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The Invisible History of African Americans in Cape Charles, Virginia
Item 3 of 12

Frequently remembered as Cape Charles' first African American owned and operated grocery store, few credit Jefferson's Store, opened in 1886, as the first establishment of its kind founded by any race. Jefferson's proprietor, Taylor Daniel "T. D." Jefferson, possessed an entrepreneurial spirit that gained him customers across the racial divide. African Americans and whites respected him, valuing his dedication and leadership. Described as extremely versatile, Jefferson, aside from the grocery business, invested his time in local banks, churches, African American newspapers, schools, and many other philanthropic endeavors intended to enrich the lives of the African American community in Cape Charles.[1] After his death in 1936, his son, Walton "Walter" Philander Jefferson, continued the family business until he died in 1981. Those passing through Cape Charles today would be none the wiser of Jefferson Store's existence though the family-run business served as an economic and social pillar of Cape Charles for nearly a century. The store was demolished in the 1990s.

While Jefferson’s store no longer stands on this lot, the Jefferson’s descendants still own the land at 625 Mason Avenue. (Allison Blakeman)

Cloud, Sky, Plant, Land lot

Children outside of Jefferson's Store with their dog. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Black, Style, Building, Monochrome

This Sanborn Map from 1921 shows Jefferson's Store with "the hump" in front of it. (Library of Congress)

Rectangle, Slope, Font, Schematic

This portrait of Taylor "T. D." Daniel Jefferson appeared in The Colored American Magazine in August 1902, approximately 16 years after Jefferson's Store opened on Mason Avenue in Cape Charles. (

Forehead, Face, Head, Chin

One of the original benches that adorned the outside of Jefferson's Store is on display at the Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center. (Allison Blakeman)

Wood, Outdoor furniture, Outdoor bench, Motor vehicle

T. D. Jefferson's business card shows that he had one of the first phone lines in Cape Charles, evidenced by the two-digit telephone number. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Brown, Font, Beige, Rectangle

T. D. Jefferson's business card shows that he had one of the first phone lines in Cape Charles, evidenced by the two-digit telephone number. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Handwriting, Font, Rectangle, Parallel

Walton "Walter" Philander Jefferson, T. D. Jefferson's son and successor of the store, works hard. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Photograph, Black, Style, Black-and-white

A woman is pictured sitting in a chair with the awning of Jefferson's store to her left and "the hump", or the railroad bridge, behind her. (Reverend Felton T. Sessoms)

Rectangle, Tree, Tints and shades, Art

Mattie Jefferson, wife of T. D. Jefferson, poses on the porch of their home. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Plant, Building, Window, Porch

Words have never rang truer than when one local historian described "T.D." Jefferson's commitment to his race and community as "synonymous with educational, religious, civic and commercial progress on [the] Eastern Shore."[2] Jefferson left home in 1881 alongside his cousin George W. Henry in an adventure that eventually brought them to Cape Charles in June 1884 to work on the railroad. In 1886, Jefferson and his cousin opened Jefferson's Store, the same year Cape Charles incorporated. The grocery, located at 625 Mason Avenue, became the solo venture of its namesake in 1911, when Jefferson opted to buy out his relative due to his stance against selling alcohol in the store. 

In 1889, Jefferson married Mattie S. Kellam, a teacher who greatly influenced his philanthropic efforts in Cape Charles. Together, they worked with community leaders and the church to open the town's first school for African American students. The couple had two children, Eva Irene Jefferson Banks and Walton "Walter" Philander Jefferson. As well as overseeing all aspects of the store, Jefferson partnered with the African American-owned newspaper Journal and Guide based out of Norfolk. He delivered the paper across the bay and recounted the goings-on of African American residents in the newspaper's "Cape Charles" column. Jefferson also invested in higher education for African American students, including Tidewater Institute, for which he served as secretary for the board of trustees. He also helped found Brickhouse Banking Company, serving as its treasurer. After nearly 50 years in business, Jefferson retired in 1931, leaving the operation of Jefferson's Store to son Walter, who left his position with the United States Postal Service in Norfolk to care for the Store and his father when his health began to fail. Along with the grocery store, Walter inherited his father's service and dedication to the community. T. D. Jefferson's attitude toward progress influenced his son. Walter was involved with the Cape Charles First Baptist Church, joined social clubs and secret societies, and formed his own organizations, such as the Central Northampton Agricultural Industrial Fair Association, on which he served as vice chairman of the advisory board. The Association hosted its first annual fair in Weirwood, Virginia, from August 11-14, 1925, and featured horse races, food, and midway entertainment. 

Many African American children raised in Cape Charles remember stopping in Jefferson's Grocery Store to buy candy like Mary Janes and squirrel nuts on their trek home from Cape Charles Elementary School. Many also recall that, just as the barbershop is men's place to converse, only adults were allowed to sit on the benches outside, where they could relax, gossip, and talk business. One of these benches, pictured in photographs courtesy of the Jefferson family, is currently on exhibit at the Cape Charles Museum.

Walter continued to operate Jefferson's Store and serve the Cape Charles community for nearly a half century, until his own passing in 1981. A large, empty lot remains at 625 Mason Avenue, but this former location of Jefferson's Store holds meaningful memories and inspiration for generations of African Americans in Cape Charles.

[1] Winston M. Tyler, “Man Who Helped to Build Cape Charles Started As Farm Boy,” Journal and Guide, April 8, 1933, 8.

[2] Tyler, "Man Who Helped," 8.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Allison Blakeman, June 2022

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; Jefferson Collection 2008.01.1; 2965c Jefferson StoreChildren

Library of Congress

Allison Blakeman, June 2022

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; InvisibleHistoryCC002

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; InvisibleHistoryCC110

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; Jefferson Collection 2008.01.1; 2965h W. Jefferson in Store 1957

Reverend Felton T. Sessoms; InvisibleHistoryCC072

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; Jefferson Collection 2008.01.1; 2965a Jefferson's Home