Magazine article The World and I

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

Magazine article The World and I

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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