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker

Thomas Nelson Baker
Photo Credit: Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, Francis Latimer

Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker was born enslaved in 1860 on a plantation in Eastville. His father was a soldier in the Civil War. His mother taught herself letters, spelling, and counting and passed that knowledge to Baker. Her enthusiasm for education was not lost on her son. From a young age, Baker was passionate about receiving an education. When he was a child, his mother sent him to public school a few months out of the year, and when she could afford it, she would send him to private school. However, when he turned 12, their growing family required Baker to begin working on the farm with his father.

In 1881, after several years without studying, Baker began attending the Hampton Normal School. Upon graduation, he began teaching in the Dismal Swamp of Virginia. Baker was not done with school, however. He continued his studies at Mt. Hermon School and the College of Liberal Arts of Boston University until he was accepted into Yale’s Divinity School. In 1896, Baker received a Bachelor of Divinity and in 1903, he received a Ph. D. in philosophy from Yale. Baker was ordained in New Haven, Connecticut and was a pastor for 43 years. His dissertation, “The Ethical Significance of the Connection Between Mind and Body,” challenged society’s ethics, ideals, and motivations. Baker is the only African American philosopher known to have been born enslaved.

“My passion is to teach,” Baker has written, “I hope to come into touch with thinking youth of my race and help them lay the foundations for a thoughtful and ethicized religion.” Baker was an extraordinary man with a zest for life that allowed him to be an inspiring leader. He passed away in 1941 at the age of 80.

Mary Nottingham Smith

mary nottingham smith
Photo Credit: Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, Francis Latimer

Mary Nottingham Smith was born in 1882 in Townsend, a town located in the lower portion of Northampton County. She attended the Norfolk Mission College and obtained a degree from the Hampton Institute. Afterward, she began teaching in 1910 in Essex County, where she was also the principal.

Mary returned to the Shore in 1912 and began working in the Accomack County school system as a Jeanes Educational Supervisor, a program dedicated to supporting educational programs for African Americans in rural communities. Her work brought her to Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, but she always returned to the Shore between assignments.

Mary was passionate about education and Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This shined through her work and she was able to change many lives through her unwavering dedication to improving educational opportunities to young African Americans.

In 1931, the Accomack County Colored High School Association, of which Mary was a trustee, purchased a lot in the town of Accomac. This lot became the site of the first secondary school for black children in Accomack County. Due to her work in the community, the school was named after Mary Nottingham Smith in 1932. Eventually, the school was renamed, but a newer, larger high school was built in 1953 bearing her name. Mary passed away in 1951, leaving the Shore a better place for future generations.

Grace Fitchett White

Grace Fitchett White was born a slave in 1849 in Northampton County. She was unable to read or write, but she yearned for an education, knowing the advantages these skills would allow her. Each day, she escorted her master’s children to school and was instructed to wait for the children until the end of the school day, when she would escort them home.

White took advantage of her time waiting outside of the school. She watched the lesson through the school windows and learned to read and write. This was dangerous for White to do; there was an 1831 law that prohibited slaves from learning to read and write, but White was brave. She taught her children to read and write and the value of an education.

Through her influence, many of her direct descendants became prominent figures on the Eastern Shore. Her son, Levi, became a Justice of Peace. Her grandson, John Walter, attended the Hampton Institute and became a contractor. Her granddaughter, Mary Nottingham Smith, became an educator who dedicated her life to improving education for the Shore’s African American children. Smith helped to build the first black secondary school in Accomack County and was the first black supervisor in education in Accomack County. Grace White’s bravery and dedication touched many lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Henry A. Wise

henry a wise
Photo Credit: Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, Francis Latimer

Henry A. Wise was born in 1920 and grew up in Cheriton, a small town near Cape Charles. He received a degree from Virginia Union University and became a teacher when he was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces in 1942. He graduated from flight training and was deported to northern Africa for his first assignment. While on a raid of the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, Wise’s plane was shot down and Wise was captured by a group of Bulgarians.

For three weeks he and other Allied fliers were imprisoned. Eventually, the Russians coordinated their release. Wise received a Purple Heart, the Certificate of Valor for Courage in Combat, and the Tuskegee Airmen Pioneer Award for Distinguished Service and Historic Achievement.

He was honorably discharged in 1947 and returned to school, studying medicine at Howard University. After obtaining his degree, he joined the medical group at Prince George’s Hospital where he was the only African American physician. Then he moved to Bowie, Maryland and opened his own private practice while simultaneously serving as the medical director at Bowie State University.

Wise and his wife, Roberta, founded the Youth Motivational Program, an organization founded to inspire young men and women to seek higher education. The organization was able to award more than $25,000 in scholarships to young scholars.

Wise continued to be recognized for his achievements and impact on the community. He received an honorary PH. D. from Bowie State University, the National Medical Society’s Meritorious Award, The PGCEA Teacher’s Association Recognition Award for Outstanding Service in the Community and State, the Dimensions Healthcare Systems Award of Prince George’s Hospital, the 2003 Strata Award, the Mary McCloud Bethune Millennium Legacy Award, the Distinguished Citizens Award-Annapolis Chapter of the Links Inc., the Outstanding Community Service Award from the Prince George’s Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and the Frontier’s Inc. Citation for Civic Work with Youth in Maryland. He passed away in 2003 after a heart attack at 82.

Frances Bibbins Latimer

francis latimer
Photo Credit: Virginia Humanities

If you’ve enjoyed the black history stories shared in this article, you can give your thanks to Francis Latimer. Latimer was born in Northampton County in 1941. She graduated from Hampton University with a degree in art and from New York City University with a master’s in science. She taught at New York City University for a while, until she met her husband, George, and they decided to return to Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Latimer had a deep appreciation for the Shore and for history. She wanted to document local black stories so that they would not be forgotten and given their rightful place in history. Latimer began her own publishing company, Hickory House, from her home in Eastville. She would meet with community members, hear their stories, and then visit the Northampton County courthouse, home to the United States’ longest continual court records, to confirm as many details as she could through public record.

She published many books. Notably, Latimer published “Landmarks,” the first book ever written to share the history of African American historic sites on the Eastern Shore of Virginia four years before she passed away in 2010. At the time of her death, she had begun writing, “Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair,” a book dedicated to sharing local African American figures and their stories of bravery and achievement. Through the work of her colleagues, friends, and family, the book was published in 2013.

The preface of “Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair,” written by David Bearinger, captures the impact of Francis Latimer and her work. Bearinger states, “There are times when the writing of history is itself a historic act. In setting out to create a book -the first book- of biographies on African Americans from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Frances took a historic step. The result, ‘Life for Me…’ is its own landmark in the history of the Shore, and its author rightly belongs in the company of the men and women whose lives and accomplishments she worked so hard-and carefully, patiently, lovingly-to honor.”

Resources:

  • Latimer, F. (2006) Landmarks: Black Historic Sites on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Eastville, Virginia: Hickory House.
  • Latimer, F. (2013) Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair. Eastville, Virginia: George Latimer.
  • Mariner, K. (2003). True tales of the Eastern Shore. New Church, Virginia: Miona Publications.

Recommended Reading
*Note: order recommended books online (linked below,) request a copy from the Eastern Shore Public Library, or purchase from any of the Shore’s fantastic local book stores.

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