History talk looks back at distinct black, white business communities in Staunton in Jim Crow

augusta county historical societyThe Augusta County Historical Society Stuart Talk April 12 will look into an almost unknown part of Staunton’s past, the world of African-American life and business during the times of Jim Crow segregation.

James A. Becks, a Stauntonian who has witnessed and experienced African-American life here in Staunton for more than eighty years, will share his memories of a time when the fact that white businesses refused to serve blacks gave rise to a thriving black business community and black entrepreneurship.

The talk, to be 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12, in the second-floor lecture hall at the R. R. Smith Center for History and Art, is free and open to the public.

Becks will describe life in a community of thriving black businesses, businesses that grew out of necessity. It was a business community that helped provide a sense of independence within the African-American community at a time when rigid Jim Crow laws forced the members of that community to live as second-class citizens.

Sadly, many of the thriving African-American businesses Becks will describe were ultimately destroyed during Staunton’s “urban renewal” projects along Central Avenue and Augusta Street in the 1970s.

Becks grew up on Tams Streets and attended D. Webster Davis School and Booker T. Washington High School. In 1945, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and worked at the dangerous task of disposing of unexploded ordinance left in Europe after the war. After 3 years of service, he returned to the Valley and worked at a variety of short-term jobs before becoming the second African American to be hired by the big Westinghouse plant in Verona. He remained with Westinghouse for 35 years.

Becks is a charter member of VFW Post 7814 and is a life member of Mt. Zion Church.  He is now Deacon Emeritus of Mt. Zion with six decades of service to the church. He and his wife Helen were married in 1949 and they have four children.  The Becks family were integral members of the Montgomery Hall Park Recreation Committee that ran the park from 1946 until 1966. Montgomery Hall Park, one of the few African-American parks in Virginia, has recently been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Beck’s mother, Viola Becks, was a well-known Staunton caterer and his father, Ira, was a cook at Stuart Hall and several city restaurants.

The Becks family has a rich history in Augusta County. James’ grandfather, James H. Becks, was born a slave in the Mt. Meridian area of Augusta County, on the estate of Col. S.D. Crawford. In 1881, James H. and his brother Andrew W. entered the freshmen class of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. James H. Becks graduated in 1885 and taught school in Charlottesville, Staunton, and Orange County. He continued post graduate education and received a Certificate of Excellence at Cornell University for the summers of 1893 and 1895. In 1896, he was examined by several circuit court judges and certified to practice law in Virginia.

The ACHS was founded in 1964 to study, collect, preserve, publish, educate about, and promote the history of Augusta County and its communities. More information is available online at www.augustacountyhs.org.


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