Newspaper Articles, Photographs, Virginia

Newport News Jacks and Jills.

My Aldridge cousin Barbie Jones has access to an archive of early editions of the Norfolk Journal & Guide, an African-American newspaper. All morning, she’s been pelting me with gems pulled from the pasts of both my Aldridge-Brewington family and my mother’s close family in Newport News. Here’s the first — stay tuned!


Norfolk Journal & Guide, 20 March 1948.

All five of my grandparents’ children, just three days before my mother’s birthday.

Maternal Kin, Photographs, Virginia

Remembering Julia Allen Maclin.

I found this photo on the Newport News Public Library’s website. Posted in material related to the Virginiana Collection, the picture is captioned: “Junior Class of 1923 stands before the renovated Huntington High School on 18th Street.”


I am fairly certain that the woman I encircled is my great-aunt Julia Allen Maclin, who was born 109 years ago today. I know that this terribly grainy side shot is her:


Happy birthday, Aunt Julia.

Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia

Jasper Maxwell Allen.

My mother tells a story: the War was on, and her father had been sent overseas to serve. His older brother had come to Newport News for a visit, and the family gathered at her grandparents’ house. “We were in Grandma’s kitchen. I must have been about 5,” she says. “I remember it like yesterday. Of course, I knew he was a dentist, but to me he was just Uncle Mac. And I was telling everybody that I had a loose tooth, and he said, ‘Oh, let me see it.’ He put his hand by my mouth, and when he pulled it away, he opened his palm, and the tooth was in it! And I cried and I cried,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel it. But I guess I was so surprised!”


Jasper Maxwell Allen, the oldest son and second child of John C. and Mary Agnes Holmes Allen, was born in 1904 in Newport News, Virginia. Though he was named “Jasper” after his maternal grandfather, he was always known as “Maxwell” or “Mac.”

The 1910 census of Newport News shows the Allens at 748 21st Street.  John Allen, a painter at the shipyard, headed a household consisting of wife Mary and six children — Marion, Maxwell, Julia, John jr., Edith and Willie Allen — as well as an adopted son Jesse Jefferson (who was Agnes’ deceased sister Emma’s son.)

By the 1920 census, the family was living at 2107 Marshall Avenue in Newport News: John C. Allen, longshoreman on piers, with wife Mary, and children Marian, Maxwell, Julia, John, Willie, Edith and Nita.

Maxwell attended local elementary schools and graduated either John Marshall or Huntington High School in Newport News. He attended college at Virginia Theological Seminary and College.

In 1929, The Southern Workman, a journal published by Hampton Institute for more than 50 years, announced that on August 29 Lena P. Jeffress, who received a diploma in Education in ’28, married Mr. Maxwell Jasper Allen [sic]. Lena Poole Jeffress was the daughter of J. Murray and Lena Poole Jeffress of Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia. Presumably, Lena and Maxwell met during one of his visits home from school in Lynchburg.

A year later, the 1930 censustaker found the couple living in Washington, DC, at 3027 Sherman Avenue NW, where they boarded in the household of David Spencer.  Maxwell worked as a waiter in a restaurant and Lena as a clerk in an insurance office. It is likely that Maxwell had recently begun his studies at Howard University Dental College; he graduated in the Class of 1932.

On 2 June 1932, the Pittsburgh Courier‘s society page mentioned that a Danville couple had entertained members of a drama troupe from Virginia Theological Seminary and College. One of the performers in the play “A Servant in the House” was Maxwell Allen. [Is this the same Maxwell? I thought he was in dental school by then.]

On 16 June 1934, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the Virginia State Board of Dental Examiners had announced that 34 candidates, including J. Maxwell Allen, had passed the examinations to practice dentistry in the state.

A 1934 issue of Howard’s The Dentoscope journal announced:


Allen’s arrival was heralded in the local newspaper : “Colored Dentist’s Office at Charlotte Courthouse.”

On 1 August 1937, the Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the 67th anniversary celebration of Morrison Grove Baptist Church, “The oldest church for Negroes in Charlotte County.” After a brief history of the church, the article noted that “[t]he Central Sunday School convention with convene at Morrison Grove Wednesday and Thursday. Member schools will have charge of the program Wednesday. Dr. J. Maxwell Allen will lead a discussion on “Training the Youths for Christian Services” and Rev. W.C. Currin will preach Wednesday night.”

On 22 August 1939, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a short article concerning the alleged disappearance of Maxwell Allen, “Negro dentist,” following a visit to his wife at Virginia Union University. He had been carrying a significant amount of money, and the family feared foul play. Apparently, Maxwell resurfaced without incident, and the brouhaha died down. (My mother has never heard anything about this.)

The 1940 census of Charlotte Court House lists doctor of dentistry Maxwell J. Allen, 35; wife Lena P., a public school teacher, 35; and sons Maxwell J., Jr., 8, and Cameron L., 2; as well as Margarette Brown, 8, niece. Apparently, however, Maxwell tried out a practice in Lynchburg for a few years during this stretch. In Stickley and Amowitz’ The Lynchburg Dental Society Presents One Hundred Forty-Three Years of Dentistry: 1820-1963, published in 1964: “Dr. J. Maxwell Allen was a graduate of Howard University School of Dentristry. He practiced in Lynchburg at 912 Fifth Street in 1940 and 1941, moving from here to Charlotte Court House, Virginia.”

Maxwell Sr. and Maxwell Jr.(1938) 001

 Uncle Maxwell and younger son, Cameron, circa 1939.

On 23 February 1950, in a column in the Charlotte Gazette called “News of Interest of Colored Readers”: In observance of Negro History Week, the Rev. F.L. Patterson, pastor of Morrison Grove Church, arranged a very interesting meeting. Miss Betty Smith presided. Mrs. Charles G. Blackwell spoke on “The Negro in Education.” Other speakers were Mr. G. H. Binford, on the subject “The Negro in Politics and Economics”; Rev. F.L. Patterson, on “The Negro in Religion”; Dr. J. Maxwell Allen, on “The Negro in Fraternals and Dentistry.”

On 18 Aug 1959, Newport News’ Daily Press reported: “Dr. J. Maxwell Allen Sr., Negro, a former resident of Newport News, died early Sunday in a Lynchburg hospital following a short illness.  He is the son of Mrs. Mary H. Allen and the late J.C. Allen Sr., of Newport News. Surviving, in addition to his mother, are his wife, Lena P. Allen of Charlotte Court House; two sons, Maxwell Allen Jr. and Cameron Allen of New York City; a brother, William J. Allen, Newport News; three sisters, Mrs. Julia A. Maclin, Newport News, Mrs. Edith A. Anderson, Jetersville, and Mrs. Nita A. Wilkerson, Washington; a foster brother, Jesse H. Jefferson of Baltimore; and several nieces and nephews.  Funeral arrangements are incomplete.”

Per his death certificate, Uncle Maxwell died of cancer after a twelve-day stay in a Lynchburg hospital. He would have turned 56 the day after his death.  He was buried in Charlotte Court House in Union Cemetery, just down the road from his house and office. His wife Lena joined him there in 1998.

Maternal Kin, Other Documents, Virginia, Vocation

Man of a thousand hustles.

My great-grandfather, the longshoreman, rose from the docks to become a union officer and civic leader in Newport News, Virginia. The arc of that narrative seemed long and interesting enough, but we now know that it does not quite do this hard-working man justice. In fact, in just the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century, John C. Allen worked a half-dozen jobs to keep his growing family comfortably fed, clothed and sheltered. The 1900 census records John’s occupation as shipyard laborer, which is more or less consistent with received wisdom. Newport News city directories, however, capture the full range of John’s hustles over the years:

1902 — Allen Jno, eating house, Ivy Ave nr 18th. John’s church, Zion Baptist, was at 20th and Ivy, at the heart of Newport News’ East End. Presumably, John owned this small and apparently short-lived restaurant and probably lived on premises. (Fifteen years later, John’s nephew Junius Allen lived at 1752 Ivy, which is at the corner of 18th Street.)

1903 — Allen Jno C, lab h 748 21st   John was probably laboring at the shipyard. 748 21st Street is the house in which my grandfather and his siblings spent their early childhood years. I need to check deeds to find out if John Sr. bought it 1902-03. My grandparents also lived here during the first five or so years of their marriage.

1910 — Allen Jno C, painter h 748 21st  John is described as a shipyard painter in the 1910 census, and he seems to have worked this job at least two years.

1911 — Allen Jno C, painter h 748 21st  

1912 — Allen Jno C, agt Am Ben Ins Co h 748 21st  Insurance agent??? John had come an impressively long way for a man who’d been illiterate when he arrived in Newport News a dozen years earlier. American Beneficial Insurance Company was a black-owned business founded in 1902 in Richmond, Virginia, by Rev. Wesley F. Graham, a Baptist minister.

1913-14 — Allen Jno C, grocer 2206 Madison av h 2107 Marshall av  Around 1913, John bought the house on Marshall Avenue in which he and his wife lived out their years, at which my parents married, and in which his daughter Julia lived and operated a beauty parlor when I was a child. The Madison Avenue grocery is a complete mystery. [Postscript, 13 April 2014: A mystery only to me, apparently. You just have to ask the right questions. After my mother read this post, she sent me a text identifying “Mama Taylor” and her husband as folks who operated a grocery that may have been her grandfather’s. Post-postscript, 19 April 2014: my Uncle C. told me that (1) Mama Taylor and her husband Johnnie lived above a grocery they operated in the 1900 block of Madison Avenue; (2) Mama Taylor was close to “her Johnnie,” my grandfather; (3) Mama Taylor was about his grandparents’ age; (4) he wondered if Mr. Taylor and John C. Allen Sr. were related, as they had similar builds and full heads of white hair; (5) at least during my uncle’s childhood, John and Agnes Allen ordered their groceries from a white-owned business in the 2100 block of Madison, not from the Taylors.]

1914-15 — Allen Jno C, clk h 2107 Marshall av  Clerk? What kind of clerk?

The 1916 and 1917 city directories revert to the 1913-14 grocer entry, but when John Allen registered for the World War I draft in 1918, he reported that he worked as a laborer for Hampton Roads Stevedoring Company. The 1918 and 1919 city directories also show him as a laborer. (Had the grocery store closed? Why? Was there better money on the docks?)

UPDATE: On 31 May 1917, J.C. Allen ran a small ad in the Newport News Daily Press announcing the liquidation via auction of his grocery store at 2206 Madison Avenue:

img (3).jpg

The 1920 census finally recorded John’s occupation as “longshoreman on piers.” (John was 45 years old in 1920, well into middle age. Unloading ships in this era was brutal work even for young men.) Subsequent city directories label him “longshoreman” (1923), “mgr International Longshoreman’s Union” (1925), “mgr Intl Longshoreman’s Locals 844 & 946 gro” (back in the grocery business, 1927).

In the 1930 census, John worked as a longshoreman for a steamship company, but is reported as a laborer in the 1931 and 1932 directories. In 1933, he’s again a manager with the union, but the 1940 censustaker described him as a longshoreman in “frt. transport.” (Incidentally, sometime in the late 1930s, he helped found Whittaker Memorial Hospital and joined its and Crown Savings Bank’s boards of directors.)

A 1953 obituary laconically notes that John C. Allen “worked for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. for about 10 years and then became a stevedore.” Ah, but he did so much more.

John Allen ca1950

John C. Allen at his son-in-law’s in yet another role — farmer. Near Jetersville, Virginia, 1940s.


Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, Virginia

Remembering John C. Allen Sr. on the 60th anniversary of his death.

They sat rather stiffly side by side, each with hands clasped in lap. The occasion was their 50th anniversary, and granddaughter Marion captured the moment in the only photograph I have seen of them together.

50th Anniversary

Three years later, family gathered again on the day after Christmas to pay respects to John and Mary Agnes Holmes Allen.  Papa Allen retired to bed after dinner and never woke again.

ALLEN -- JC Allen Obit Cropped

Norfolk Journal and Guide, 2 January 1954.

He was buried in Pleasant Shade cemetery in Hampton, Virginia, near the graves of his son John Jr. and daughter Marion. IMG_1275

Top photo taken by Marion Allen Christian, 1953, copy in possession of Lisa Y. Henderson; bottom photo taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2011.

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia, Vocation

He designed every house he built.

About ten years ago, when we were all in Newport News for a family reunion, I asked my uncle to take us on a tour of houses our grandfather built.


He designed every house he built. And there were a couple he designed that he didn’t build. I’ll show you those, too. One of them, he really hated to lose. That was a, Dr. Woodard was a dentist. I mean, a pharmacist. And so, he – that was one of the lots that Daddy had sold, and so I think Daddy was a little ticked with the guy. He sold him the lot and designed the house, then the man went to another contractor. But you know what was interesting at that time? There were about five or six good general contractors around, you know, that did small buildings. And Daddy was one of those, but these guys were pretty competitive. They had a decent market. Daddy built an average of about a house a year, I guess. The war cut him off, you know. He had to get reestablished after the war. But he had a friend named Buster Reynolds. And Buster Reynolds was reputed to have made his money in the numbers, and so when the numbers were getting real hot and heavy, when it was reputed that the Mafia was trying to take the numbers over, Buster got out. And he built this service station, and he had a Texaco franchise, and he had Daddy to build the station. And Texaco liked the work so much that Daddy built two more stations for Texaco. And both of the stations that were built in the black community are still up. They’re not gas stations anymore, but the buildings are still up. And the one that was built Overtown is gone. But even the station that was in the white community Texaco had him to build that one, too. And with the money Daddy bought – I’ll never forget – he bought an International truck, great big truck, to carry his materials around.

Texaco 2


… the churches that he used to do expansions and modernizations on all the time, but I know one of ‘em is gone, and I don’t know where the other one is. I know the one – he used to take me down to that one from time to time. But I don’t know where they are now. The thing he did throughout all of these communities – he had a strong maintenance clientele, but Daddy was a – you see these cabinet shops now? Well, Daddy used to make, put in new cabinet work in people’s kitchens for them. And, so, that’s what carried him through the winter. ‘Cause he would also do designs and drawings for other contractors. Like Jimmy’s daddy. Mr. Scott. He used to do most of their design work, he’d sit there and draw those drawings for them. But that’s what got him through the winter. That and he used to do a lot of maintenance. Put in new windows, cabinet work, doors. Put little small additions to houses. But that was generally for a white clientele. He used to do a lot of work for the shipyard management people up in North Huntington Heights.


This house Daddy was building when he died. He was building it for a family named Kramer. A white family. See the one with the little entrance and the white wrought iron?

House 1

1316 – 22nd Street


The 800 block of Hampton Avenue, this is where Daddy owned those lots. Slow down … this house right here. This tan house. 855. This house was built at that time for the Tynes family, which owned a very nice house and property up in the next block.

Hampton Avenue 1

855 Hampton Avenue

But the Tynes family ran into some – I guess it was financial difficulty. Anyway, that house was sold to Wendell Walker, who was a lawyer and a part of the Walker family. You know his father was a lawyer, who was William. And his son William jr. is Howard Walker’s father, who was my classmate. And then there were, like, four sons and a daughter, I believe it was. Three of ‘em were lawyers, and then Wendell and Phillip were lawyers. The son William was an engineer, but when he came back home, he was manager of Aberdeen. He went into real estate and insurance. Daddy sold him the lot, designed and built the house.


Hampton Avenue 3.1

819 Hampton Avenue

Let me tell you about this house right here. This house was the undoing. This house was built for his friend Leroy Ridley. And there were, I think, four lots – four or three lots. Leroy Ridley was the son of John Ridley, who founded Crown Savings Bank with Pa Pa Allen. Okay? But he became – one of the Ridley sons, he became the one who took over the bank. And the man turned out to be not the most moral and forthright businessman. He talked into Daddy into $5000 worth of extras in this house, which was almost the same size as the house. And then when it came time to close the deal, he refused to pay Daddy because he said Daddy had not duly executed the extensions in the contract to do that. And not only that – Daddy had borrowed money from his bank. The long and short of the story is the last of that was paid when Pa Pa’s estate was executed [in 1961, 13 years after John Allen’s death.] We told Mother to pay that loan off ‘cause she still owed a thousand dollars. But this house turned out to be what kept Daddy from building Mama her house. ‘Cause he was gon build it on another lot. See? But when he got caught in that deal, then he couldn’t. So then he had to sell off all the lots that he had for houses, okay? So that’s when he sold this lot – the Woodard lot. And designed that house for Dr. Woodard.

Me: This incredible – this house right here?

My uncle: Yes. That’s Daddy’s design.

My cousin, J: Wow!

Me: Sheeze. Oh, my God.

He did not do it. He designed it. Okay. See, this was an extra lot. This is another one of the large lots he had. You see what I’m saying? And this house was across the street, that was his pride and joy. That was a Cape Cod. But I’m saying, the Ridley house was a fantastic house. I mean, you know, the design was great, but anyway, so this was done for his buddy Picott. Mr. Picott. He was president — well, he wasn’t president – yes, well, he was, of Virginia Education Association, which was the black unit of the National Education Association. He was one of the guys who lost their jobs over the equal rights fight with Mr. Palmer for black teachers to have equal pay. And he left and moved to Richmond, and that’s when he sold his house. But that was a beautiful home. Solid oak floors, cabinetry that Daddy built. All of that, that house. But that’s the thing that – she won’t talk about it too much – but that’s the thing that really embittered Mother, was when she lost the opportunity to build her house because of that deal.

Hampton Avenue 2

816 Hampton Avenue


2107 Marshall Ave

2107 Marshall Avenue, my great-grandparents’ house.

You know, he did all that for his father. He put the addition – designed that addition to go on the back. Right behind the bathroom window. Okay, that’s where the bathroom was. And then Daddy designed and started that addition for the house. And that’s when he went to the Army. And they put that addition up there so – so the bottom addition was the barbershop, remember? You remember the beauty shop? Yeah, the bottom addition was the beauty shop, and the upper addition was the bedroom for Aunt Nita for the war. Pa Pa did that for his children.


House 3

3105 [I didn’t note the street name]

On the corner here, similar to the Kramer house. Designed it and built it. That was done for Dr. Fultz, who was a dentist. Actually, he was the school dentist. He built 3015. This at that time was a predominantly white neighborhood. Yeah, that’s the house. See that little carpentry he did? Those little arched doorways? That’s the original wood. That’s Daddy’s work.


Remembering John Christopher Allen, Jr., carpenter, draftsman, builder, contractor, father of five, grandfather of eight, great-grandfather of six, born 107 years ago today.


Interview by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved. Photos taken by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2002.