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Former segregated library now a Portsmouth museum

By Lia Russell, The Virginian-Pilot
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 20--PORTSMOUTH -- It's official. The Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum is finally a city museum, the culmination of a goliath 15-year effort spearheaded by the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth.

A City Council resolution June 10 was followed by the signing of a memorandum of agreement between the city and the historical society that became effective July 1. It ensures the newly created museum of local black history at 904 Elm Ave. will have the support it needs to survive and thrive as an educational resource and repository of regional historical African American artifacts.

The 900-square-foot structure was a Jim Crow-era library for the black citizenry of Portsmouth from 1945 until 1962.

"We've finally reached the end of the tunnel and come out the other side," said Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, historical society president and project visionary. "I am so grateful to all the people who helped bring this dream to fruition. It was truly a team effort."

The agreement between Portsmouth and the historical society states the city will fund the operation, maintenance and management of the museum. It also will insure the building and its exhibits while they are on display.

"The story the building tells is an important historical asset to the city of Portsmouth and it adds to the interpretation that is presented at the other museums," said city museums director Nancy Perry, who also oversees the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Lightship Portsmouth, Children's Museum of Virginia and the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.

Perry said she looks forward to working on future exhibits at the new museum.

Per the agreement, the historical society retains ownership of all artifacts and will offer them to the museum on loan. It also will provide volunteers, raise funds, and promote museum programming, exhibits and events.

"It was important that we maintain control of the artifacts," said society member Howard Foust, a retired Portsmouth educator. "We looked at some museums that had to disband and the city took their artifacts, but didn't know what to do with them. We didn't want that to happen to us in case we ever have to disband the museum."

The agreement specifies the society also must maintain liability insurance and provide proper storage for its collection. Another stipulation is for the society to designate a liaison to the Museum and Fine Arts Commission. Gwendolyn Murphy-Cayard, the organization's treasurer, was selected for that position.

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The historical society and the city have gone back and forth on details regarding the responsibilities of each since 2012.

"Everything takes so long to get done in politics, but I am very excited about this because I'm kind of a history buff," said Mayor Kenneth Wright. "I'm very interested in how we're going to get our young people from schools, clubs and church organizations to come in and share our Portsmouth history."

Wright recently helped the historical society attain photographs, documents and other materials from the estate of Moses F. Gibson Jr. He was a former postal worker and senior member of Emanuel AME Church who died in October.

The mayor was driving by Gibson's home when he saw contractors throwing out personal belongings. He retrieved them and offered them to Breckenridge-Haywood, who said the yield contained many important items, including Gibson's postal worker hat, I.C. Norcom High School yearbooks, photographs and wedding gift cards that were signed by a "who's who" of Portsmouth's 1930s African American community.

"It was a treasure trove," Breckenridge-Haywood said. "It is a great addition to our collection."

Breckenridge-Haywood said the society has raised and spent about $150,000 on the restoration of the library museum's interior and on curating and setting up its first exhibit titled "Forever Free: Portsmouth Stories of African American Strivings and Successes."

"What's most gratifying," she said, "is that all in Portsmouth have embraced this project -- not just the African American community."

Lia Russell, 222-5562, [email protected]


Want to go?

What Portsmouth Community Colored Library Museum

Where 904 Elm Ave.

Hours Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 10 a.m. -- noon and 1 -- 4 p.m. Other times available by appointment.

Admission Donation

Info Call 757-966-9923 or visit


(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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