African-American History in Norfolk

Waterways to Freedom honors Norfolk’s proud participation in the Underground Railroad Network. In the early half of the 19th Century, tens of thousands of African American slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.  Their daring escapes were made possible by a clandestine network of people, hideouts, and willing ship captains that history would eventually call The Underground Railroad. Some speculate that enslaved African Americans departed Norfolk, Virginia more than any other port city along the eastern seaboard. With 1,500 ships visiting Norfolk’s waterfront each year, Virginia was the perfect gateway for slaves seeking freedom in the north.

To view the interactive site with audio, click here.

The lovingly restored Attucks Theatre– which in its heyday was the focal point of entertainment, business, and racial pride in Norfolk’s African American community, is once again a star on Norfolk’s cultural stage. The theatre was financed, designed and constructed by African-American entrepreneurs in 1919. The theatre was designed by Harvey Johnson, an African-American architect and was named in honor of Crispus Attucks, an African-American who was the first patriot to lose his life in the Revolutionary War. 

Norfolk is also the home to the West Point Monument at Elmwood Cemetery.  The memorial is a tribute to African-American veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. The soldier depicted on the monument is Norfolk native Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Carney was the first black soldier to receive Medal of Honor for his bravery. Nearly 100 African-American veterans are laid to rest in the West Point Cemetery -- this historic section of the once segregated Elmwood Cemetery.