Clio Logo
The Invisible History of African Americans in Cape Charles, Virginia
Item 6 of 12

While strolling Cape Charles' historic streets, have you ever looked down and noticed the grooved dot pattern on the original sidewalks? If so, you have unknowingly admired Thomas L. Godwin's handiwork. In some places, his signature is stamped into the cement, reading "T L GODWIN CAPE CHARLES VA." Thomas L. Godwin's contribution to the town tourists enjoy today, including the cement sidewalks and many building foundations (including the Cape Charles Post Office), stands as a reminder of his and his family's impact on Cape Charles. Ironically, the work of Godwin in bringing life to the community rested on his ties to the local family catering to the grieving relatives of the deceased. Gray's Funeral Home was the first African American-owned and operated funeral home in Cape Charles as well as the Eastern Shore. Originally opened by carpenter Mills C. Gray alongside his wife Jennie Joynes Gray in 1895, their niece Alston Joynes Godwin became the longtime matriarch of the funeral home alongside her husband, Thomas, in 1946. Gray's Funeral Home continues operation as a third-generation family business, today operated by Thomas George Godwin and his wife Juanita Brickhouse Godwin.

The current location of Gray's Funeral Home at 618 Jefferson Avenue is pictured in June 2022. (Allison Blakeman)

Plant, Sky, Property, Building

Juanita and Tom Godwin pose in front of the sign for their family business in June 2022. (Allison Blakeman)

Plant, Smile, Hat, Nature

The original Gray’s Funeral Home shed is pictured in February 1988. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

Door, Wood, Black-and-white, Sunlight

This fan given courtesy Gray’s Funeral Home pictures Juanita and Tom Godwin, proprietors, and celebrates one hundred and twenty-one years in service. (Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center)

Glasses, Flower, Smile, Bow tie

Thomas L. Godwin and Alston Godwin are pictured with other prominent community members. (Juanita and Tom Godwin)

Suit, Font, Event, Vintage clothing

On Thomas L. Godwin’s Draft Registration Card, he lists his business as “cement contractor,” and employer as “myself”. (

Handwriting, Rectangle, Font, Parallel

Thomas L. Godwin set many of the sidewalks and other concrete foundations in Cape Charles, including this sidewalk pictured in front of Cape Charles Elementary School. (Allison Blakeman)

Architecture, Road surface, Brickwork, Line

From the beginning, Gray's Funeral Home has been a family-centered operation to its core, an intimate collaboration of the Gray, Joynes, and Godwin families. Mills C. Gray, a carpenter, moved to Cape Charles from Nansemond County, Virginia, in the 1880s. He soon met his future wife and business partner Jennie M. Joynes. Mills established his carpentry skills in Cape Charles and built many of the town's early homes. He invested his earnings in real estate in and around Cape Charles between 1888 and 1891, and constructed his still-standing family home at 641 Randolph Avenue around 1899. Through his continued carpentry and savvy land-dealing, the husband-and-wife duo gathered the connections and means to found Gray's Funeral Home in 1895. Mills, eulogized as "an apostle of industry, a patron of education, an embodiment of true religion," would either perform in-home visits or work out of the backyard shed at their family home, which remains on the property.[1] A memorial published a year after Mills' death in 1931 credits much of the mortuary's success "to the business sagacity" of Jennie, who took over the business with niece Alston Joynes Godwin's support.[2] Alston apprenticed with her aunt and uncle at age 16 before eventually becoming a licensed funeral director in 1944. In 1934, Alston married Thomas L. Godwin, a cement contractor who, after the death of his father Jacob Godwin, Jr., in 1914, continued a partnership with Mills to provide cement burial vaults for the funeral home. This is how Alston and Thomas met, shaping a partnership between the three families in Gray's Funeral Home that continues to this day.

When Jennie died in 1946, Alston and Thomas assumed the business's operations, moving to Madison Avenue and adding a second location at 618 Jefferson Avenue, where Gray's Funeral Home thrives to this day. Alston lived to be 101, passing away in 2013. She renewed her funeral licenses at the age of 99, making her one of the oldest living licensed funeral directors in Virginia. In honor of her 100th birthday, President Barack Obama sent her a letter of celebration, and the Cape Charles Town Council passed a proclamation congratulating her on reaching such a milestone. That same year, 100 Black Women of Funeral Service recognized Alston as a Living Legend, praising her for 84 years of dedication to the industry, noting that she "still answers the phone and covers for son Thomas and wife when they have activities to attend."[3] Before her death, she left Gray's Funeral Home in the hands of her son Thomas George Godwin. Tom, who inherited his family's entrepreneurial prowess and innate knack for leadership, runs the funeral home alongside his wife, educator and funeral directress Juanita Brickhouse Godwin.

Throughout its continuous 127 years of operation, Gray's Funeral Home has not only helped Cape Charles residents navigate the grieving process after a loved one's passing but has also served as a refuge for the African American community. During segregation, African Americans were not allowed to lodge or dine in white-owned and operated establishments, so many relied on word of mouth when they needed somewhere to lay their heads or enjoy a good meal when visiting Cape Charles. Thankfully, finding helping souls within the African American community was not hard to come by. Valentine Evans remembers that when people from out of town visited and did not know where to find nourishment, people would refer visitors to her grandmother Ruth Bland's house, promising, "If you're going to Cape Charles, stop by Ruth Bland's, or Herbert Bland's, they will give you a meal."[4] Ruth Bland was a major figure in Cape Charles and the First Baptist Church, helping her community wherever she could. Similarly, Tom Godwin remembers his mother Alston offering meals and a spot to sleep to anyone in need, even to those hitching rides on the nearby trains. Alston provided this sanctuary on her own accord, until eventually the African American churches and social groups offered additional helping hands.

The Godwin's residence, along with the funeral home, were also places where the community could gather in fun and in strategy. Church and other community groups held meetings and entertaining parties there. But, when necessary, the funeral home transformed into a secret meeting place where politically-minded African Americans in the community met during Jim Crow to strategize. These efforts spurred the fight for government-provided utilities and, during the Civil Rights era, to organize protests against segregation. Tom recounts how the people who gathered at his family's business wanted to better their community. Some even drew up political campaigns from inside the funeral home. He credits these meetings of the town's great minds with his decision to run for Cape Charles City Council and the Northampton Board of Supervisors. While Tom's main order of business these days is directing Gray's Funeral Home, as one of the older surviving members of the African American community in Cape Charles, he is lovingly known around town as a historian and tour guide.

[1] Rev. P. W. Cook, “Mills C. Gray, Late Civic And Business Leader Of Cape Charles, Memoralized,” Journal and Guide, September 24, 1932, 15.

[2] Cook, “Mills C. Gray,” 15.

[3] 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, “Gray’s Funeral Home Matriarch and Living Legends Mrs. Alston Godwin of Cape Charles, VA turned 100 years old a few months ago and still answers the phone and covers for son Thomas and wife when they have activities to attend,” Facebook, April 2, 2012,

[4] Valentine Elliott Evans interviewed by Fiameta “Metty” Vargas Pellicer (May 20, 2021), Oral History Interview for the Cape Charles Rotary Club Invisible History Project.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Allison Blakeman, June 2022

Allison Blakeman, June 2022

Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Gray’s Funeral Home, 182-0004, Unknown, February 1, 1988; 182-0004_Grays_Funeral_Home_Shed-from-SW

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center; 2018.042.001 7990

Juanita and Tom Godwin; InvisibleHistoryCC042

Allison Blakeman, June 2022