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A Land Between Waters: Reviving a Black Township on the Chesapeake Bay.

Each morning Solomon Burton, 69, trudges across the dirt road from the tar- paper shack he rents for forty-five dollars a month. He places a white plastic bucket under a hand-pump spigot and starts cranking the handle. The water tastes faintly rusty, he says, but it is the only means Burton has of obtaining potable water in Bayview, Virginia.

Burton's home is one of fifty-two shacks in this traditionally black settlement. Bayview sits on a peninsula that juts between the Chesapeake and the Atlantic. It is located just five miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which connects the Eastern Shore to the rest of Virginia.

Sixteenth-century English colonists learned that local Indian tribes called the area "the land between the waters." But the bucolic stillness belies the economic hardship that exists here. Bayview is one in a string of Eastern Shore communities settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. But, in a state whose economy hums with the promise of the next century, it has slowly sunk into abject poverty.

Bayview's 114 residents are among the most impoverished in Virginia's Northampton County. About 28 percent (3,400 of Northampton's 13,000 population) live in poverty, while 30 percent make less than $10,000 annually. Twenty percent have less than a ninth-grade education. The county usually ranks last in Virginia when it comes to median gross income, and per-capita welfare payments are more than 1.5 times the state average.

As the poorest county, Northampton--in common with some other parts of Virginia's Eastern Shore--has struggled for generations to deal with these issues. Many attribute the problems to a physical isolation from the rest of Virginia and the minuscule, declining job base. Nowhere are the problems embodied more emphatically than in Bayview.

A community left behind

The hamlet is a cluster of ramshackle homes and tar-paper shacks. It has no retail store or community center. Crushed oyster and clam shells are strewn atop bumpy dirt roads. The once-thriving Coles Chapel is dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. Slave cemeteries dot the landscape, hidden behind thick, gnarly brush. Only six of Bayview's homes have toilets, and one-third have no running water. Some lack electricity. For years, many residents have bathed, washed their clothes, and cleaned their dishes with water pumped from sewage-tainted wells.

Early in 1998, floods caused sewage to rise up out of primitive garden privies and saturate roads and pathways. Finally, residents lobbied for change. Alice Coles, president of Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, contacted Jane Cabarrus, president of the Northampton County branch of the NAACP.

Cabarrus brought in Sylvia Williams, a cochair of Women in the NAACP and a disaster relief coordinator for the national NAACP. Williams toured the area and declared it a disaster. In May, Williams brought Bayview to national attention. She organized a mass meeting to expose the poor living conditions and issued a news release comparing the community to a slave colony and to apartheid-era South Africa.

The document never made it into the local papers but was passed hand to hand in Northampton County. It called Bayview residents "disenfranchised citizens who are still living in the days of slavery."

Northampton County Administrator Thomas Harris said he welcomed the NAACP's high-profile focus on Bayview's problems but was troubled by the NAACP's use of such words as apartheid and slavery. Harris, who has held his post for five years, said: "We understand affordable housing is a need here. But I believe that what we need to do is change the dynamics of this community, with jobs and by increasing the tax base. We have a plan for addressing these problems, and it's long-standing."

The county government and local volunteer organizations actually have been working to improve conditions in Bayview. Many of the volunteers are white. Coles expects to spend a lot of time repairing the damage to delicate partnerships that the news release created. But Williams stands by her comments. "Maybe the words I said were offensive. But I tell it like I see it," she concludes.

While Bayview residents are grateful for the attention, they, like the NAACP, wonder why county offices--and a Northampton County--based agency funded to help such situations--did little until recently, despite ongoing health threats. A nonprofit, private agency, Virginia Eastern Shore Economic Empowerment and Housing Corporation, has received state and federal grants totaling more than $8 million over the past three years. "I was appalled when I found out millions had been put here [in Northampton County] and nothing had been done to help [Bayview]," said Williams.

I happened to visit on the day a klatch of county officials, NAACP representatives, and a host of media descended on the hamlet. Again and again they were told the story of how Bayview, once a mostly working-class black community, descended into poverty as local jobs evaporated. Some residents, bound to the community by family ties, now travel up to an hour to low-paying jobs at poultry-processing plants or companies that manufacture solar panels or concrete. Many others have left town, leaving behind a community that has little money, no amenities, and fading hope.

Promises for the future

Walking down a winding, pockmarked road, Williams pointed out the remains of a gutted shack. The blaze had happened five years before. Fire trucks could not navigate the rutted road, and an elderly woman perished in the flames.

Since the recent media uproar, politicians and bureaucrats have visited Bayview with various promises. State officials estimate that assistance will take the form of a $6--7 million program to improve the town's housing supply, water system, and other amenities. Sen. Charles Robb (D-Virginia) has visited the township and pledged to help get federal money to rebuild the dilapidated chapel as a community center. Officials from the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a bevy of private and government agencies promised millions of dollars in aid.

Robb followed on the heels of Republican Gov. James Gilmore and members of his office. "I wanted to see it with my own eyes," explained Gilmore. The governor chatted briefly with a few residents, some of them fifth-generation descendants of the freed slaves who founded the village. They explained that the community was once solidly blue collar, in the days when oystering and clamming formed the backbone of the Eastern Shore economy. When the bottom fell out of the seafood industry in the 1970s, Bayview was hit hard.

Many residents still depend on seasonal crops or shellfish processing for jobs. These bring yearly incomes so low that people can realistically only afford the $45-a-month shacks. Consequently, the area has lost population, jobs, and earning power for years. There is no incentive to stick around, and most young people leave to follow opportunities elsewhere. "Parents are sending them away for a better life," said Coles. "There's nothing to keep them here. People come back to retire.

"We were self-sufficient," she added, "but people in power gave out food stamps and welfare. It was a big mistake."

Perhaps the most hopeful moves were initiated in 1997. In partnership with the Nature Conservancy (which runs a 45,000-acre preserve along the peninsula's shore), Bayview Citizens for Social Justice applied for an EPA grant to create a plan to eliminate substandard living conditions. The $20,000 grant paid for three technical consultants to help Coles and her neighbors come up with a plan for restoring Bayview to the vital community it once was. Affordable homes (both privately owned and rental units), retail stores, churches, and a post office are planned, and some cottage industries would be introduced.

The proposal, which Northampton officials support, is years from completion. But for now, residents are going to get three deepwater community wells to provide clean drinking water--although they will have to go to the well to draw it--and forty sanitary pit privies designed to last until residents can be moved into the new homes. Approximately seventy-five to a hundred houses, complete with indoor plumbing, are planned. They will be built on forty-three acres across the road from where Bayview's crumbling shacks now sit. Maurice Cox, an architecture professor at the University of Virginia, helped design the new community.

Locals hope the focus on their community will keep the rebuilding efforts alive. "There's nothing like being under the spotlight to make you move with a kind of speed uncommon on the Eastern Shore," said Cox. "It hurts me to have to expose all this just to get a little bit of attention and help," commented Coles. "But my reason to do it was not to bring the county down but to build us up. I want to let them know that we mean business."

Bayview's residents now try not to dwell on what has gone before. "We need to look to the future," Coles told Bayview residents, local leaders, and county officials, at a recent dedication of the new drinking wells. "The people of the Eastern Shore need to leave here today holding hands, trying to get something done, instead of looking at our problems as a fight between black and white, or between right and wrong," she stated. "I like to think that [in rebuilding the community] we are building bridges and not building walls."

Peter Holden is a freelance photographer and writer who specializes in Chesapeake issues.
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Author:Holden, Peter
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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