The Newsome House Museum & Cultural Center is the restored 1899 residence of the African-American attorney J. Thomas Newsome (1869-1942) and his wife Mary Winfield Newsome. They moved into the house on 2803 Oak Avenue in 1906 after the birth of their only child and daughter Maurice Ethelred. The Newsome's began making changes to the house, making the salt box structure into an elegant Queen Anne residence which served as a hub for the local black community. The Newsome House now remains one of the timeless historic fixtures in the city, and it has become a venue for meetings, exhibitions, special events and other social functions. The Newsome House is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first structure owned by an African-American to be a recipient of a National Historic Preservation Award.
About Joseph Thomas Newsome
Born to Joseph and Ann Newsome, former slaves on Princeton Plantation in Sussex County. He received his primary education at a church school in Sussex County and at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in Petersburg and received his law degree from Howard University as valedictorian. After marrying his former college sweetheart, Mary Beatrice Winfield, they relocated to the Newport News area. Mr. Newsome became a respected lawyer, journalist, churchman and civic leader, and prospered as part of the post Civil War South's new urban African-American middle class. In tribute to Mr. Newsome, the city courts were closed the day of his funeral in 1942.
Joseph Thomas Newsome was born in Sussex County, Virginia on June 2, 1869, according to the census of 1870. He was the sixth of seven children born to Joseph and Martha Ann Newsome, former slaves who lived on Princeton Plantation near Sussex Courthouse.
He received his primary education at a church school in Sussex County and entered Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute at Petersburg in 1891 to pursue a career as a teacher. While there, he was a member of the debating society and developed his oratory skills. After graduation in 1894, Newsome returned to Sussex and taught for a short time, but he did not enjoy this occupation. Instead, his interests focused on politics and law. With the encouragement of family friend Judge Robert Arnold of Waverly, he entered law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He paid his way by working as a waiter and construction laborer. Newsome graduated May 30, 1898, as class valedictorian.
Newsome married his college sweetheart, Mary B. Winfield, an 1892 graduate of Virginia Normal. They were wed December 27, 1899, and moved to Phoebus, where they lived with his married sister, Adaline Newsome Selden. Soon thereafter, they moved to 1125 30th Street in Newport News. A daughter, Maurice Ethelred Newsome, was born in 1904.
In 1906, the Newsomes purchased a home in Newport News which had been built in 1899 by Dr. William R. Granger. The house was a simple structure which faced Oak Avenue. It had two stories, an attic, and a partial basement. In the years prior to World War I, the Newsomes made additions and improvements to their home including a Palladian window, a wrap-around porch, fancy Victorian spindlework, and an octagonal turret. The front entrance was made to open on 28th Street. This modified Queen Anne style home was the most impressive house in which a black family lived in East End.
The young attorney and his wife soon became involved in the social, religious, and political activities of the community. Newsome was an active Republican who attended the National Republican Convention in Chicago in 1920. In 1921, he ran for state attorney general as part of an all black slate known as the Lily Black Republican ticket. During that same year he vied for the 1st Congressional District seat.
Newsome was a founding member of Trinity Baptist Church in Newport News. For 23 years he served as the Sunday School superintendent. He was also a deacon. Later, he changed his membership to Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church and was active there for nearly 20 years.
When he began his law practice in 1900, he was one of a handful of black attorneys on the Virginia Peninsula. An excellent trial lawyer, he often used technicalities and biblical references to win his clients' freedom. Newsome successfully pled cases before the state supreme court (one of the first black solicitors in Virginia to do so).
As Newsome's practice thrived, his reputation as a public speaker and motivator grew. He was very popular on the lecture circuit. An advertisement announcing his appearance at a fund-raiser or forum assured a large turnout. He was recognized as the spokesman for the black community. Newsome was an early activist in locating a site for Huntington High School, the first high school in Newport News for black students. Warwick County citizens benefited from his leadership and guidance with the formation of the Warwick County Colored Voters League, an organization which lobbied for schools, community improvements, and voter registration.
Another activity of Newsome's was the editorship of The Newport News Star, a weekly black newspaper, for which he wrote editorials from 1923-40. When it ceased publication, he became a columnist for the Norfolk Journal and Guide.
At the time of his demise, Newsome was the state president of the Old Dominion Bar Association. He also had been appointed to the Hampton Roads Defense Council by the ex-governor of Virginia, James H. Price. In 1940, Judge Herbert G. Smith had named him commissioner in chancery. Newsome was also an Elk, a 32nd degree Mason, and belonged to many civic organizations.
He died at home on March 9, 1942, of pneumonia. On the day of his funeral, March 11, First Baptist Church was filled to overflowing; some 2,000 mourners were in attendance, many of whom had to stand outside. As a tribute to this great man, the Newport News' courts adjourned that day. After his death, a World War II housing project for black defense workers was named in his honor. Newsome Park contained 2,600 units, an elementary school, and a small retail strip. The complex and school still carry his name.
Newsome's widow died in 1975, just days short of her 100th birthday. Their daughter, Maurice Newsome Derbigny, lived at the family home until her death in 1977. The house was inherited by the only grandchild, Mary Carolyn Derbigny Ross. She sold it to The Newsome House Foundation, Inc., a group of private citizens interested in preserving it as a memorial to the Newsomes. Concerned neighbors Cornelius and Carrie R. Brown spearheaded these efforts. Brown, a former school teacher and member of the Newport News Historical Committee, made the renovation of The Newsome House her lifelong endeavor.
The house remained vacant for more than ten years as the group sought funding for the project. During that time, numerous intrusions by thieves and pigeons, in conjunction with roof leaks, took a great toll on the structure. In the late 1980s, an agreement was reached with the City of Newport News to undertake the project. Between 1987-90, over $600,000 of federal, state, city, and private moneys were raised to restore the house. In April 1990, the structure was recognized as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. The refurbished facility was dedicated on February 17, 1991, as a museum and cultural center. Some 49 years after Joseph Thomas Newsome's death, 2,000 persons honored him again at this event. Carrie Brown's dream became a reality.
"Civilization is a long road and sometimes one meets things on this road that at the time seem cruel. But they usually work out."
"Time there was when it was considered disloyalty to one's race in certain parts of the country to commend any public act, however meritorious if it were performed by one not identified with the party which professed friendship and political equality for that race....But times have greatly changed in this respect, due to a broader viewpoint and a wider dissemination of knowledge of public affairs so that at present men in office are measured by their statesman ship and achievement rather than by the party to which they belong. This, to our mind, is as it should be."
Editorial, The Newport News Star, 1928
On Military Service
"In the present struggle, it is not what the Negro can do, but what he is kept from doing which stands out in bold relief. It is no longer a question of modern warfare, but whether the government is willing to utilize our skill.... Such an attitude is unmistakably taken in particular fields in which the Negro can qualify....It seems to this [writer] that such an attitude is not only foolish, but it invites disloyalty, if such is possible with the Negro American."
"The Drift of the Current," Norfolk Journal and Guide, 1942
On the Meaning of Democracy
"The time has come when a democracy must be in sincerity and in truth a democracy or stand before the world as a mere theory. Just why men should be prevented from exercising every privilege to serve their country, and if needs be to die for it, solely on the ground of color, is one of the anomalies of the present-day way of thinking by a considerable part of the American government."
"The Drift of the Current," Norfolk Journal and Guide, 1942