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Discover African American history in Virginia Beach

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(BPT) - Searching for a great, educational road trip that also helps you and your family learn about the rich history of African Americans? Look no further than Virginia Beach. You may already know the destination as the site of the original Jamestown settlement in 1607, at First Landing State Park. But there are countless stories about the area revealing more history you may not know. The history of African Americans throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia is a critical piece of the story of how America came to be. That story dates to 1619, when the first documented Africans arrived at what is now Old Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia.

To create your 2- to 3-hour road trip, check out the new self-guided tour commissioned by the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau in partnership with the Virginia African American Cultural Center. The tour showcases over a dozen landmarks and locations offering a fascinating window into the African American experience in Virginia Beach. Whether you’re a history buff or just want a deeper understanding of the African American story, this tour highlights the resilient nature of the people who settled into Virginia Beach and developed social institutions vital to adapting to their new way of life.

Here are a few stops along this fascinating tour of Virginia Beach:

First Landing State Park

The park commemorating the original Jamestown settlement was built after the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide work for millions of young men, including 250,000 African Americans. Company 1371, an all African American regiment, constructed trails and built cabins for First Landing State Park.

Although Black workers built the park, they were not actually allowed to use it until 1965. A lawsuit was filed by a group of local African Americans in 1951 against the Virginia Conservation Commission for being denied entrance to the park. The suit wasn’t heard until 1955, and officials closed the park that year rather than integrating it. The park reopened its trails in 1961 and campgrounds in 1962.

Seaview Beach and Amusement Park

Between 1945 and 1965, Seaview Beach and Amusement Park was a vibrant, popular place where African Americans socialized, dined and danced during segregation. While no longer in operation, Seaview also had an amusement park with rides and a midway, and featured shows by artists like musical icons Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. WRAP DJ “Big Daddy Jack” Holmes coined the catchy slogan, “See you at Seaview!”

Nimmo United Methodist Church

Established in 1791, the Nimmo United Methodist Church building included a slave balcony that still exists today. By 1829, a small group of white members and people of color formed a separate congregation together. A parcel of land across the road from Nimmo was acquired by the new congregation’s trustees and a church was built there, later known as Olive Branch Methodist Church. The group reunited with Nimmo in 1894.

L & J Gardens, Seatack Community

In 1954, this neighborhood was created by Black businessman and college graduate Walter H. “Crow” Riddick for middle-class Blacks during racial segregation. The picture-windowed, split-level, pillared ranch colonials on meticulously tended lawns showcased a mid-20th-century community personifying the American Dream.

In December 2019, the Virginia State Review Board determined L & J Gardens' eligibility for listing as an Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The City of Virginia Beach received an Underrepresented Communities grant from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund, so the process to nominate the neighborhood to the NRHP is underway. Members of the Riddick family and other prominent professional Black families live there today.

Virginia African American Cultural Center

This site features “Portraits from a Place of Grace,” an art installation by nationally renowned artist Rich Hollant, commissioned by the Virginia Beach Office of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the Virginia African American Cultural Center. The portraits celebrate residents from each of the 14 historically Black neighborhoods in Virginia Beach, reflecting the dignity, resilience and hope of several generations.

Want to learn more? Check out VisitVirginiaBeach.com for the full list of sites.

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