The Founders

 

Dr. Robert J. Brown. History of the American Negro and His Institutions, Vol. 5.

One of the Seaview founders was a Norfolk dentist with an unusual business enterprise. Dr. Robert Junius Brown Jr., also graduated from the dental college at Meharry. In 1916, he opened an office in Norfolk and practiced there for forty-one years. He was known for founding the Prudosene Toothpowder and Toothpaste Company, a nationally distributed dental product. Brown died in 1957.

The Men

A resort owned by African Americans was extremely rare during this period and the men who banded together to create this space were entrepreneurs ahead of their time. Although there were twenty-one investors[i] several of the Seaview founders stood out for their prominence in the community or for their numerous business pursuits or charitable acts.

The man most associated with Seaview was William T. Mason. Mason, “one of the first African-American millionaires in Virginia,”[ii] was president of the Seaview board for most of its operation. He was also manager of City Beach during its time under the Norfolk Community Hospital. Mason, born in 1897, was an immigrant from Trinidad, West Indies. He came to the United States sometime around 1916, attended the University of Chicago and majored in business.[iii]

After graduation, he moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he worked for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, an African-American agency. He later moved to Norfolk and opened a branch of the Bankers Fire Insurance Company as well as a small real estate agency called W.T. Mason and Co.[iv]

Mason had many business dealings in addition to Seaview. He was also president of the Metropolitan Realty Company, which owned the Metropolitan Bank Building located on the corner of Church Street and Brambleton Avenue in Norfolk.[v] He spent many years in the real estate and property management field and in 1941, was hired by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority as the first manager of Roberts Park and Liberty Park, which together contained nine hundred rental units for government workers during WWII.[vi]

Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 11, 1976.

 

Mason’s investments included not only Seaview Beach but also land that had been subdivided into thirty lots adjacent to the site. Mason’s son, William Mason Jr. recalled that the lots, located just south of Shore Drive, were sold to whites. He noted there was a “white real estate firm that handled the whole promotion.”[vii] Mason Sr. and partner, Irving Watts, also owned land in old Princess Anne County, which they subdivided and sold for home sites. Their partnership was instrumental in a number of Hampton Roads developments including Broad Creek Shores, Cape Story by the Sea, Fair Meadows, Nansemond Shores and Cloverdale.[viii]

In the 1940s and 1950s, white banks refused to give loans to African Americans. Mason, many times, stepped in to help fellow businessmen with projects such as the financing of L and J Gardens in Princess Anne County.[ix] Mason retired as administrator of the Norfolk Community Hospital after 23 years as a founder, superintendent and administrator.[x] Mason died in 1976. A few weeks after his death, the Norfolk Journal and Guide posted a story titled “Mason’s Estate Over $1 Million.”[xi]

The Seaview founders were highly educated men and worked as professionals in Norfolk or Portsmouth, Many of them, like the Watts brothers, had side investments as well. Attorney Wilbur O. Watts and his brother, Dr. Irving Watts, were part of a well-known long-time family from Hodges Ferry. The family operated a 500-acre farm employing over 500 seasonal workers. The Norfolk Journal and Guide noted that the “Watts Brothers were known for their business ventures.” Wilbur and his brothers also operated a truck farm, sold produce from their family business, established and owned a 12-car taxi cab service called Safeway Cab,[xii] owned open-air markets and had investments in Victory Café, the Inter-City Bus Line and Seaview Beach.[xiii]

In addition to Safeway Cab, Watts’s also established a franchise called Watts Motor Bus Company. The Norfolk Journal and Guide wrote that only “two other bus companies in the nation are owned and operated by Negroes.”[xiv] His Christmas tree business was reported to be the “largest individual distributor of Christmas trees in the entire South.” The annual shipments of 50,000 trees loaded in seven boxcars.[xv]

He was also a senior partner in Watts Brothers Real Estate Loans and Investment Association.[xvi] In 1954, the brothers announced that they had purchased a 15-acre tract of land on the Nansemond riverfront near Belleville for a housing development.[xvii]

Watts was married to Dr. Helen Mewborn for less than two years. She was a Portsmouth physician and graduate from Howard University’s medical school.[xviii] In 1953, his life took a tragic turn when she was killed in an automobile accident while pregnant with their first child. He died the following year of a heart attack.[xix]

Irving Watts was a prominent Portsmouth dentist and real estate developer. He was a graduate of Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry and practiced in Petersburg for 10 years before moving his practice to Portsmouth in 1942.[xx] The practice was located at the corner of Effingham and County Streets.[xxi] Watts was a founder of Seaview and active in real estate investments. He was instrumental in the construction of the Nansemond Shores and Drum Creek Farms neighborhoods.[xxii] Watts died in March of 1968.[xxiii]

Many of the Seaview founders were extremely involved in their churches and religious organizations. Several of the men were known throughout Hampton Roads for their humanitarian work. Reverend J. Albert Handy, a graduate of the Bible College of Philadelphia, built and operated the Colored Union Mission in Norfolk. In the 1930s, most missions were only for whites. In the book Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia during the 1930s, Norma Cromwell Fields noted the Colored Union Mission “offered black men who were out of work, free food and a place to stay.”[xxiv]

In addition to his investments in Seaview, Handy was vice president of the Metropolitan Bank and Trust, one of the early African-American banks, and vice president of the Solvent Realty Corporation.[xxv] Handy also operated Camp Handy, a camp for eight to twelve year old boys, located directly in front of Seaview Beach. The land, which had been purchased from the Seaview Beach Corporation, included a two-story dormitory, five cottages and modern facilities.[xxvi]

Another one of the Seaview founders was a Norfolk dentist with an unusual business enterprise. Dr. Robert Junius Brown Jr., also graduated from the dental college at Meharry. In 1916, he opened an office in Norfolk and practiced there for forty-one years. He was known for founding the Prudosene Toothpowder and Toothpaste Company, a nationally distributed dental product.[xxvii] Brown died in 1957.[xxviii]

At least three of the men were local physicians: Dr. U.S.G. Jones, Dr. Alfred Fentress and Dr. Harry Boffman. All were well-respected men in the medical field and active in both local and national medical organizations.

Dr. U.S.G. (Ulysses Simpson Grant) Jones was an alumnus of Leonard Medical College and practiced medicine in Norfolk for thirty-five years.[xxix] He was chief of the Norfolk Community Hospital’s obstetric staff. Jones was also chairman of a committee to open the first prenatal and postnatal clinic for African Americans in Norfolk.[xxx]

Jones was known for his compassion and served the medical needs of residents of the Colored Union Mission free of charge.[xxxi]

Dr. Alfred C. Fentress, a graduate of Meharry Medical College, operated a medical office in Norfolk in 40 years and was a member of the surgical staff at Norfolk Community Hospital.[xxxii] He died in 1971.[xxxiii]

Dr. Harry R. Boffman practiced medicine in Missouri for thirteen years before moving his practice to Portsmouth. He was a former president of the Portsmouth Medical Society and graduate of Meharry Medical College.[xxxiv] He operated a “maternity sanitarium” for African-American women in Portsmouth. In 1944, an article in the Norfolk Journal and Guide explained, “his maternity ward was set up because local hospitals had refused to take Negro maternity cases and because colored physicians are not permitted to treat their patients in local hospitals.”[xxxv]

Display ad. Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 30, 1950.

 

Many of the Seaview founders were industrious businessmen such as Talmadge Johnson. Johnson operated the Talmadge-Johnson Fuel Company on Gosport Road in Portsmouth. The business sold fuel oil, coal and wood.[xxxvi] He also owned a grocery store, car wash and service center in the Truxtun area.[xxxvii]

Johnson was active in the community. He was part of a democratic organization that met at Seaview Beach to promote “political consciousness among Negro Virginians” and to encourage voting and influence legislation.[xxxviii]

Other Seaview founders were less known but prominent in the community as industrious businessmen. An example is Archie Tice, who operated the Standard Barber Shop on Brambleton Avenue for many years, and also worked in the circulation department of the Norfolk Journal and Guide.

Another businessman was Andrew M. Sutton, treasurer of the Seaview Beach Corporation, was the founder of Sutton Bus Line as well as a contractor and builder. He died in 1975.

One of Portsmouth’s local legends was William Emerson (W.E.) Waters. He was well known as a civic leader and principal of I.C. Norcom High School. In 1930, he moved from Wildwood, New Jersey to work at the school as a chemistry and physical education teacher. He also coached football and track and started the school’s first basketball team. In 1942, he became principal of the school and was instrumental in its success. He was known locally as “the father of modern track.”[xxxix] Waters was on numerous boards including the Portsmouth General Hospital, the American Red Cross and was one of three African Americans elected to the Central YMCA board.[xl] Today W.E. Waters Middle School in Portsmouth honors his name.[xli]

Dudley Cooper, a white man, was instrumental in the success of Seaview. Cooper, owner of the Ocean View Amusement Park as well as Seaside Park, operated the amusements at Seaview. He was a successful optometrist in Norfolk and known for his involvement in the Hampton Roads Jewish and African-American communities. He often held free eye clinics for children at schools, usually in poorer African-American neighborhoods.[xlii] Cooper felt that Seaview was “not a successful business venture, but it was a sociological situation and it was considered successful.”[xliii]

 

Citations below:

[i] The original twenty-one founders and Seaview Board of Directors included; William T. Mason Sr., Wilbur O. Watts, Dr. Irving Watts, Rev. J.A. Handy, Dr. R.J. Brown, Leroy Berry, Andrew M. Sutton, Joseph D. Wilbur, Dr. U.S.G. Jones, Dr. Alfred C. Fentress, W.E. Waters, A.J. Tice, R.E. Spellman, James R. Purvis, William Moore, William Marks, Herbert G. Carter, D. H. Randolph Boffman, Charles Artis, Talmadge Johnson and Thomas Brow

[ii] Littlejohn, Jeffrey L., and Charles Howard Ford. Elusive equality: desegregation and resegregation in Norfolks public schools. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 96.

[iii] “Prominent Businessman Mourned.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 11, 1976.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] William T. Mason Jr., Interview by Dr. Cassandra-Newby, Robinson Law Group offices, Norfolk, Va., March 5, 2008, March 12, 2008. https://scvahistory.org/oral-histories-judges-and-court-staff/oral-histories-civil-rights-attorneys/william-t-mason-norfolk-civil-rights-attorney/Accessed on June 20, 2017.

[viii] “Prominent Businessman Mourned.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 11, 1976.

[ix] William T. Mason Jr., Interview by Dr. Cassandra-Newby, Robinson Law Group offices, Norfolk, Va., March 5, 2008, March 12, 2008. https://scvahistory.org/oral-histories-judges-and-court-staff/oral-histories-civil-rights-attorneys/william-t-mason-norfolk-civil-rights-attorney/Accessed on June 20, 2017.

[x] “Norfolk Hospital Board pays Honor to Mr. Mason, Retiring Administrator.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 28, 1955.

[xi] “Mason’s Estate over $1 Million.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, January 1, 1977.

[xii] “W.O. Watts Bus Firm Historic.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 22, 1944.

[xiii] “Watts must Distribute 30,000 Xmas Trees Before Santa Comes.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 25, 1948.

[xiv] “W.O. Watts Bus Firm Historic.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 22, 1944.

[xv] “Watts must Distribute 30,000 Xmas Trees Before Santa Comes.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, December 25, 1948.

[xvi] “Hundreds Attend Funeral for Att’y Wilbur Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 20, 1954.

[xvii] “Hundreds at Funeral for Att’y Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 13, 1954.

[xviii] “Dr. H.T. Mewborn Engaged to Attorney Wilber O. Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 16, 1951.

[xix] “Hundreds Attend Funeral for Att’y Wilbur Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 20, 1954.

[xx] “Saturday Funeral for Dentist Businessman” (3/20/54) “Hundreds Attend Funeral for Att’y Wilbur Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 16, 1968.

[xxi] “2 Qualify to Adminster Wilbur O. Watts Estate.” (3/20/54) “Hundreds Attend Funeral for Att’y Wilbur Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 1, 1954.

[xxii] “Saturday Funeral for Dentist Businessman” (3/20/54) “Hundreds Attend Funeral for Att’y Wilbur Watts.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 16, 1968.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Fields, Norma Cromwell. “Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia during the 1930’s .” Master’s thesis, Old Dominion University, 1979, 95.

[xxv] “Soap, Soup, and Salvation Dispensed Daily by Colored Union Mission.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 4, 1932.

[xxvi] “Adult Education Workshop set at Norfolk June 10-12” Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 26, 1956, C3.

[xxvii] “Local Dentist, Native Norfolkian, Discoverer of Unusual Dentrifice.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 16, 1932, 7.

[xxviii] “Dr. Brown was Norfolk Dentist Over 40 Years.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, June 22, 1957.

[xxix] “Dr. Jones who Served Norfolk 35 years dies.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 14, 1956.

[xxx] Fields, 26.

[xxxi] “Soap, Soup, and Salvation dispensed daily by colored union mission.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 4, 1932.

[xxxii] “Norfolk Doctor and new Office.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 30, 1939.

[xxxiii] “Dr. Fentress dies suddenly in Philadelphia.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, August 21, 1971.

[xxxiv] “Dr Boffman Heads Medical Society,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, November 11, 1944.

[xxxv] “The Professions.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, January 3, 1948.

[xxxvi] Display ad. “Talmadge-Johnson Fuel Company.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 15, 1947.

[xxxvii] “Talmadge Johnson.” Virginian Pilot, March 15, 1991.

[xxxviii] “Form 2nd Congressional Democratic Organization.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 6, 1945, 7B.

[xxxix] “Hundreds at Rites for Norcom High Principal.” Norfolk Journal and Guide, April 23, 1966, A14

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] http://wms.ppsk12.us/about_us

[xlii] “Notice: Children of Lott Carey…” Display ad, Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 9, 1922.

[xliii] Transcript, “Oral History Interview with Dr. Dudley Cooper.” Interviewed by Peter M. Kusiak, Old Dominion University, Oral Historys, Special Collections and University Archives, Old Dominion University Perry Library.

Online: http://dc.lib.odu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/oralhistory/id/89 (Accessed June, 13, 2017).

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