VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) —
The red-brick building set above Atlantic Avenue has looked out over the Oceanfront for 86 years, a constant through decades of history and change. Yet viewed through a different prism, The Cavalier on the Hill hotel can represent different things to different people.
Tina Warren was 9 years old when The Cavalier drew her and her family to the area in the early 1950s, when her father took a job as first cook. She still has the letter, dated Sept. 23, 1958, announcing his promotion. Bertram Anderson served as the hotel’s first black head chef, a position he held until his death in 1970.
To Warren, the hotel was stately, beautiful.
Other views came to light earlier this month when the City Council awarded $18 million to help developer Bruce Thompson renovate the hotel as part of a larger development project. Andrew Jackson, chairman of the city’s African American Leadership Forum, spoke before the council, saying The Cavalier “represents a time many would rather forget than remember.”
“History is not the same to everyone,” Jackson said.
While some such as Warren viewed The Cavalier with family pride, others said they view the hotel as a symbol of the segregated South, a place where black men and women were allowed to work but couldn’t stay as guests.
“When you say preserve that history, preserve it for who?” said E. George Minns, president of the Seatack Community Civic League.
The New Journal and Guide, a newspaper that has long served the black community, penned articles from the 1930s through 1960s describing hotel workers here.
In 1938, the paper reported, the Virginia Beach Town Council passed an ordinance requiring all high school and college students coming to the beach for seasonal work be photographed, fingerprinted and registered with police in an attempt to cut down on crime. About 95 percent of those working in hotel and domestic services were black, according to the article.
At The Cavalier, picketers appeared in the summer of 1958, and members of the Local 23 Hotel, Restaurant and Bartenders Union went on strike, seeking higher wages.
The Oceanfront was reserved for whites only, and black residents were allowed on segregated beaches on the Chesapeake Bay named Seaview and Ocean Breeze, historian Edna Hawkins-Hendrix said.
“I was 14 before I could put my foot in God’s ocean solely because I was born black,” Minns said.
Virginia Beach resident Ralph Parham II said his father grew up in Hampton Roads, graduating from high school here in the late 1950s. The Cavalier was the first thing his father and his friends saw when they rounded the corner, coming from Seaview Beach toward the Oceanfront, Parham said. When they saw The Cavalier, he said, they knew they couldn’t go farther.
“They say, ‘It’s history,’ “ Parham said. “Yeah, it’s history of oppression.”
To Tina Warren, The Cavalier holds positive memories.
Her father’s job as head chef allowed the family to build a house and put down roots.
Bertram Anderson was dedicated to his profession, and Warren can remember him waking at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. at times to get to work to prepare for parties.
Some days, Anderson invited his wife and daughter to come to the hotel early, before his shift was over. Warren and her mom would enter through the back and go into his office, which housed his desk and cookbooks and had large windows looking out to the kitchen, Warren remembered. There, they would eat together.
“We would eat the same food in his office, and yet we couldn’t eat in the dining room,” Warren said.
But those meals were special to her, she said.
“It didn’t bother me then,” she said. “It was something that was accepted then.”
When Warren’s family would write to relatives in Florida, they sent postcards with images of The Cavalier.
“I look at it like the Cape Henry Lighthouse,” she said. “It’s just as much of a historical marker as that.”
Carlos Wilson, known throughout the city as Mr. Virginia Beach and Mr. Cavalier, worked for the hotel for 73 years, from 1938 until his death in 2011, just short of his 90th birthday.
Wilson loved his work and considered those he worked with to be close friends, his daughter, Margie Wilson Coefield, said. Working at the hotel allowed him to provide for his family, she said.
In later years, when she would take her dad to work, Wilson Coefield can remember watching him pause every morning, just to admire the building.
When he died, friends from the hotel held their own ceremony and sprinkled dirt from The Cavalier on top of his coffin, she said.
“They showed him respect, and he respected them,” Wilson Coefield said.
In light of The Cavalier project, Carl Wright, president of the NAACP’s Virginia Beach branch, said he would like city leaders to take a serious look at giving opportunities to minorities, “particularly African Americans who have been overlooked for so long.”
The past can’t be modified, he said, “but we can change things going on today by making sure everyone gets their fair share and fair opportunity.”
Councilwoman Amelia Ross-Hammond said she spoke with Thompson about opportunities for minority businesses within his Cavalier project and said it’s something she’ll be “keeping my eyes on.”
“We cannot go backwards,” she said. “At least now we can try to be more inclusive.”
Thompson said diversity is a “key component” of his company’s policies toward developing properties and businesses and said he was moved by Jackson’s comments at the City Council.
“I have every intent of finding space within the hotel to both recognize those persons who have worked at the hotel and the community the hotel displaced when it was originally built,” he said. “I recognize the history of that hotel is not the same for everyone.”
When Tina Warren sees the hotel today, she can imagine her dad there, dressed in his chef’s jacket and hat. She wants to see the hotel restored and said she believes her dad would have wanted the same.
In 1987, Warren attended a Princess Anne County Training School reunion, held at The Cavalier. It was the first time she used the hotel’s front door as a guest.
For a long time, she had envisioned the hotel like a castle.
Warren didn’t spend the night, but some of her classmates did. She went upstairs to see the rooms once off-limits.
They seemed smaller than she had pictured.
The grand vision she had as a girl seemed much different up close.
Margaret Matray writes for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.