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The Invisible History of African Americans in Cape Charles, Virginia
Item 7 of 12

If you had the opportunity to name a brand-new movie theater in your community, what name would you choose? In 1940, the Cape Charles Theatre Corporation, with William "W. H." Henry Tabb as President, held a competition to christen the movie theater that would serve the town's African American residents. Bessie Trower earned the honor of naming the establishment, choosing George Washington Carver's surname to celebrate the renowned African American scientist.

The 400-seat Carver Theatre began welcoming moviegoers in 1940 and was outfitted with "complete equipment including projection, sound, heating and ventilation and chairs."[1] The adjacent Carver Spot began serving customers in 1947. These businesses completed the African American community hub in the Jersey section, where residents came "together to eat, shop, worship, and be entertained."[2] The Carver Theatre and Carver Spot were established for entertainment, but they also provided a place outside of church and school where both adults and children could gather in the neighborhood.

The former location of the Carver Theatre and the Carver Spot is pictured in June 2022. (Allison Blakeman)

Sky, Plant, Building, Window

The Carver Theatre enjoys a packed house. Manager W. H. Tabb is pictured in the middle of the aisle to the (viewers’) left. (The Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative)

Photograph, Crowd, People, Event

The Carver Spot is advertised in the Northampton County High School yearbook with Russel Josie as manager. (

Font, Rectangle, Plant, Paper

The Carver Theatre boasts "Good Pictures IN CINEMASCOPE" in this advertisement in the Northampton County High School yearbook. (

Rectangle, Font, Number, Circle

W. H. Tabb’s Draft Registration Card shows his longest place of employ, the Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company. (

Handwriting, Font, Rectangle, Monochrome photography

One of W. H. Tabb’s many professions was Notary Public for the Commonwealth of Virginia. (

Handwriting, Signature, Font, Writing

While many key African American business leaders moved to the area searching for new opportunities, William Henry "W. H." Tabb grew up in Cape Charles and resided at his home on 627 Madison Avenue for all 62 years of his life. Locals recognized him as the "community's Number One citizen.”[3] Tabb credited T. D. Jefferson, proprietor of Jefferson's Store, and Reverend William H. Davenport, pastor of the Cape Charles First Baptist Church, as his "religious, business and civic" inspirations.[4] He followed in their footsteps and became a civic leader in his own right. He held positions of leadership in the First Baptist Church and Tidewater Institute, and he supported the establishment of Cape Charles Elementary School. Tabb’s civic and religious endeavors occurred on top of his long-held position as Superintendent of the Cape Charles District of the African American owned Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company. Tabb provided a valuable service to the community at a time when discriminatory practices in the insurance industry made it difficult and costly for African Americans to obtain policies. In order to receive fair treatment, African Americans found it necessary to establish their own business institutions such as insurance companies and banks.

While the Carver Theatre came later in Tabb’s life and career, it was no less important to him. In an article advertising the theatre's opening date, Tabb believed the theatre benefited "not only [...] its owners, but [...] the improvement of the colored people of the section who have for a number of years had little or no amusement or recreational facilities here."[5]

Until the cinema played its first film to "a packed house" on May 24, 1940, African Americans in Cape Charles did not have the luxury of attending the movies.[6] Pauline "Pucci" Mapp Foreman, whose family operated the Green Leaf Tavern, recalls, "The movie house [on Mason Avenue, African Americans] could not go in at all. Not no balcony or nothing that I remember, you could not go."[7] According to Richard Press, successful artist who spent formative years in Cape Charles, the Carver Theatre "was for the Black folks," a safe-haven where "you hardly ever saw any white people around that area."[8] Residents who lived in the area recount that the African American and white theaters played the same films at the same time. Walter Jefferson reported in the "Cape Charles" column of the Journal and Guide that, in the spring of 1941, the Carver Theatre drew "crowds from as far as Maryland" when showing the blockbuster film Gone with the Wind, featuring the Academy Award-winning performance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to receive an Oscar.[9]

When the Carver Spot opened seven years later, it further expanded the spaces in Cape Charles where African Americans felt safe to gather because "everybody knew everybody" on Jefferson Avenue.[10] At the Carver Spot, "[You] could go in there, you could buy your candy, you could buy your potato chips, and so forth," as well as "ice cream and sandwiches and stuff like that."[11] The eatery offered patrons a soda fountain and restaurant with the standard amenities of the time - "booths, a jukebox, and a dance floor."[12] The Carver Complex also housed a shoe store and an office for the Cape Charles District of the Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company. Along with watching movies and hanging out at the Carver Theatre and Carver Spot, roller skating was big in the African American community in Cape Charles. Kids enjoyed using the concrete pad outside of the buildings to show off their skills to their friends. Longtime resident Odelle Collins remembers parents often using the Carver complex as a reward to entice children to good behavior. Her parents promised, "As long as we went to church on Sunday we could go to the movies on Sunday."[13]

After Tabb’s death in 1952, the Carver Theatre continued screening films, but eventually shuttered its doors after less than two decades of operations. Whereas those visiting the Jersey section could once get their hair cut, worship at church, grab a beer, eat a snack, catch a movie, and enjoy other activities along the bustling if small stretch of Jefferson Avenue, the decline of the Carver establishments eroded the "downtown" for African Americans. The Carver Theatre and Carver Spot buildings barely survived the new millennium. The complex was demolished after serving as headquarters for the Alpha and Omega Church. 

[1] "Dusman Installations," The Exhibitor, July 17, 1940, BM-27.

[2] Metty Vargas Pellicer, Invisible History: Growing Up Colored in Cape Charles, Virginia: Memoir by Tom Godwin (St. Petersburg, FL: BookLocker, 2020), 76.

[3] "Rites Held for W. H. Tabb, Town's Citizen Number On," Journal and Guide, September 20, 1952, 6.

[4] "Rites Held for W. H. Tabb," 6.

[5] "Colored Theatre Opened May 24th," Northampton Times, May 30, 1940.

[6] "Colored Theatre Opened May 24th."

[7] Pauline "Pucci" Mapp Foreman interviewed by Reginald “Reggie” Widgeon (November 21, 2021), Oral History Interview for the Cape Charles Rotary Club Invisible History Project.

[8] Richard Cornell Press, Sr. interviewed by Fiameta “Metty” Vargas Pellicer (February 8, 2022), Oral History Interview for the Cape Charles Rotary Club Invisible History Project.

[9] W. P. Jefferson, "Cape Charles," Journal and Guide, May 3, 1941, 19.

[10] Richard Cornell Press, Sr., Cape Charles Rotary Club Oral History Interview.

[11] Richard Press, Sr., Cape Charles Rotary Club Oral History Interview; Odelle Johnson Collins interviewed by Fiameta “Metty” Vargas Pellicer (July 27, 2021), Oral History Interview for the Cape Charles Rotary Club Invisible History Project.

[12] Pellicer, Invisible History, 75.

[13] Odelle Johnson Collins, Cape Charles Rotary Club Oral History Interview.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Allison Blakeman, June 2022

The Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative; RW18-26 CCE, Colored Theatre