Early African American settlement — When Collis P. Huntington established the ODLC in 1880, most Newport News residents were African Americans who lived in the area of 18th Street and River Road. There were no white schools in Newport News because there were few white children. However, a colored school was kept at a house across the C & O track near 28th street.
Huntington High School on 18th Street
Prior to having a local high school, parents had to send their children away to get a high school education and few parents could afford this expense that was often the equivalent of a college education.
According to the history of the First Baptist Church, in 1864, blacks in Newport News built a frame building on what corresponds to the 400 block of 28th Street. Thomas Poole of Isle of Wight County was the church’s first preacher. In 1897 a brick edifice was built and the towering steeple of the new church shown on the postcard was a landmark on the Newport News horizon for many years.
Many African Americans were homeowners who participated in a full community life of which church was often the center with vibrant evangelist ministers such as Elder Michauz who began to preach in Newport News in 1919 and was heard over National radio for 40 years.
There was a ready supply of labor among blacks and whites following the Civil War. Hundreds of able bodied, though untrained, men were available for jobs, and Collis Huntington, who led the Shipyard in its early years, was unshaken in his confidence in the capacity of both blacks and whites to learn. Blacks in Tidewater had many opportunities for work around the turn of the century and through World War I.
They worked on the piers, as watermen, in the shipyard and on the railroad.
The first official black primary school was located on 22nd Street between Jefferson and Marshall Avenues and was called the Twenty-second Street School. It stood on land donated by the ODLC. In 1896, the ODLC provided land for a new black elementary school — the John Marshall School. Eight years later, in 1912, “Negro parents and concerned Negro citizens, lead by lawyer Joseph Thomas Newsome, first petitioned city officials for a high school for Negro youths.” In 1919, the city reserved a room for high school students in the John Marshall Elementary School and named it the Dunbar High School. In 1924, students moved into the newly built Huntington High School at Marshall Avenue and 16th Street.
— Hattie Thomas Lucas, Huntington High School: Symbol of Community, Hope and Unity
A 1933 feature story in the Daily Press noted that the “(Black) Community could count eight lawyers and 17 physicians and surgeons currently practicing. Lavinia Marian Poe ‘enjoys the distinction of being the first Negro woman ever to be admitted to the Virginia bar.’” Additionally, the black community produced two of the greatest African American singers of all time — Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, who were born within a month of each other in 1918. A Newport News Public Library was named in honor of Pearl Bailey.