Overcoming the Politics of the Past
I find it ironic that a Connecticut Yankee, raised and educated in New Haven, would be asked to address a community service organization in a southern city on a matter of local politics. New Haven, established by Puritans who considered their Boston brethren too liberal, has three of its main avenues named after regicides of King Charles I.
By way of contrast, those who attend the University of Virginia call themselves Cavaliers - supporters of the king. Another Virginia university, William and Mary, is named in honor of the restoration monarchy of the Dutch William of Orange and his English wife Mary, King James’s daughter.
I mention these historical differences as a way to point out that if I bring any biases to my views on regionalism in Hampton Roads, they are the biases of an outsider. Except for the fact that my current place of residence is Virginia Beach, I have no special ties or loyalties to any individuals living or dead. Moreover, I do not hold any positions of local leadership or any office in any public or private organization.
My point of departure is
from the perspective of a political sociologist who has taken the time
to observe the political behavior of Norfolk and especially of Virginia
Beach, the key regional players, and review the history.
My interest is thinking on the political level and not on the level of bureaucratic rationality. Once we have attained an understanding of the political forces that act to block regionalism, we can begin to fashion a strategy to change the politics. We can, to borrow a phrase, engage in region building. My planned comments will proceed as follows:
As a region the South has changed a great deal since the end of World War II. The changes are the results of national economic and social policies, some originating in FDR’s New Deal. I include here:·
This was a ruling based on a case from Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas, Delaware and the District of Columbia. The courts in 1958 ordered schools in Arlington, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County to desegregate. The Commonwealth, rather than comply, engaged in a program of "Massive Resistance" and closed public schools. Norfolk had 10,000 students who could not start school in the fall.
In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; in 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Right Act were signed into law.)
One technological innovation that deserves honorable mention is air conditioning. Prior to the introduction of efficient systems capable of cooling and filtering our air the heat and humidity of the south made it an unattractive place to work and live.
Prior to the Second World War the cities and counties of South Hampton Roads were isolated communities. The harbor and two rivers separated Norfolk, the Commonwealth’s largest city at the time (about 305,000 in 1960), from Portsmouth. It is not until 1950 that a bridge-tunnel connected Norfolk and Portsmouth.
It was not until 1957 that the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel was built connecting Hampton with Norfolk. It was only during the war period that Norfolk builds Military Highway.
Transportation east into the former Princess Ann County and to the City of Virginia Beach was also difficult. For many years access into the former Princess Ann County and to Virginia Beach was by rail. In fact, it was not until 1921 that Virginia Beach Boulevard was paved.
What is now known as 264 East was authorized by the General Assembly in 1962, a year prior to the merger of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County. The Norfolk-Virginia Beach Expressway was opened five years later.
Moreover, the populations in Princess Ann County and the original Virginia Beach were relatively small. Virginia Beach only had in 1940 2,600 residents and this grew to 8,091 by 1960. Princess Ann County had slightly less than twenty thousand people in 1940; by 1960 it had grown to slightly more than 77,000 residents.
According to the 1960 census, the native Virginians of the former Virginia Beach, Princess Ann County and the City of Norfolk already were in a numerical minority. Finally, the former Princess Ann County had a land area of 253 square miles and Virginia Beach only two. Data from 1960 shows that 56 per cent of the county’s population was classified as urban and it had an average of 300 people per square mile. It is within this context that annexation, attempts at regionalism, and the merger of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County took place.
Annexation was to the political leaders and the residents of Princess Ann County more than just a threat. Norfolk County, now incorporated into the City of Chesapeake, had experienced annexations by Portsmouth, Norfolk and South Norfolk. Princess Ann County had also lost area, about 14 square miles, and population, as many as 38,000 residents, by Norfolk’s annexation in 1959.
It was not unrealistic to expect that Norfolk would lay claim to more of the county, especially the highly urbanized areas of Kempsville and Bayside.
Annexation, by Virginia law at the time, was not a process of negotiations, public debate, and a choice made by a referendum of the voters. It was, to be blunt, a court ordered seizure of county lands, residents, and public assets. While the law did provide for the annexing city to compensate the county for any investments that it had made in public improvements, it had other negative implications.
The uncertainty of annexation would discourage many from moving into the county and risking an investment in a new home, if they had apprehensions about finding themselves back in Norfolk. From the county’s perspective annexation was not only a loss of tax revenue, but it would make it difficult to justify expenditures for public improvements needed to compete for an urban population and new businesses (adequate roads, schools, libraries, recreation centers and police and fire protection).
Without public and private development land values would not increase and sales of developable tracts would lag. Given the fact that the General Assembly had failed to protect the counties from annexation, Princess Ann’s leadership had only three alternatives. They could do nothing and watch Norfolk gradually extends its control into the county taking its most profitable assets and erode the power of certain political and business interests.
The other option was to incorporate as a city in order to block Norfolk’s expansion and assure their ability to control the direction of growth, business development and maintain control in the hands of local political interests.
The third option was to enter into an agreement with Norfolk for the development of a metropolitan government. Norfolk, reacting to efforts by Princess Anne County leaders to persuade the General Assembly to change annexation laws, allegedly delayed the extension of water service into developing areas of the county. Sidney Kellam, the father of Virginia Beach, approached Norfolk and came away with an agreement to study the development of a metropolitan government for the Norfolk area.
They also agreed upon a five-year moratorium on annexations against Princess Ann County, and a promise not to seek during this period any changes in the state’s annexation laws. Shortly after this announcement Norfolk granted water service to three new county subdivisions. A study commission, consisting of six local governments, chaired by Sidney Kellam was established. At this point I need to say a few words about the Kellam political organization.
Sidney’s father, Abel Kellam, served a clerk of the circuit court of Princess Ann County. Sidney during the 1930’s had been elected five times as treasurer of Princess Ann County. His brothers had served as state judges and in the Virginia State Senate. At the time of the merger the Kellam political organization controlled the politics of the former City of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County.
In today’s Virginia Beach Phil Kellam, Sidney’s nephew and a prince of the city, is in his second term as Commissioner of Revenue. The Kellam business interests during this period should also be noted. They included the beachfront Thunderbird Motel, Kellam and Eaton, which dealt in insurance and realty, and the Bank of Virginia Beach, of which Sidney was chairman of the board.
While Norfolk was diverted by the agreement to explore with Virginia Beach a metropolitan type government for the region, private merger discussions were in progress in the county and Resort City. In September of 1961 it was announced that a merger between the City of Virginia Beach and Princess Ann County was being considered. Without going into great detail, let me recall some of the outstanding moments of the merger campaign.
A merger campaign executive committee was established and chaired by Ivan Mapp, a lieutenant in the Kellam organization and later elected to the position of Commissioner of Revenue in the new Virginia Beach (Ivan is still living and has retired to the Eastern Shore). Members of the Norfolk City Council take out and sign an ad in the local newspaper announcing that it is opposed to the merger and that it would not approve being prevented from annexing additional county territory.
At a meeting held at the Pine Tree Inn Norfolk’s Mayor Duckworth indicated that his city might need to impose a payroll tax if the merger was approved. Finally, the Norfolk City Council passes a resolution threatening that it may be forced to cut off the water supply to the county if the merger passes. Ignoring these threats the merger was approved by 7,476 to 1,759 in the county and 1,539 to 242 in the city. At a post referendum celebration two campaign workers came to the gathering carrying a stretcher with a bandaged and bloody effigy of Norfolk Mayor Duckworth.
When Sidney Kellam arrived and he saw the effigy it was reported that he turned to his two supporters and said: "I wouldn’t do that," he said. "I wouldn’t do that." Duckworth’s effigy made a quick exit. Sidney Kellam, the political boss of a small beach resort and a rural county, in one bold political move accomplished three goals.
The merger, in short, was a conservative force to maintain control in the hands of locals and certain business interests. While I have no evidence, it seems plausible that Sidney Kellam, his key political supporters, as well as county-beach business leaders understood the economic implications of the revolution occurring in the south in the post war period.
The original Virginia Beach, as we emerged out of the war years, was little more than an insignificant East Coast resort. The county was for most of its history the home for poor dirt and pig farmers who were land rich but income poor. For beach business leaders the continuing presence of Navy personnel, the interstate road system, as well as the increasing availability of cars and air conditioning would make it possible to draw local visitors as well as thousands from the vast north-eastern market that was now little more than a day’s drive away.
County landowners, moreover, saw, for the first time, an opportunity to sell their land not only to Norfolkians fleeing integration, but also to northerners fleeing high taxes, over crowding, declining cities and racial conflict. It was these two groups, the beachfront boys and the county pig farmers, who formed the basis of the political alliance that created the current City of Virginia Beach.
One should remember that Sidney Kellam’s personal business interests placed him in contact within both of these groups. The basis of this political coalition is clearly articulated in the city’s 1963 charter. The merger charter contains a provision, challenged in court by anti-merger forces, that provides for a special taxing districts (originally intended for the resort area), as well as the expenditure of county funds to promote the beach resort. In return for this guarantee the county’s locals were allowed to use the charter of old Virginia Beach to create a new City of Virginia Beach.
One fear that the Princess Ann locals and the beach boys surely must have had was how would they keep the new residents from taking control of city government and drive up property taxes for more and better municipal services, especially schools. In part this was easily addressed by the small number of voters, who, even as late as 1963, were mostly white due to the exclusion of blacks by the Virginia poll tax. For generations the isolated, sparse population of the county had built a system of close ties and family relationships that made it easy for locals to identify, especially if they had been anointed by Mr. Sidney and his cohorts, "their" kind at the polls.
This control by local, personal political relations was supported by other factors.
The political relationships put into a mutual alliance by Sidney Kellam in 1963 are still operative almost thirty years after the merger.
Unless this political arrangement is challenged and pushed aside, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to bring about a regional government. The simple fact is that in Virginia Beach and, I suspect, in Chesapeake the political elements most likely to support regionalism are unable to get the funding to support their campaigns and are marginalized by the system. The City of Norfolk, despite the success of Virginia Beach, is still very much the leading local community in Hampton Roads. Within its borders are the two state universities, as well as a medical school and leading hospitals. It is also the headquarters for the small number of major corporations that call Norfolk their home. Moreover, major banks, law and accounting firms still make downtown Norfolk their primary place of business.
Finally, it hosts the ports and a number of significant military commands. Norfolk’s administrative, political and business leaders, if they have a genuine belief in the benefits of regionalism, will need to assume the role of leadership to achieve a regional political structure. My specific region building actions include the following:
The incumbent leaders are already closely tied to local interests and are reluctant to risk their political positions. Efforts will need to be focused on alternate political forces and activist in the various cities, and techniques will need to be used to enhance their credibility as forward thinking leaders of the future.