It’s tough getting home to Portsmouth these days. But when I do visit, I perform a special, private ritual to pay homage to my hometown: I get in the car, cruise – slowly – around the city, then head over to my old school, Manor High, and reminisce about the place that launched me into the world. This weekend I’ll return and repeat the same ritual that I’ve practiced since leaving Portsmouth 15 years ago. And this time I will be joined, in some fashion, by lots of former classmates traveling there to celebrate our 25-year reunion.
All class reunions are nostalgic, but this one will likely be the most sentimental. That’s because a recent development threatens to dampen our sacred ride down memory lane: Our class of 1973 was the first to graduate from Manor and, for the first time, we’ll face squarely the realization that our high school is not our high school anymore. Sure, the sprawling building is still there on Elmhurst Lane, near the southern tip of Portsmouth, but the school has taken on a new name, a different identity. It’s now Woodrow Wilson High. The name was changed several years ago to accommodate the planned openings and closings of other schools. To outsiders, a school name change may be no big deal, but in Portsmouth that’s major stuff. It’s an issue that drums up age-old, emotionally complex battles around politics and race. That’s because, more than any other place I know, high schools are interwoven in the racial identities of the people there. The strong identification with high schools was evident a few years ago, at an annual citywide reunion of black Portsmouth natives. Known as the ”Best of Friends” reunion, the gathering was held at a park in Maryland. Many of the people were generations apart and didn’t know each other. When strangers met at the festive affair, they usually exchanged introductions, then asked this question: ”Yo, what high school did you go to?” Those attendees understood this: Beyond being establishments that teach math, history and other disciplines, in Portsmouth your high school provides an instant point of reference that reveals a lot about you. If you say you went to I.C. Norcom, Woodrow Wilson, Cradock, Manor or Churchland High, you’ve given concrete clues about where you lived, your family’s economic standing and, in some instances, even your approximate age. That’s Portsmouth – P-Town as it’s affectionately known among natives. Why are high schools such a big deal there? The shorthand answer is simple: Even though its population of 100,000 establishes Portsmouth as a midsize city, it’s always been a rather sleepy place with a small-town air. There are few institutions to speak of that generate in its citizens a solid visceral sense of identity and pride. In the absence of such institutions, the high schools assume more prominence in the collective psyche of Portsmouth natives. The other explanation is related to race. The racial balance in Portsmouth is almost even, and if the truth be told, blacks and whites there never have trusted each other much or gotten along well. At best, they’ve enjoyed an uneasy truce. At worst, they’ve been locked – for decades – in fierce power struggles, and the battle lines often are drawn over political offices and, for various reasons, over the names and fates of high schools. The issue has its roots in segregation. Back then, two of the city’s three high schools, Woodrow Wilson and Cradock, were exclusively white. Cradock was a bedrock of hostile white resistance to integration. Wilson established one of the great football dynasties in all of Virginia in the 1960s and ’70s, and Portsmouth whites proudly claimed it as theirs. Before the radical ’60s, Portsmouth blacks had no notable clout; they didn’t own much and certainly didn’t run anything. Other than our churches, the only institution we could claim as our own was one high school, I.C. Norcom. Over the years, Norcom – named for a black educator, Israel Charles Norcom – became a focal point for our racial pride. With its storied history and sports teams, Norcom nurtured generations of blacks. All four of my brothers went to Norcom, and they bore a sense of ardent school loyalty. Nowhere – absolutely nowhere – did devotion run so deep as with students at I.C. Norcom High. (OK, Booker T. Washington High in Norfolk runs a close second.) And the pride transcended the school grounds on Turnpike Road. Even among blacks like me, who never attended Norcom, there was a fervent loyalty to the school. But desegregation threatened to change all that. Despite federally ordered busing plans to achieve integration, many Portsmouth whites outright refused to attend Norcom, a school identified so strongly with blackness. In an apparent effort to appease whites, city fathers and mothers devised a plan in the early ’70s to close Norcom. In terms of politics and power, blacks in Portsmouth didn’t fight for much in those days, but talk of getting rid of I.C. Norcom generated one helluva public battle. Aided by nationally known activists such as former NAACP head Ben Chavis, students protested the proposed school closing until city officials eventually backed down. As a compromise, they converted Norcom into a vocational school. That compromise was so classically Portsmouth. It respected blacks’ wish to preserve Norcom and, at the same time, left whites the option of remaining at their own schools. Since then, politicians have tossed around various proposals to close the school, change its name or its mission. By and large, those efforts have met with determined defiance and downright defeat. For Portsmouth blacks, the school battles were about more than an obsessive clinging to the past. The efforts were symbolic of the struggle by African Americans nationwide to maintain our heritage in the face of a country that urges us to forget who we are, to submerge our identities into theirs. You would think that politicians in Portsmouth, of all places, would understand the importance of identity. Long regarded as a stepchild among Hampton Roads cities, Portsmouth suffers from a kind of identity crisis of its own. That crisis has hurt the city’s efforts to attract much-needed population and economic growth. Norfolk is viewed as a place that offers a funky urban vibe; Chesapeake is known for its family-friendly rural sprawl; Virginia Beach is established as the trendy, upscale resort playground. But Portsmouth, well, Portsmouth is a running enigma; it’s a city that lacks a concrete identity useful for promoting itself. It’s the hometown of legendary blues great Ruth Brown and popular rapper Missy Elliott, yet Portsmouth is more widely known as a place where you can get into a good fistfight, and not much more. By the time I reached high school age, integration had dashed my hopes of attending Norcom. In response to federal orders, the city came up with a school busing plan that effectively split my neighborhood, Cavalier Manor, in two, sending half the students to Wilson and the other half to Cradock. I went to Wilson for three years and, like many other blacks, never fully embraced it. I just couldn’t get past its entrenched identity as a traditionally white school. Few, if any, blacks in my neighborhood grieved in 1972 when we were transferred to a newly built school nearby called Manor High. At Manor, kids in my neighborhood were reunited and, in that first year, we developed some of the spirited school pride characteristic of the Norcom Greyhounds across town. But a power struggle ensued among black and white students at Manor as each group tried to lay claim to the new school. That rivalry, which focused most visibly on which group would control key student government offices, reflected the racial struggles that are as much a reality in Portsmouth as the shipyards that straddle its waterways. And as is often the case with race, those divisions may have been our undoing. In recent years, the city School Board has taken several actions that spelled doom for Manor. For one, it converted Cradock into a school where local colleges conduct satellite classes. The board also replaced the decrepit old Norcom with a gleaming, $ 37 million building that will open this fall. (In an ironic twist, some whites downtown are suddenly campaigning to have their area rezoned so that their kids can take advantage of the new state-of-the-art version of Norcom – the school that whites have shunned for so long.) Moreover, the School Board transformed the aging Wilson on Willett Drive into a junior high school. But white Wilson alumni lobbied hard to preserve their school’s name name. In a move to protect Wilson’s legacy, the board transferred its name to my school, Manor High. News of Manor’s fate has upset many alumni. But we have lacked the passion and commitment to ensure its survival. Besides, our petty racial divisions still exist (blacks and whites hold separate class reunions) and that may have undermined our ability to put up a collective fight to save our school. So now, a slice of our identity is gone. Our school is mainly a memory. This week, when I do my ritual ride to the school building on Elmhurst Lane, I won’t see the words ”Manor High” plastered in bold letters out front. I’ll see the name, ”Woodrow Wilson.” But in the true spirit of P-Town, my devotion to Manor High will remain in my heart.