Before Christopher Newport University existed, the land we now love had an interesting past.
Christopher Newport University only dates back to the foundation of Christopher Newport College in 1961, but the area on which we sit and study has a much older past. The Virginia Peninsula is steeped in history, having been the site of the first successful English colony in America.
Tidewater Virginia had been inhabited for millennia before the arrival of European settlers. In 1607, when the Jamestown settlers arrived, the area was under the control of the Powhatan Confederacy, a complex chiefdom led by Chief Wahunsenacawh, better known as Chief Powhatan.
John Smith’s surveys of the area feature the portion of the Virginia peninsula that would eventually become Newport News heavily. The area was near land inhabited by the Kiskiack, who lived slightly to the West near what is now Yorktown, and the Kecoughtan, who lived near the mouth of the river.
The relationship between the English colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy had soured badly by summer of 1610. Smith had begun organizing the colonists into a militia and drilling them, and trade was increasingly done with guns pressed to the heads of Indian hostages.
The colonists spent the winter of 1609-1610 under siege and unable to leave the fort at Jamestown, but the arrival of a new governor, new colonists, and more supplies in June 1610 revitalized the colony.
On July 6, 1610, a colonist named Humphrey Blunt was killed in an Indian ambush about 1.5 miles from where CNU now sits, at what is now called Blunt Point. In retaliation, Sir Thomas Gates raided and captured a village at Kecoughtan, leading to the first Anglo-Powhatan War.
By 1628 the land near Blunt Point had been divided up among a number of landholders, any of whom may have owned the land that is presently home to CNU. Among the landowners listed is John Laydon.
John Laydon was a carpenter who had arrived in 1607. His wife, Anne Burras, arrived the next year in 1608 as a maid, one of the first two women to arrive at Jamestown. Their wedding near the end of that year was Jamestown’s first.
The Laydons survived the Starving Time, the first two Anglo-Powhatan Wars and Opechancanough’s massacre of 1622. The muster of 1624 lists only 14 other remaining colonists who had arrived in 1607 or 1608.
Exactly how close the Laydons might have lived to what is now CNU is not certain. Records suggest that in the 17th century Blunt Point was used to refer to a section of the coast between Lake Maury (which was constructed in 1931 and is part of the Mariner’s Museum grounds) and Lucas Creek.
In 1634, the Colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires. The land that is now home to CNU was part of Warwick River Shire, which became Warwick County in 1643. Named for Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, the County of Warwick became the City of Warwick in 1952, which was absorbed into the City of Newport News six years later.
The portion of the Virginia peninsula that CNU stands on is relevant to the history of American colonization, and has been inhabited by Europeans for some 400 years and by American Indian groups for much longer.
The land that CNU now stands on, once part of Warwick County, was acquired by the city of Newport News in 1962, three years after the county itself had been absorbed by Newport News. The circumstances were not entirely positive, reflecting a variety of elements of the early 60s.
The College of William and Mary decided that Christopher Newport College, its newly established satellite school in Newport News, should have a permanent campus rather than the miniscule and ancient John P. Daniels Public School building in which it held its first year of classes.
Eventually the city council and officials from the College decided on two sites- a tract of land near Warwick Boulevard and Shoe Lane, and a site three minutes north near a side street called Roy’s Lane.
The Roy’s Lane site was fairly cheap, in a good location to connect to the city’s utilities, free of boundaries that might impede future expansion, and undeveloped.
The alternate Shoe Lane site had similar advantages, but cost significantly more and was home to a small community of African Americans who had lived there since the late 19th century.
In April of 1961, the city council prepared to buy the Shoe Lane site without having officially decided to use it as the site of Christopher Newport College. The immediate outcry from the people living on the land led them to postpone the final decision until May.
At the final meeting some 160 people, both black and white, appeared to voice their opinions on the purchase.
Despite arguments that the purchase would displace black residents, inflame racial tensions, and cost more than the equally satisfactory Roy’s Lane site, the council voted 5-2 in favor of purchasing the Shoe Lane tract.
“There was a long-standing African American community that had been here since the late 19th century that was, in essence, pushed aside by Newport News for CNC,” said CNU History professor Phillip Hamilton, whose article Race, Politics, and Education in Tidewater Virginia from the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography discusses the details of the Shoe Lane purchase in greater detail.
By spring of 1963, the council had seized all of the properties- having paid less than they were initially appraised for and less than the majority of the residents were willing to accept, they proceeded with condemnation proceedings.
In 1964, the college’s first building, the original Christopher Newport Hall, opened.
Hamilton believes the foundation of CNU is a glimpse at the environment of the early 1960s, a time both of racial strife as city leaders clung to segregation and Jim Crow laws and as a time when the value of education was emphasized, leading to the foundation of new colleges and universities.
“I think it’s reflective of both the racial tensions of the era and the push to expand higher education.”
The land CNU stands on has a long history, and the story behind the school’s foundation is a little-known but useful window into the state that Virginia was in during the 1960s.