Almost a lifetime ago, Charles Holland looked out upon this 300-year-old seaport city on the Chesapeake Bay and realized a harsh reality: a Negro with an all-consuming desire to become a classical singer was as out of place here as a black face at a WHITE ONLY lunch counter.
So in 1929, at age 19, Holland fled his home town for the opera houses of New York City and later Europe, where he became a respected classical tenor.
Last night, Holland, 73, returned for the first time to Norfolk from his home in the Netherlands and was lauded by this city's white mayor, who was barely 6 years old when Holland left. He was welcomed by a city eager to embrace its critically acclaimed native son and prove that life in Norfolk is not as it was when Holland's white voice teacher felt compelled to draw her curtains when she gave him lessons.
"I'm so happy I don't know what to do," Holland said backstage, minutes after he received waves of applause from an audience that rose to its feet after the first of his two-night performances with the Virginia Philharmonic.
"This has been most gratifying, a tremendous event."
That gratification, however, was tempered by the continued barrier of race--and by Holland's wry humor about that reality.
When a well-dressed white man reached from the crowd for the singer's hand last night, Holland shook it and accepted the man's praise. Then, before releasing his grip, Holland rubbed his brown thumb over the man's pink palm.
"No, it seems none of it rubbed off on me," he said.
"That's what little white children used to do to me in Europe. Now it's something I do, too."
The man and his wife responded with strained laughter and dissolved into the crowd, their faces red.
Holland performed in Chrysler Hall, the city's dazzling concrete palace for the performing arts, which as part of urban renewal, was built where generations of blacks lived until 10 years ago.
The 67-member orchestra that accompanied Holland has two black members. An estimated 200 blacks were among the almost 2,000 whites who attended his opening concert.
The median income for blacks in Norfolk is $10,258 compared to $17,548 for whites, and about five times as many whites as blacks have four or more years of college.
In modern Norfolk, a school board proposal to exempt the city's elementary school children from a decades-old plan to desegregate schools has stirred racial tensions anew.
"I regret very much that a man who has done well and is famous, has to come back into the environment he's found," said L.P. Watson, president of the Norfolk chapter of the NAACP.
"The issue of school desegregation was supposed to be settled years ago, this is something that is appalling. This is something that is tarnishing the image of a great city."
"The black community is upset," said the Rev. Joseph N. Green Jr., vice mayor and only black member of the seven-member City Council in a town that is 35 percent black. "It feels a sense of isolation."
Norfolk wronged Charles Holland, Mayor Vincent J. Thomas said before the performance. "We would like to set that right. I know it's impossible to set it completely right, but we would like to set it as right as we can at this late date."
For Holland, who closed his eyes while the audience sang "America the Beautiful" as a tribute to him, such gestures have come late.
"That ugly animal of racism," as he calls it, hounded his career in this country and abroad.
Soon after Holland, a dropout from Booker T. Washington High School, arrived in New York, he discovered his race was no less a barrier to his ambition there than in the South.
Eventually, he became a jazz singer with Fletcher Henderson's band, and later joined Hall Johnson's black choir. It was while he was with Johnson's choir that Holland's voice was used in the 1936 film, "The Green Pastures," a controversial all-black movie depicting the Old Testament in black dialect. "I wouldn't have been seen jumping around with wings on my back," he quipped.
By 1949, Holland had traveled to Europe with classical conductor Dean Dixon. But his color, which he was sometimes forced to hide under white face, continued to shape his career.
In Europe, blacks were not allowed to perform everywhere, and in Toulouse, France, police had to protect him from a mob angry over one of his singing engagements. He spent most of his life singing in local and regional opera houses.
It was not until 1977 that Holland met George Shirley, the first black tenor to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York.
Shirley introduced Holland to Stuttgart Opera conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who invited Holland to sing at California's Cabrillo Festival, although he had not sung professionally for years.
Holland recorded an album, and last December made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall, after which he told Newsweek magazine, "My dream is to sing in Norfolk, and not even be paid for it. That would please me more than anything. Even more than appearing at the Metropolitan Opera."
That led to an immediate invitation from Norfolk's Virginia Philharmonic.
"There are some good white people in the world," Holland said after his performance.
"If there wasn't it would be a pretty rough world, now wouldn't it?"
His voice cracked with a chuckle as he stood among a group of mostly graying black childhood friends and distant relatives who had come for a handshake, an autograph or a hopeful moment in which the world-traveled tenor would recognize them.
Holland could recall few of them, though the flurry of publicity before his arrival had made him a hero to people who had stayed behind.
An elderly white woman emerged from the crowd and Holland, who usually moves with cautious grace, suddenly jumped to his feet. "Barbara," he said.
The woman, Barbara Henley Siegert, was the daughter of the late May Hamaker Henley, who had taught the 14-year-old Holland classical music even though some of her white students quit because she did.
The 9-year-old Barbara Henley, Holland said, played with him while he waited for her mother to finish with other students.
"He was such an intelligent student," recalled Siegert, who flew from her home in Louisville to hear Holland sing again.
"He had such natural talent. I remember so well."