Local history

Tommy L. Bogger (PhD, History ’76) delves into the history and lives of African-Americans in Tidewater Virginia.

By Terrance Afer-Anderson

Photo by Jason Hirschfeld.

This story originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on December 26, 2004, and is reprinted here with permission.

At 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 1863, about 5,000 local black residents gathered for an enthusiastic procession celebrating President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Overcome by emotion, three black women leapt from a wagon towed by two gaunt horses and trampled on several Confederate flags.

Tommy L. Bogger can envision the scene, nearly 142 years later. It’s one of hundreds of tales, maybe thousands, that this expert on Tidewater black history has collected through his many years of research and teaching at Norfolk State University, where he has served as director of archives since 1986.

“I like reading through old court records and newspapers and uncovering hidden gems,” said Bogger in his typical modest assessment of his painstaking pursuit of knowledge about the progenitors of Hampton Roads black heritage.

This affable repository of local black history would much rather talk about the people he met through his excursions into the past.

One of Bogger’s favorites is Mary Louveste, a mid-19th century domestic who later worked at Portsmouth’s old Gosport Shipyard and became a spy for the Union.

“She had seen the plans for the Confederate ship Virginia, observed its construction in the navy yard and relayed that information to the Union,” Bogger said, describing how the federal government gained information about rebel work to create the first ironclad warship.

But Bogger goes beyond spinning tales. He tries to immerse himself in the lives and times of black residents from earlier eras to understand their challenges and triumphs.

“I try to get into the mind of the black community, how they thought, how they were organized, who did they turn to for help,” said Bogger, who likens himself to a detective who steps into the character of the subject.

For example, Bogger’s research gives him insight into how New Year’s Day used to be an important African-American commemoration because of its link with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“The most prolific organization to orchestrate Emancipation Day celebrations was the Norfolk Emancipation Association, a committee of the most prominent African-American civic, political and religious leaders,” said Bogger. “They staged events for many, many years.”

As Bogger noted, the Jan. 2,1906, edition of The Norfolk Landmark, a predecessor of The Virginian-Pilot, reported that, “The emancipation parade and exercises of yesterday, conducted under the auspices of the Norfolk Emancipation Association, commemorating the forty-second anniversary of the freedom of the colored race from slavery, were the most impressive and successful since the organization of the association.”

The Landmark article continued: “The parade in the afternoon started promptly at 2:00 o’clock and covered the following line of march: Cumberland Street to Nicholson, to Smith, to Princess Anne avenue, to Church, to Johnson avenue, to Chapel, to Main, to Granby, to Bute street in Norfolk.”

Later in the evening, Bogger said, a prominent orator would deliver the Emancipation address at one of the churches.

Emancipation Day celebrations on New Year’s continued at least until the late 1920s, according to Bogger who found evidence in the Jan. 5, 1929 edition of the old Norfolk Journal and Guide, a black-oriented community newspaper.

In paraphrasing an address delivered to a full house at the Bank Street Baptist Church by the Rev. C. J. Henderson, pastor of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church, the Guide wrote: “If the Emancipation Proclamation is to be interpreted in terms of further usefulness, it must be translated into business activity and economic security. It is the time for the Negro to give careful and prepared thought to business operation. Negro business must find a way to tie up the nickels and dimes of the Negro masses. The race must examine and improve the economic side of life.”

Bogger, 60, traces his passion for history to growing up in Colonial Williamsburg. But there were detours.

His father, Arthur Bogger, worked as a construction laborer in Colonial Williamsburg, and wanted Bogger to go into medicine. His mother, Ethel Lee Bogger, was a maid in the library of the College of William and Mary. Both parents wanted more for their impressionable youngster.

In deference to his father, Bogger enrolled in the pre-med program at Howard University, after graduating from Williamsburg’s all-black Bruton Heights public school. A radical thinking Stokely Carmichael already was on campus and had begun to flame the passions of black pride and activism in his fellow students.

“I participated in marches and demonstrations in Washington and got caught up in history,” Bogger said.

However, he withdrew from the university after his father died on July 4, 1965.

“I was only out one semester when I was drafted,” Bogger said. “But I had injured my knee playing football as an underweight sophomore athlete in high school. This was prior to sports medicine, so they never operated. That kept me from passing the Selective Service physical and being sent to Vietnam.”

A semester’s absence did little to quench Bogger’s renewed thirst for history.

He transferred to the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College, now Norfolk State University, and earned a bachelor of arts in American history in 1968. Only one year later, he received his master’s in American history from Carnegie Mellon.

Bogger returned to Norfolk in 1969 and taught for two years at the newly renamed Norfolk State College. Two weeks before he started teaching, Bogger married Nan Henderson.

The couple, who live in the Fairfield Shores neighborhood of Virginia Beach, have been married for 35 years and have two children, Alexis, 26, and Jared, 24.

In 1976, Bogger earned his doctorate in American History: Early National Period 1776 to 1861 from the University of Virginia. He later returned to teaching at Norfolk State.

Bogger’s enclave on the ground floor of NSU’s library is laden with scholarly texts and journals. Pick a decade and ask him what life was like here for black residents, and he’ll pluck the exact documents from his shelves, leaf through a few well-thumbed pages and suddenly brighten as the words seem to surge through his fingertips and journey to his tongue. Now, he’s the animated storyteller.

“Yes, yes,” Bogger said, uttering the refrain he often uses to begin his stories. Here, for example, he elaborates on the importance of Jan. 1, 1863, the first day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in much of the South. “Remember,” he points out, “the law did not immediately apply to our sector of Virginia, which already was held by Union forces.” Nevertheless, local blacks came out in great numbers for their first public expression of the freedom soon to come.

As Bogger continued, he reveled in the actions and words of George W. Cook, spokesman for the Freed Men, a group of blacks that organized the grand Emancipation Day celebration on Norfolk’s Queen Street, now Brambleton Avenue.

Cook and others, Bogger recounted, led that first emanicipation procession to the home of U.S. Army Gen. Egbert L. Viele, the military governor of Norfolk. Speaking for the assemblage, Cook told Viele that the Freed Men were prepared to serve the Union’s cause: “We, the time worn sons of sorrow and oppression, stand ready and willing to shed our blood, if necessary, for the flag of the country that gave us birth.”

“It’s thrilling to come across the glowing accounts of the heroics of Norfolk-area blacks in the military histories of the Civil War,” Bogger said, returning to the present. “Five regiments of black troops were established in the area and there are accounts of their bravery under fire. Some of the blacks were even awarded the Medal of Honor. When I moved from Charlottesville and Richmond, I was elated to find the actual graves of the Civil War heroes.”

While researching his doctoral dissertation, Bogger had happened upon Norfolk’s West Point Cemetery and its mammoth monument to fallen black Union soldiers. Norfolk native Sgt. William Carney (1840-1908) was the first black American to win the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds while serving in the legendary Massachusetts 54th Colored regiment. The 1989 movie “Glory” told the story of the all-volunteer unit.

The character that Denzel Washington portrayed in the film was actually a compilation of several black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, Bogger said. Carney was the brave soldier who planted the American flag as the unit advanced on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner, S.C., July 18, 1863.

Heroics were not limited to the local black soldiers and sailors.

Bogger tells of Norfolk dentist Sam Nixon, whose practice was dedicated to serving the city’s slaves under the cover of night. Nixon took advantage of his nocturnal visits to assist many area blacks in embarking on the Underground Railroad.

When his stealth efforts were discovered, he had to flee. He had to use the same network of safe houses and daring black sailors on the Norfolk waterfront, Bogger said, to escape to New Bedford, Mass.

Nixon changed his name to Thomas Bayne, studied medicine in Massachusetts and opened a medical practice. He returned to Norfolk as Thomas Bayne and became a prominent political leader and was elected as a delegate to the 1867 Virginia Constitutional Convention, Bogger said.

The only enduring acknowledgement of Bayne’s contributions to Virginia history, Bogger said, is a Norfolk street that bears his name in the Broad Creek section of Norfolk, though few are aware of the tribute.

Bogger’s own family history has also been extensively researched.

His mother’s roots have been traced back nine generations to a 1790s slave girl born in South Carolina. Efforts to document his father’s family history, however, have been hampered by a change in the last name from the French Bozier to the phonetically spelled Bogger.

While continuing to research his own family tree, the tireless history detective remains committed to unearthing obscure pearls of American and African-American history throughout Hampton Roads. Often working in his NSU office long after much of the campus has fallen dark, Bogger can be found immersed in research.

“Someone has to be willing to sit in a corner every night and do the research,” Bogger said. “But what I enjoy most about my work is teaching and lecturing.”

Copyright (c) 2004, The Virginian-Pilot. Reprinted with permission.