‘Colored Notes’: A look into the 1920s Portsmouth column written by a former slave

Posted at 12:00 AM, Sep 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-27 00:01:28-04

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - The Roaring Twenties - a time when there was a significant shift in America’s economy and artistic culture. It was an era that produced The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance.

For African Americans, it was an era of breakthrough. An optimistic time for a renewed sense of freedom on life, expression and pride.

Jeffrey Thomas Wilson's "Colored Notes"

So when Mae Breckenridge-Haywood, current president of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth Inc.,  stumbled upon "Colored Notes" – articles produced in a local paper - while doing some research, it wasn’t a surprise the column was produced in the same era of the twenties.

“It was a push for the newspapers to not just do the history of the town that included basically the white population, but to get the news of black communities, and Jeffrey Wilson was that force," says Breckenridge-Haywood.

Jeffrey Thomas Wilson began writing in the Portsmouth Star in a small column titled "Colored Notes" when he was 83 years old. Born into slavery in the City of Portsmouth, Wilson became a pioneer for his community and for his church back then known as "Old Immanuel" but today called Emmanuel A.M.E.

“I was just enamored, interested and just really taken by this man who was born a slave who learned to read and write perhaps because he listened and tried to read the Bible because he was a religious man," says Breckenridge-Haywood.

Never being formally taught how to read and write did not stop Wilson from informing his community on a daily basis. His column was usually found in a tiny, little section at the bottom of The Portsmouth Star by "Want ads."

“Little columns but he had a lot of information in it," says Breckenridge-Haywood.

Vital information at that, because during that time what was going on in African American neighborhoods was rarely ever written down.

“It told you about celebrations. It told you about anniversaries. It told me about the people of Portsmouth in the 1920s, and that was very special to me," says Breckenridge-Haywood.

Reports of births, weddings, social events and even funerals.

Today, if you come to the Portsmouth Public Library, you can read and feel the history of "Colored Notes" for yourself. The library has copies of them on microfilm.

Tangible notes now cycling through generations, keeping the African American neighborhoods informed was in fact keeping the entire community unified in a time where being supported and celebrated was crucial.

Preserving history for years to come, some articles are still being processed through and pieced together today.

“I found out about my family in one of these articles," says Breckenridge-Haywood.

"Colored Notes" was more than just a section in a newspaper. It was and still is a way of communicating this message: No matter how confined the column, if you are strong-willed, you can obtain your goals and share them with and for something way bigger than you.