Council OKs land donation for African American Cultural Center

Virginia Beach Councilwoman Amelia Ross-Hammond once told the proprietor of the city’s oldest minority-owned business that with his and the community’s help, stories like his could forever be preserved in a cultural center that honored African American history.

That man, Joseph Walton of Walton Funeral Home, died last week, days before city leaders took a major step toward making Ross-Hammond’s vision a reality.

On Monday, at Walton’s funeral, the councilwoman had another message for him:

Conceptual Rendering of African American Cultural Center
Conceptual Rendering of African American Cultural Center

“You will be remembered just like we talked about,” she said.

The City Council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding the next day to donate about 5 acres of land to a non-stock corporation that will build the center in Virginia Beach. It could be more than five years before the facility opens – about $8 million to $10 million in private money must still be raised to build it – but the vision for the 25,000-square-foot project is already detailed in drawings and plans.

There will be a rotunda hall, exhibits and galleries, meeting rooms, classrooms, an auditorium, space for outdoor events and possibly a historic journey walking trail, according to plans and the city’s ordinance. Among other things, it will house accounts of the lives of African Americans from Virginia Beach.

The property is a part of Lake Edward Park, at the intersection of Newtown and Diamond Springs Roads, near six of the city’s 12 historically black neighborhoods.

The vote Tuesday drew a standing ovation from council members and the audience. Ross-Hammond, currently the only black council member and one of only a few in the city’s history, called the vote a historic step.

Jim Banks, a member of the cultural center’s executive board, told the council before its vote that the site would help Virginia Beach remember Walton and other African Americans who would otherwise be lost to history.

People like Bettie F. Williams, a black educator who taught for half a century.

Many people know Williams is buried in Virginia Beach, Banks said, “but they don’t know where. They know we have a school named after her, but they don’t know where.”

Becky Livas, a former middle school history teacher, told the council that laws like No Child Left Behind prevent black children from learning much about their history in classrooms. And a lack of museums about that history doesn’t help teachers and parents fill in the gaps outside school.

Livas is the daughter of John Perry, the Beach’s first black councilman.

City officials hope the center will serve as an educational and cultural hub while also attracting tourists.

“We are the largest city in the commonwealth and we don’t have anything like this,” Ross-Hammond said in an interview.

Livas and Ross-Hammond said the area has a history of racial tension, and the councilwoman noted that far fewer blacks live in the Beach than in other Hampton Roads cities.

“Some people were wondering if the city would embrace the center,” Ross-Hammond said.

But times have changed, she said, and it has.

 

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Future African American Cultural Center site.

 

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