Erasing the “Black spot”: How a Virginia college expanded by uprooting a Black neighborhood

Sixty-plus years ago, the white leaders of Newport News, Virginia, seized the core of a thriving Black community to build a college. The school has been gobbling up the remaining houses ever since.

Katie Luck was sitting in her yard under a magnolia tree one afternoon in April when a school bus passed by. A white elementary school student shouted at her from a window, “You don’t belong here.”

The 81-year-old grandmother and retired teacher, who is Black, was so distressed that she called James and Barbara Johnson, who live down the road from her on Shoe Lane in Newport News, Virginia. The Johnsons, perhaps better than anyone, knew just how wrong the elementary schooler was. The stacks of files and photo albums on their dining room table are a shrine to what the Shoe Lane area used to be — and what it might have become.

Around 1960, in the last gasp of the Jim Crow era, the Shoe Lane community consisted of a church and about 20 Black families, including teachers, dentists, a high school principal and a NASA engineer. They owned ranch-style houses along Shoe Lane and three other streets, which formed a trapezoid enclosing woods and farmland. The Johnsons were planning to sell some of the farmland to Black people who aspired to the American dream of homeownership but were shut out of white neighborhoods by racist banking and zoning policies. The enclave’s population was about to grow.

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