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Black waterman villages in Suffolk among Virginia’s most endangered historic places

A highway historical marker in the Hobson community of Suffolk.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
A highway historical marker in the Hobson community of Suffolk.

Preservation Virginia said the communities of Hobson and Oakland are both threatened by flooding and encroaching modern development.

For years, Mary Hill has watched her Suffolk community of Hobson slowly disappear.

Hill is a seventh-generation descendant of Black freedmen who helped build the community centuries ago. They established a self-sufficient oyster industry that thrived along the Nansemond River until pollution devastated it starting around the 1960s.

Since then, historical buildings once crucial to tight-knit community culture have been torn down, Hill said.

Mary Hill and colleagues sift through oysters harvested from Hill’s seventh-generation oyster grounds in Chuckatuck Creek in Suffolk. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Mary Hill, right, sifts through oysters harvested from her seventh-generation oyster grounds in Chuckatuck Creek in Suffolk.

Many who were alive in the village’s heyday have died, and some other descendants moved away and sold property passed down for generations. In their place, developers are building modern, more expensive homes that edge out historic ones.

“You have a slow death” of the area, said Hill, who is in her early 60s.

She now hopes a new designation will bring attention and funding to the area.

Preservation Virginia listed Hobson as one of the state’s most endangered historic places, along with another African American waterman village down the road called Oakland, which was established in the 1800s.

“Despite their distinct histories, both villages face similar threats,” the nonprofit said in an announcement this week. “United in their struggles and shared history, residents from both villages have joined forces, forming advocacy groups to preserve their legacies.”

Oakland and Hobson are fighting on multiple fronts.

One is to preserve physical structures that are vestiges of their shared past. Another is to protect the communities enough to ensure their future.

The villages experience rising flooding and erosion that swamp home septic systems and overwhelm drainage ditches. Newer houses are built on higher ground directly next to old ones, which can lead water to run off into neighbors’ yards and worsen drainage issues.

On the same day as the endangered places announcement, Hill and others outlined the ongoing problems to a meeting of the state’s Environmental Justice Council in Portsmouth.

“We really need some assistance,” said Lorna Taylor, a lifelong Oakland resident. “Homes are being overtaken right now.”

Standing water on one of Mary Hill's properties in the Suffolk community of Hobson, which faces ongoing flooding and drainage issues exacerbated by modern development.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Standing water on one of Mary Hill's properties in the Suffolk community of Hobson, which faces ongoing flooding and drainage issues exacerbated by modern development.

Preservation Virginia’s listing includes potential solutions for saving these communities. They include getting commitments from the city of Suffolk to “address flooding issues, restore neglected infrastructure and protect the integrity of their historic neighborhoods.”

With development pressures mounting, the nonprofit also suggested determining the eligibility of certain sites for grant money and historic status.

Hill said it’s bittersweet to be deemed an endangered place, but she’s hopeful it will turn things around.

“For us to be chosen, it’s so huge,” she said. “That will give us a sense of protection while we continue to keep it moving and preserving and restoring and maintaining the character of our village.”

The Grand Contraband Camp in Hampton was also named in this year’s list of endangered historic places. It was established in 1861 after the Union Army took over Fort Monroe, and provided sanctuary for thousands of enslaved refugees.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.


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