In 1619, the Governor for the Virginia Colony, Sir George Yeardley incorporated four jurisdictions, termed citties, for the developed portion of the colony. These formed the basis for colonial representative government in the newly minted House of Burgesses. What would become Norfolk was put under the Elizabeth Cittie incorporation.
In 1634 King Charles I reorganized the colony into a system of shires. The former Elizabeth Cittie became Elizabeth City Shire. After persuading 105 people to settle in the colony, Adam Thoroughgood (who had immigrated to Virginia in 1622 from King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England) was granted a large land holding, through the headrights system, along the Lynnhaven River in 1636.
When the South Hampton Roads portion of the shire was separated, Thoroughgood suggested the name of his birthplace for the newly formed New Norfolk County. One year later, it was split into two counties, Upper Norfolk and Lower Norfolk (the latter is incorporated within present-day City of Norfolk), chiefly on Thoroughgood’s recommendation. This area of Virginia became known as the place of entrepreneurs, including men of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London.
Norfolk developed in the late 17th century as a “Half Moone” fort was constructed and 50 acres (200,000 m2) were acquired from local natives of the Powhatan confederacy in exchange for 10,000 pounds of tobacco. The House of Burgesses established the “Towne of Lower Norfolk County” in 1680. In 1691, a final county subdivision took place when Lower Norfolk County split to form Norfolk County (included in present-day cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, and parts of Portsmouth) and Princess Anne County (present-day City of Virginia Beach).
Norfolk was incorporated in 1705, and in 1736 George II granted it a royal charter as a borough. By 1775, Norfolk developed into what contemporary observers argued was the most prosperous city in Virginia. It was an important port for exporting goods to the British Isles and beyond. In part because of its merchants’ numerous trading ties with other parts of the British Empire, Norfolk served as a strong base of Loyalist support during the early part of the American Revolution. After fleeing the colonial capitol of Williamsburg, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, tried to reestablish control of the colony from Norfolk. Dunmore secured small victories at Norfolk but was forced into exile by the American rebels, commanded by Colonel Woodford. His departure brought an end to more than 168 years of British colonial rule in Virginia.
On New Year’s Day, 1776, Lord Dunmore’s fleet of three ships shelled the city of Norfolk for more than eight hours. The damage from the shells, and fires started by the British and spread by the patriots, destroyed over 800 buildings, almost two-thirds of the city. The patriots destroyed the remaining buildings for strategic reasons in February. Only the walls of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church survived the bombardment and subsequent fires. A cannonball from the bombardment (fired by the Liverpool) remains within the wall of Saint Paul’s.
Following recovery from the Revolutionary War’s burning, Norfolk and her citizens struggled to rebuild. In 1804, another serious fire along the city’s waterfront destroyed some 300 buildings and the city suffered a serious economic setback. During the 1820s, agrarian communities across the American South suffered a prolonged recession, which caused many families to migrate to other areas. Many moved west into the Piedmont, or further into Kentucky and Tennessee. Such migration also followed the exhaustion of soil due to tobacco cultivation in the Tidewater, where it had been the primary commodity crop for generations.
Virginia made some attempts to phase out slavery, and manumissions had increased in the first two decades after the war. Thomas Jefferson Randolph gained passage of an 1832 resolution for gradual abolition in the state, but by that time, increased demand from development in the Deep South created a large internal market for slavery. Invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th century had enabled the profitable cultivation of short-staple cotton in the uplands, which was widely used.
The American Colonization Society proposed to “repatriate” free blacks and freed slaves to Africa by establishing the new colony of Liberia and paying for transportation. But most African Americans wanted to stay in their birthplace of the United States and achieve freedom and rights. For a period, many emigrants to Liberia from Virginia and North Carolina embarked from the port of Norfolk. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a free person of color native to Norfolk, emigrated via the ACS and later was elected as the first president of Liberia, establishing a powerful family.
On June 7, 1855, the 183-ft. vessel Benjamin Franklin put into Hampton Roads for repairs. She had just sailed from the West Indies where there had been an outbreak of yellow fever. The port health officer ordered the ship quarantined. After eleven days a second inspection found no issues, so she was allowed to dock. A few days later, the first cases of yellow fever were discovered in Norfolk, and a machinist died from the disease on July 8. By August several people were dying per day, and a third of the city population had fled in the hopes of escaping the epidemic. No one understood how the disease was transmitted. With both Norfolk and Portsmouth being infected, New York banned all traffic from those sites. Neighboring cities also banned residents from Norfolk. The epidemic spread through the city via mosquitoes and poor sanitation, affecting every family and causing widespread panic. The number of infected reached 5,000 in September, and by the second week 1,500 had died in Norfolk and Portsmouth. As the weather cooled, the outbreak began to wane, leaving a final tally of about 3,200 dead. It took the city some time to recover.
In early 1861, Norfolk voters instructed their delegate to vote for secession. Virginia voted to secede from the Union. In the spring of 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads took place off the northwest shore of the city’s Sewell’s Point Peninsula, marking the first fight between two ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The battle ended in a stalemate, but changed the course of naval warfare; from then on, warships were fortified with metal.
In May 1862, Norfolk Mayor William Lamb surrendered the city to Union General John E. Wool and his forces. They held the city under martial law for the duration of the Civil War. Thousands of slaves from the region escaped to Union lines to gain freedom; they quickly set up schools in Norfolk to start learning to read and write, years before the end of the war.
20th century to present
1907 brought both the Virginian Railway and the Jamestown Exposition to Sewell’s Point. The large Naval Review at the Exposition demonstrated the peninsula’s favorable location and laid the groundwork for the world’s largest naval base. Southern Democrats in Congress gained its location here. Commemorating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the exposition featured many prominent officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt, members of Congress, and diplomats from 21 countries. By 1917, as the US built up to enter World War I, the Naval Air Station Hampton Roads had been constructed on the former exposition grounds.
In the first half of the 20th century, the city of Norfolk expanded its borders through annexation. In 1906, the city annexed the incorporated town of Berkley, making the city cross the Elizabeth River. In 1923, the city expanded to include Sewell’s Point, Willoughby Spit, the town of Campostella, and the Ocean View area. The city included the Navy Base and miles of beach property fronting on Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay. After a smaller annexation in 1959, and a 1988 land swap with Virginia Beach, the city assumed its current boundaries.
With the dawn of the Interstate Highway System following World War II, new highways were constructed in the region. A series of bridges and tunnels, constructed during fifteen years, linked Norfolk with the Peninsula, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach. In 1952, the Downtown Tunnel opened to connect Norfolk with the city of Portsmouth. The highways also stimulated development of new housing in suburbs, leading to the population spreading out. Additional bridges and tunnels included the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 1957, the Midtown Tunnel in 1962, and the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway (Interstate 264 and State Route 44) in 1967. In 1991, the new Downtown Tunnel/Berkley Bridge complex opened a new system of multiple lanes of highway and interchanges connecting Downtown Norfolk and Interstate 464 with the Downtown Tunnel tubes.
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, as the public system was supported by all taxpayers. It ordered integration, but Virginia pursued a policy of “massive resistance“. (At this time, most black citizens were still disfranchised under the state’s turn-of-the-century constitution and discriminatory practices related to voter registration and elections.) The Virginia General Assembly prohibited state funding for integrated public schools.
In 1958, United States district courts in Virginia ordered schools to open for the first time on a racially integrated basis. In response, Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr. ordered the schools closed. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared the state law to be in conflict with the state constitution and ordered all public schools to be funded, whether integrated or not. About 10 days later, Almond capitulated and asked the General Assembly to rescind several “massive resistance” laws. In September 1959, 17 black children entered six previously segregated Norfolk public schools. Virginian-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers editorialized against massive resistance and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.
With new suburban developments beckoning, many white middle-class residents moved out of the city along new highway routes, and Norfolk’s population fell, a pattern repeated in numerous cities in the postwar era independently of segregation issues. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the advent of newer suburban shopping destinations along with freeways spelled demise for the fortunes of downtown’s Granby Street commercial corridor, located just a few blocks inland from the waterfront. The opening of malls and large shopping centers drew off retail business from Granby Street.
Norfolk’s city leaders began a long push to revive its urban core. While Granby Street underwent decline, Norfolk city leaders focused on the waterfront and its collection of decaying piers and warehouses. Many obsolete shipping and warehousing facilities were demolished. In their place, planners created a new boulevard, Waterside Drive, along which many of the high-rise buildings in Norfolk’s skyline have been erected. In 1983 the city and The Rouse Company developed the Waterside festival marketplace to attract people back to the waterfront and catalyze further downtown redevelopment. Other facilities opened in the ensuing years, including the Harbor Park baseball stadium, home of the Norfolk Tides Triple-A minor league baseball team. In 1995, the Park was named the finest facility in minor league baseball by Baseball America. Norfolk’s efforts to revitalize its downtown have attracted acclaim from economic development and urban planning circles throughout the country. Downtown’s rising fortunes helped to expand the city’s revenues and allowed the city to direct attention to other neighborhoods.