R. Joshua Sipe is the recipient of the 2018 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall Research Fellowship
The award was crucial to providing me the resources necessary to embark on several research trips to explore race relations and African American community formation in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area from the 1930s through the 1960s. My central research questions during my fellowship were: 1) How did defense communities for African Americans on the Peninsula get created? 2) How did community life in evolve? 3) What was white citizens of Hampton Roads response to the large increase of African Americans due to World War II? 4) How did the creation of defense communities alter the social, economic, and political dynamics of the Peninsula?
In hopes of better understanding the answers to these questions, using fellowship fund I travelled to the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia, and Newport News, Virginia for research. At the National Archives, I explored the records of the Public Housing Administration (RG 196), the Workers Project Administration (RG 69), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (RG 207). The week researching these records revealed important logistical and operational functions and considerations at the federal level in installing defense housing projects in the South. While the National Archives lacked a large amount of records related to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, memorandums, letters, and plans from other African American housing developments in southern urban areas revealed the tense relations between federal officials and state and local representatives who wanted to preserve the racial status quo. These findings were echoed in sources located at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia.
The bulk of my research centered in and around Newport News, Virginia where I explored city council records, the Newport News Housing Authority records, and conducted oral history interviews with community members. Through city records two important coinciding developments became apparent: an increasingly anxious and fearful white city leadership, and most importantly a growing vocal and politically active African American community. These developments have become the keystones to the evolution of my current project, in which I explore Newport News leader’s strategy of Peninsula consolidation to re-inscribe white rule to counteract the growing political activity of African American citizens. This episode in Hampton Roads history illustrates the constant remaking and reshaping of Jim Crow in the South, especially as the Civil Rights Movement grew. The fellowship’s support of my archival research led to the shift in my project and provided a strong foundation from which my master’s thesis has grown.
While my archival research in Newport News most dramatically affected the trajectory of my research, my favorite part of my fellowship was the oral history interviews I conducted. Using community connections from previous research, I was able to schedule a few interviews with individuals who resided in the African-American defense communities built in and around Newport News. Hearing the stories of these individuals, as with most oral history interviews, provided personal insights, anecdotes, and richness other sources do not provide. I am always shocked at and grateful for the openness and level of vulnerability my interviewees offer. Their reflections on events and the trials they share continually illuminate the importance of completing oral history interviews and the shared positive experience the interview provides for both the interviewer and the interviewee. I will always remember the passion and pride the individuals I interviewed shared about the communities they grew up and live in during a time of segregation and the beginnings of great change on the Peninsula.
I am very appreciative and grateful for the various research opportunities the Jacquelyn Dowd Hall Research Fellowship allowed me to pursue. Without the financial support of the fellowship, I would not have been able to make as much progress as I was able to on my master’s thesis. The volumes of material I engaged with not only have contributed to my current project, but should provide an important source base for my future work.