On Idyllic Gwynn’s Island, Echoes of a Racial Divide

Bill Sizemore, Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), April 5, 2009

Sandy Tabb didn’t set out to be a pioneer. She was just homesick.

The single mother of five had been living near Charlottesville, but she and her kids missed the Chesapeake Bay environs of her native Gloucester County.

In 2006 she saw an ad in the Gloucester newspaper for a rental property on Gwynn’s Island, in neighboring Mathews County. A spacious, four-bedroom brick house with a water view, it seemed perfect. Tabb says she called the rental agent and rented it over the phone, sight unseen.

Gwynn’s Island is, indeed, an idyllic place. A marshy triangle of sand and towering pines at the mouth of the Piankatank River, it has been beckoning mainlanders for eons. Native Americans used it as a hunting preserve and place of worship as long ago as 10,000 years.

Its first European settler, a Welshman from the Jamestown colony named Hugh Gwynn, arrived around 1635. “Gwynn” is Welsh for “white.”

Tabb didn’t know much about the island’s history. She just wanted a nice place near home with lots of room for the kids.

When she showed up to see the house in person, the rental agent was “visibly shocked, surprised and disturbed” to discover that Tabb is African American, according to a fair-housing lawsuit filed last month in federal court.

What followed, according to the lawsuit, was an ultimately successful 18-month campaign of racial harassment and intimidation calculated to drive Tabb, 39, and her children–Gwynn’s Island’s only black family–off the island.

Tabb’s allegations paint Gwynn’s Island as a place seemingly left behind by modernity, stuck in a time warp where overt racism still rears its head.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from Bay Country Inc., the real estate firm that handled the rental, along with the rental agent and the owner of the property.

Shortly after showing the house, the rental agent, Michelle Bell, called Tabb and told her the owner had increased the rent from $950 to $1,100 because she had so many children, according to the lawsuit.

By that time, Tabb said in an interview, she had already terminated her old lease and it was too late to back out. So she agreed to the higher rent and moved in.

Bell then began routinely driving by the house and watching the new tenants’ activities, according to the lawsuit. Tabb said Bell asked her more than once who cared for her children while Tabb worked as a deputy sheriff in Richmond and attended college classes at night. Tabb also said Bell once asked whose car was in the driveway and told her “she was not to have any boyfriends” while living there.

Tabb said that on several occasions the family heard gunshots at night and awoke to find liquor bottles and trash strewn over the lawn. Once, she said, there was a cereal box near the front door with feces in it.

When she complained to Gene Jarvis, a representative of the Gwynn’s Island Civic League, Tabb said, Jarvis told her he didn’t want any “troublemakers” in the neighborhood.

“I told him I was thinking about contacting the NAACP,” Tabb said. “He said he didn’t like that organization. He asked would I like it if he called the KKK to have a little chat with me.”

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The last straw, Tabb said, came when Bell–who is also a Mathews County school bus driver–began interrogating her sons Nick, then 8, and Don, 6, at Lee-Jackson Elementary School.

Tabb said Nick told her that Bell asked him, “Does your mother have a boyfriend? Who’s sleeping with her? Is she beating you?”

Finally Bell took each boy aside in a school restroom and performed a strip search to look for evidence of child abuse, Tabb said. In Don’s case, Tabb said, she pulled the boy’s pants down and, when she found no signs of injury, angrily walked away, leaving him alone in the restroom with his pants down.

The lack of evidence notwithstanding, the Mathews County Department of Social Services received two complaints that Tabb’s sons had been abused. An investigation ensued, and the complaints were ruled unfounded.

Tabb has filed a separate lawsuit seeking to learn who made the complaints. So far, the social services department has refused to say.

{snip}

In April 2008, Tabb surrendered. She and her children left their island home with the water view and moved to Gloucester County.

Gwynn’s Island has not always been lily-white. To the contrary, it has a rich black history.

Historians citing court proceedings from the 1640s have identified one John Punch, a field hand on Hugh Gwynn’s estate, as the first African enslaved for life by law in Virginia.

Punch was one of three indentured servants who were caught after running away from the Gwynn plantation. The other two escapees, a Dutchman and a Scotsman, got 30 lashes and had their indentures extended by four years. Punch’s indenture was extended for life.

Over the ensuing decades, African Americans multiplied and contributed in myriad ways to the Gwynn’s Island economy–clearing land; planting, tilling and harvesting crops; building houses and boats; plying the bay and its tributaries for fish, crabs and oysters.

By the late 1700s, blacks accounted for more than half of the island’s population. Their numbers began a gradual decline after the Civil War, but they remained a well-established community at the dawn of the 20th century. By then, many were property owners. They built their own church and school.

Then something happened. Exactly what, remains shrouded in the mists of history, but this much is certain: Between 1910 and 1920, the island’s entire African American population vanished.

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