Volunteers Hope to Keep Va. Town Going
By Sylvia Moreno
Less than 25 miles from his comfortable Virginia Beach home, Bayview residents lived in shanties with no water or indoor toilets. "Who would think that not more than 35 minutes away were a people who were living so destitute?" the Naval electronics supervisor wrote in his journal.
Stewart decided he wanted to make a difference.
As a result, a young mother who suffers from sickle cell anemia and her two daughters this month moved out of their tar-paper shack in Bayview's notorious "Bottom" – a low-lying swath of land with a gutted dirt road that floods in the rain – into a tiny house refurbished by Stewart and some of his co-workers and church friends.
The group rustled up donated materials and drove the bridge-tunnel across the Chesapeake Bay every Saturday for six months to build Victoria, Latoya and Kadijah Cummings a decent place to live. It still lacks running water and a bathroom, but it's sound and clean and dry.
The spirit of giving has filled Bayview this Christmas season. In fact, it has flourished for months, ever since a national civil rights group called attention to this pocket of abject poverty on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The community's plight captured international attention and drew volunteers from all over the country who, like Stewart, felt moved to help their fellow man.
In Detroit, retired postal clerk Janet Burgess took the living room furniture out of her house, packed it in a U-Haul truck, along with medical and cleaning supplies, clothes and blankets, and drove 745 miles straight to Virginia with a cousin and a friend to deliver the goods. The trio – singing church hymns and making testimonials all the way – arrived in early November. Burgess will be back to Bayview next month.
Clyde and Zobida Harrison of Norfolk – he's a retired building superintendent and she's a retired nurse – brought bottled water and food from a church pantry to Bayview residents every week from April through July. Now they deliver their load monthly.
Half a dozen members of Alexandria's Trinity United Methodist Church donated $500 in supplies and their time on a brilliant fall weekend in October to remake the front porch of one of the houses, which served as a community gathering spot and loading dock for donated goods. The crew intends to go back in the spring to work on another house, church member Tom Doyle said.
Michelle Bush, a quality control laboratory supervisor at Dynex Technologies in Chantilly, collected more than 400 pounds of clothing and shoes at work and persuaded UPS to ship it for free to Bayview in mid-October.
"What really happened to Bayview was a blessing," said Henrietta Collins, who lives here with two daughters and her husband. "I've been here 25 years, and this is the first time anybody's ever paid any attention to us. Everybody overlooked us – like we didn't exist. I just thank the Lord every day."
Bayview, settled by freed slaves last century and now mostly hidden from view along Northampton County's main thoroughfare, Route 13, long had been forgotten by outsiders. The 114 residents are among the poorest in Virginia by most statistics. Generations of black families have lived and died here with no running water or indoor plumbing. Most residents scrape by on $6,000 a year, working seasonal jobs in agriculture or seafood processing plants. More than half are illiterate.
The most attention Bayview had received in recent years was in 1995 when residents – devoted to preserving their settlement – beat back a state plan to locate a maximum-security prison in their midst. That battle waged, the community still had not won the war to get drinking water and sewage treatment.
Then last February, a group of residents contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sylvia Williams, an NAACP official from Washington, toured the community and declared residents the victims of a "modern-day apartheid system . . . still living in the days of slavery."
Williams was horrified to find tumbledown outhouses encrusted with dried sewage and rusty hand pumps that dripped cloudy, tainted water. Only six of the 52 houses have indoor toilets and running water; only three are up to building code. Dirt roads are pockmarked with gaping, rain-filled holes. Burned-out shacks stand as a reminder that fires are unquenchable where there is no water supply.
"I don't regret anything I said," Williams said. "It was God's way of giving me a way to get attention to this community. Somebody had to step out."
Since Williams's statements, conditions have improved slightly in Bayview. A state grant paid for the installation of two deep-water wells to provide clean drinking water, although residents still have to use outdoor pumps. The old outhouses were demolished, and 40 new pit privies were erected.
And Bayview Citizens for Social Justice, led by President Alice Coles, is negotiating with federal, state and local officials for up to $3 million in grants and loans to rebuild Bayview. In the spring, the group will buy 43 acres of farmland across the street from Coles's house. Ground should be broken next summer on the first of 60 new homes.
The attention has continued during the Christmas season. Last weekend, dozens of members of Reid AME Church in Lanham, Mount Rona Baptist and Carolina Baptist churches in the District and the Lynnhaven Kiwanis Club and Tallwood High School Key Club of Virginia Beach brought trucks and buses filled with gifts, food and clothing. Contributions also were made by numerous King George County schools, businesses and churches, along with the national and Virginia branch offices of the NAACP.
The visitors included Williams and Stewart, the Naval electronics supervisor. Even Northampton County Administrator Tom Harris – once stung, along with other county officials, by the public pronouncements regarding Bayview's living conditions – showed up.
Three preachers prayed. Gospel singers sang "I'll Never Leave You Alone." NAACP awards were given out. For hours, most of this small community sat outside under cover of winter clouds and prayed, sang, ate and received gifts as part of a very public celebration called "Bayview Day: Our Pathway to a New Day Begun."
Harris said he still disagrees with the rhetoric used to focus attention on Bayview but welcomes the response it generated.
"If this can be the spark that ignites the fire that solves the problem of housing on the Eastern Shore, that's great," Harris said. "I may not have liked the approach . . . but we have to accept that these conditions exist."
Many of those who have come to Bayview this year say they expect to remain involved far beyond the holiday season, including the Rev. Bessie Singleton, of New Beech Grove Baptist Church in Newport News, who has adopted Bayview as her flock.
Every Saturday morning, Singleton leaves her terminally ill husband for a few hours to preach the word to the community from the front yard of one of the homes. Since October, Singleton also has brought thousands of pounds of donated food and clothing to residents, along with Bibles and other religious literature.
"I'm not going to leave them," she said. "I'm not going to allow anybody . . . to do anything that's going to misuse them, mistreat them or abuse them or oppress them. I believe that God sent me here. I didn't come here on my own."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company