Dubbed “The First Lady of Song” Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Virginia just a few blocks from here on Marshall Street to her parents William Fitzgerald and Temperance Williams. Nicknamed “The First Lady of Song”, Ella was the most popular female singer in the United States for more than half a century. She recorded over 200 albums, sold over 40 million copies, won 13 Grammy awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan. In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service honored Ella with a commemorative stamp. Ella Fitzgerald passed away on June 15, 1996.
Norvleate was born in Arizona and made her way to the east coast to attend Howard University. After graduating in 1926, she married and moved to the east end of Newport News with her husband, Dr. Ernest Downing. Among her civic involvements, she was a program director of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA, the executive secretary of the Peninsula Coordinating Committee, and the executive director of the Newport News Office of Human Affairs from its inception in 1964 until her death. Her passion and dedication to the community extended from service on a myriad of area committees to congressional delegations on housing, social services, equal opportunity, minority relations, policing, and recreation.
Following her demise on February 11, 1983, this building from where she had so tirelessly served the community, was renamed in her honor.
Anderson Johnson became a street preacher at the age of eight and spent most of his life preaching in churches and on street corners throughout America. When he fell ill in the early 1970's he returned to his native Virginia, where he spent more than twenty years transforming his two-story home into a "faith mission" decorated from floor to ceiling with portraits and visionary images. He conducted lively church services to a small gathering of devotees at his Faith Mission every Sunday; these weekly gatherings were impassioned outpourings of religious zeal, with Reverend Johnson preaching, singing, and playing various instruments. In 1995, the Faith Mission was condemned, but then saved by concerned citizens, members of the Folk Art Society of America and the City of Newport News. Reverend Anderson Johnson passed away in 1998.
This agent of change was born and raised in the southeast community of Newport News. Affectionately known by his friends as “Chuck”, Allen was well-respected by his colleagues as an advocate for issues impacting the community. He first began working for city government in 1988 as the deputy director of planning. He would later join city council in 1992 and become vice mayor in 1998. During his time as vice mayor, Allen spearheaded the revitalization of Newport News with his “crowning accomplishment” being the creation of Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center. He also pushed for other improvements such as creating public parks on the Newport News waterfront and providing Navy housing within the city. After many years of service, Allen retired from his positions in 2008 and passed away in 2017.
A master choreographer and dance instructor in the Tidewater area, Hayes produced the popular CHOREO recitals for forty years to provide performance experience for his students in the Tidewater and Hampton Roads region. He studied with Katherine Dunham in New York City, Martha Graham at her School of Contemporary Dance, at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall and at the New York Dance Group of Broadway. Hayes taught his many students the relationship between a successful performance and success in their daily lives. The Downing Gross Cultural Arts Center named their dance studio the Thaddeus Hayes Dance Studio in 2009 to honor the extraordinary accomplishments of this educator, dancer and choreographer.
Born in Newport News in 1890, Lavinia Marian Fleming Poe was the first African-American woman to pass the bar examination in the state of Virginia. She was subsequently the first African-American woman admitted to practice law in Virginia, where she continued to practice well into the 1960s. She passed away in 1974, having opened the door for Bertha Louise Douglass and Inez Catherine Fields to respectively become the second and third African-American female attorneys in Virginia.