In the Spotlight, A Community's Poverty
By Sylvia Moreno
On a sun-kissed afternoon, Victoria Cummings fetches her 5-year-old daughter, Kadijah, from the Head Start bus stop up on the asphalt road.
Together they walk home, ambling through mud and skirting huge rain-filled holes that scar the half-mile dirt road. They stroll past rickety outhouses, the privy seats and floors encrusted with dried sewage that seeped up through the ground during spring's heavy rains.
They pass a few burned-out carcasses of tar-paper shacks and some empty houses. One is left strewn with piles of grimy clothes and overdue hospital bills marked "urgent."
Once home, Kadijah exerts her tiny biceps by pumping a dishpan full of off-color rust-flavored water from the outdoor hand pump that her mother will use for her "bath." Cummings plans a trip to the store to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking with her food stamps. Her 12-year-old, Latoya, gets home about 3:30 p.m., and Cummings leaves shortly after that for her night-shift job cutting fat off plucked chickens.
Cummings's dream is simple: "Water -- running water -- inside the house," she says.
The small settlement of Bayview sits on a peninsula across the Chesapeake Bay from the rest of Virginia. One in a string of Eastern Shore communities settled by freed slaves, it slowly has sunk into abject poverty in a state where much of the economy hums with the promise of the next century. Bayview's 114 residents are among the most impoverished in what, by some measures, is Virginia's poorest county.
Last week, the Northampton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called in national officials of the organization to tour Bayview, and they pronounced themselves appalled at what they found. They declared Bayview a disaster and its residents the victims of a "modern-day apartheid system."
They called the living conditions inhumane, the village equivalent to a Third World colony, and its residents "disenfranchised citizens who are still living in the days of slavery."
"We're supposed to be the richest country in the world," said Sylvia Williams, co-chairperson of the Women in the NAACP and head of the disaster relief team. "We're less than 300 miles away from the United States capital, and we have people told, `We can't get you a well until we get a grant.' Why has it taken all these years?"
That question resonated last week throughout the peninsula, once the country's richest hub of oyster shellfishing and white potato production. But that was long ago.
For years, the area has lost population, jobs and earning power. Today, 28 percent of Northampton residents live in poverty, while 30 percent make less than $10,000 annually and 20 percent have less than a ninth-grade education. The county usually ranks last in Virginia when it comes to median gross income. The county's per-capita welfare payments are more than 1 1/2 times the state average.
"I've been here for five years, dealing with . . . the reality of Northampton County," said County Administrator Thomas E. Harris, who was once a town manager in Prince William County. "This is the poorest planning district in Virginia."
Thirty percent of Northampton's housing stock was built before 1940, and 12 percent of all homes lack indoor plumbing; 10 percent have outdoor pit privies and 8 percent lack complete kitchen facilities.
"I used to have a girlfriend in Florida, and I would write her and tell her how we lived here: no pumps, no running water. And she wrote and said she didn't believe it," says Cummings, 29, as she sits inside her living room, next to a smelly char-streaked kerosene heater that provides warmth in the winter.
Cummings is actually better off than some of her neighbors, having lived away from Bayview briefly and getting occasional access to running water at relatives' homes.
"Some people have lived and died here and never flushed a stool," said Alice Coles, whose family once ran Bayview's black chapel and who now heads Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, which encouraged the local NAACP chapter to call in national officials.
Bayview today is a cluster of ramshackle homes and shacks with no community center or retail stores. Crushed oyster and clam shells are strewn atop bumpy dirt roads. The once-thriving Coles Chapel is dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. Slave cemeteries dot the landscape, hidden behind thick gnarly brush and trees ablaze with jasmine-scented flowers.
The Eastern Shore's biggest employers are poultry processing plants and companies that manufacture solar panels and concrete -- most of them an hour away. Many Bayview residents depend on seasonal crop or shellfish processing jobs that bring them yearly incomes so low they can only afford $45- and $50-a-month shacks.
"We understand affordable housing is a need here," Harris said. "But I believe that what we need to do is change the dynamics of this community, with jobs and by increasing the tax base. We have a plan for addressing these problems, and it's long-standing."
Although Harris and other county officials said they welcome the NAACP's high-profile focus on Bayview's problems, he said he was troubled by the NAACP's use of words such as "apartheid" and "slavery."
"I'm very upset that [NAACP official Williams] chose to take that approach," Harris said. "We didn't agree."
The language was jarring but necessary, said University of Virginia architecture professor Maurice Cox, who is working with Bayview residents on a long-term plan to improve living conditions.
"It had the desired effect," Cox said. "Someone else perceived these conditions as unacceptable, and if they were unacceptable to them, they should be unacceptable to us."
In fact, county and regional officials and various community groups have been chipping away at the peninsula's dismal substandard housing problem for several years. Two shantytowns in Exmore and Cheriton are being rebuilt with federal, state and private housing funds. More affordable housing has been built in four other communities. Efforts to attract economic development to the county through the seafood/aquaculture industry, an ecological industrial park and tourism are underway.
Work to revitalize Bayview actually started more than a year ago by residents, organized under the Bayview Citizens for Social Justice. Three years ago, the group of black residents -- descendants of slaves who worked the sandy Northampton soil -- teamed up with white residents to defeat the location of a large maximum-security state prison in Bayview.
Although the project would have brought 425 jobs, it called for the demolition of some of the homes in Bayview, where almost everyone is related by blood or marriage.
"We were brought here to be slaves, and now they were going to demolish these little African American towns," Coles said. "I opposed it."
In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, which runs a 45,000-acre preserve along the peninsula's shore, Bayview Citizens for Social Justice applied last year for a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant to create a community-based plan to eliminate substandard living conditions in Bayview.
The $20,000 grant paid for three technical consultants to help Coles and her neighbors come up with a plan for remaking Bayview into the rural village it once was, with retail stores, churches, a post office, privately owned homes, rental units and cottage industries. Fifty to 100 affordable houses would be built.
The proposal, which Northampton County officials support, is years from completion. But for now, residents are going to get three deep-water community wells to provide clean drinking water -- although they still will have to go to the well to draw it -- and they will get 40 new, sanitary pit privies designed to last until new homes are built and residents are moved.
The county permits and the permission from private landowners to begin the work on those rudimentary projects were obtained last week by the NAACP's disaster team, headed by Williams. The work should be completed by the end of this year.
That will be the first step in the rebuilding of Bayview, and residents say they hope the harsh spotlight on their community will help keep the effort alive.
"It hurt me to have to expose all that to get a little bit of attention and a little bit of help," Coles said. "But my reason to do that was not to bring [the county] down, but to build us up. I want to let them know that we mean business."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company