I ordered Norfolk: A People’s History specificially for the 2015 Reading Challenge as my book that is set in my hometown. Yeah….I realize that I could have searched for a fiction book set in Norfolk, but I didn’t have much patience for it. I’m also not a fan of “manly man military fiction books” which, if it involves the Navy, will at least mention Norfolk, VA.
Speaking of which, BF’s been binge watching NCIS and we are amazed by how they’re able to get from DC to Hampton Roads in 15 minutes or less! There was also an early episode that mentions I-264 (or I-64, I can’t remember which) when they’re clearly on I-564 (564 being the direct route to the base). Anyway, I digress.
But…maybe I’m not digressing too much. I mean, that’s a main theme of this short history: how Norfolk is both defined by the Navy and yet refuses to be defined as anything but “Anytown, USA”. We’re often mentioned whenever the Navy is, but at the same time, it’s an anonymous place. The media can’t even be bothered to get the basic facts right when it comes to portraying this town. Huh, while double checking whether Kevin Bacon’s The Following is set in Norfolk (as I remember hearing shortly before it premiered) I learned that Wikipedia has a page for “Books set in Norfolk”, but the 4 that I checked are all set in Norfolk, England, which is why I gave up (even Mr American). Anyway, back to The Following–I think there was an article in The Virginian Pilot about the show which said that even though it’s supposed to be set in Norfolk, locals would recognize nothing.
This history is short and to the point, which has it’s benefits and it’s downfalls. It’s like reading an article on Wikipedia: you’ll get the gist of the story, but depth and nuances are lost.
For instance, one point I thought was lacking was on how Norfolkians responded to Union occupation during the Civil War. Ms. Rose claims that there was a lot of dislike of the Union Occupiers because Norfolk was Pro-Confederacy. This is inaccurate–the towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth were actually Pro-Union for the most part. Now, the rest of Hampton Roads was mostly Pro-Confederacy and I’ve read the diary of one woman from Chesapeake who hated Benjamin Butler and accused him of all sorts of inhumanities even as he treated her husband fairly enough. But my absolute favorite story of the Civil War in Portsmouth (which was essentially an extension of Norfolk) was of the ladies fainting in the streets as it was announced that Virginia had seceded the Union. They were certain that Lincoln was going to turn the guns of Fort Monroe upon them and blow them to kingdom come. In fact, this idea never crossed any official desk.
A few years ago I was appalled to learn that in Virginia it is perfectly legal to not educate your children (2 or 3 years ago there was a census of like 2000 kids who were not participating in any structured education). While I can support homeschooling and believe that a parent who can educate their children should be able to do so, I do think that it’s society’s obligation to ensure that those children are at least taught the basics and that the Standards of Learning (SOLs–VA’s state tests) should be required of all students to check that they are getting taught something useful! I’d like to think that even without state tests, these children are learning to read and do basic math and are getting an appreciation for science and history, but then I’ve been reading Homeschoolers Anonymous and hearing the personal accounts of what some children went through. There are a few topics where I feel that one person is too many and this is one of those–one child being denied a good education while the government lets it happen is too many.
This history of Norfolk explains that this lack of educating in Virginia stems from not only the lack of importance placed on education prior to the 1950’s, but also was the result of opposition towards desegregation. In fact, in the 1950s, the VA Assembly abolished the law that made school attendance compulsory, which is why it’s legal in VA to not educate your children. Grr.
But it wasn’t until the 1990’s that education became important in Norfolk and I was one beneficiary of the push for pre-school education for poor children. When I got into Pre-K, even though it was taught at what was going to be my elementary school, admittance was limited to poor children who needed extra help. There was a test of basic knowledge that I had to take and according to my dad, the person giving the test had to lie about the fact that I could identify my stomach to get me in so that we could get that little bit of free child care so my mom could work a little more (it was only a half day back then). Even though my parents did a lot to prepare me for school and I didn’t really need the Pre-K classes for education’s sake, besides the child care, Pre-K also got me started in a school environment a year earlier than Kindergarten would have which actually made me about the same age as a Kindergartner. You see, my birthday is in late October, but the cut off for Kindergarten was being 5 on September 30th. I wouldn’t have started school until I was nearly 6 without Pre-K!
I did learn one thing about myself while reading this history: everyone looks Italian too me (my mom’s family is Italian)! I did NOT know that the Deckers and the Doumars are Lebanese–I thought they were Italian! And I thought I was multi-cultured! I was surprised that that infamous Greek Festival wasn’t mentioned even though a basic history of the Greeks in Norfolk was covered. I’ve never been.
Anyway, this is a good overview of the city and I’m intrigued to read more of these snapshots of American life.
Vintage Map of Norfolk and Portsmouth VA (1873) by Alleycatshirts
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