Tommy Bogger found a home in researching African Americans’ past.
by Janine Latus
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun
Tommy Bogger is lanky, in loafers and a sport coat, his legs stretched to the center of an office lined with framed proclamations and awards and notes of gratitude from former students. There are the books he’s written and books he uses for reference. Down the hall are more books, and boxes and boxes of newspapers and records and research notes. The building is sunny and new, with lights that turn on when someone enters a room and off when they leave.
Next door a demolition excavator bites into the building where Bogger built his career. His space there was warm and comforting. It fit him in its calm like a pair of Saturday yard-work jeans. This new building is nice, really nice, but that old one, that was where he felt comfortable.
Bogger (pronounced Boe-gher) is a historian and storyteller, an expert on the history of blacks in Norfolk. As director of archives for Norfolk State University and interim director of the school’s library, his job is to acquire and preserve the papers of the university and of the families of people who came here on slave ships or who flocked to the sanctuary of Fort Monroe during the Civil War, or moved here with their owners and worked in the shipyards, earning enough to buy their own freedom and that of their families. It’s their letters and diaries, their birth and marriage certificates, their property deeds and business ledgers he collects and collates and copies and card catalogues so future researchers can pore over the history of the people who came here – sometimes against their will – and became integral to all things Tidewater.
He tells all of this, of the “very good, very profitable living” slave traders made by selling his own ancestors and others’, of the sailors and ships’ captains who hid escaping humans in their holds, all with his voice soft, his fingers steepled, his smile gentle.
The excavator takes another bite.
Fifty years ago Bogger was an underweight football player at Williamsburg’s all-black Bruton Heights School. During college he was recruited by Colonial Williamsburg to spend his summers in coarse cotton shirts and baggy tie-fly pants, sweltering in the sun making candles and soap and answering visitors’ questions about life as an enslaved black man.
His interest in history started earlier, though. As a boy he’d found an old revolver in a Civil War trench in the woods near his home. Even as a kid he’d sit with his father and read the newspaper, fascinated by world events to the point that in high school he “let it be known” (he says, in his gentle way) that he wanted to be a history teacher. He was rebuked.
It was the early ’60s. The Russians had just launched Sputnik and everyone from President Kennedy to the teachers at his high school was pushing students into the sciences. Bogger’s father, a construction laborer at Colonial Williamsburg, and mother, a maid in the library of the College of William and Mary, wanted their son to be a doctor, so they pushed and shoved and saved to send him to Howard University in Washington, one of the few black universities in the country with a medical school.
At that time Howard students were black middle class – “I was probably the only one who wasn’t” – so there was a gulf between the people in the neighborhood around the school and the students walking around with their noses in the air, referring to the locals as “block boys.” The locals used to attack the Howard students and beat them up.
One night they came after Bogger, who got away by jumping over a wall, ripping the knee he’d injured back in football and had never repaired. Still, he says, “It was better than being stabbed.”
He majored in zoology at Howard, his eyes on med school.
“I wasn’t what you’d call a great student, though,” he says. “Howard didn’t have to worry about mentoring us and cultivating us and counseling us because all the good students from the black homes were going to Howard, so if we didn’t make it we’d flunk out and another crop would come in.”
Bogger was foundering, between academics and block boys and being in a big, exciting city. He read The Washington Post and The Washington Star more than his textbooks, and marched every once in a while in protests that included fellow Howard student Stokely Carmichael, the civil-rights leader who would originate the term “black power.” Back in Williamsburg a rally brought out only half a dozen people. In Washington, Carmichael and others staged a sit-in at the White House, getting in as tourists and then sitting down and refusing to leave, while Bogger and hundreds of others marched outside. It was an exciting and frightening time.
Then, in 1965, Bogger’s father died. Bogger dropped out of Howard and the draft board came calling. For once his bum knee did him a favor. He was classified 4F and recruited to what was then called the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College. The muddy former site of a whites-only golf course had two established buildings: Tidewater Hall – now Brown Hall – and the Vocational Industrial Education Building. The gymnasium, the communications building and the nursing education building had just gone up. Where the library that would be his professional home would stand was a one-story tar-papered building that had a few offices, storage space for the school’s chapter of ROTC, and a tiny barber shop where Bogger went for a trim. He started out in biology, as his father would have wanted, but the past lured him and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history instead. From there he traveled north and earned a master’s at Carnegie Mellon, his first integrated school, where one night he and some other black friends took some white students to a barbecue joint in the black section of Pittsburgh.
Race relations were strained there in 1969, though.
“Get out,” the owner said.
“The black community was concentrated on what was known as the hill and we were very paranoid at the time, there were all kinds of conspiracy theories about how during a riot the back community could very easily be cordoned off because the highway system separates the black community from the rest of Pittsburgh.”
It may have felt like paranoia but later, papers revealed in the Watergate case proved much of what they feared to be true.
Bogger came back to Norfolk State in 1969 to marry and to teach history. The tarpaper building came down, the Lyman Beecher Brooks Library went up. Bogger’s career rose with it. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia – history, with expertise in the lives of black people between the Revolutionary and Civil wars. He taught. He wrote. He published.
“I have seen him leave class and the students would follow him back to his office, where they’d gather around his desk and he’d lecture again,” says Annette Montgomery, the school’s assistant archivist, who has worked with Bogger for 26 years. “He’s always said the students come first.”
In 1985, the 50-year anniversary of the school’s founding, Bogger persuaded then-President Harrison B. Wilson to establish an archive to preserve the history of the institution, and into the new library he moved. The archive grew to shelves and boxes and rooms full of documents, books, newspapers, census records and private papers, and now to a growing African art gallery. Before long it had taken over the ground floor of the library and Bogger had reduced his teaching load to part time so he could focus on preserving the history of African Americans in Virginia.
The library became his second home.
“The old archives were a very calm place to do research,” says Norfolk City Historian Peggy Haile McPhillips says. “It really had his touch on it.”
He wrote Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790 – 1860: The Darker Side of Freedom, coming to his office at 9 in the morning and staying until after 11 each night. He helped with Norfolk, The First Four Centuries. He serves on school committees, answers media calls, writes for historical journals and newspaper book review sections, helps colleagues and strangers, all with quietude and patience. When the football or basketball teams play away games, he puts on his green and gold and he and his wife, Nan, hop on the fan bus. When someone from the community calls for help on a project, he answers.
“I’ve never seen him say no,” Montgomery says.
“I came in one day and said, ‘Your shoes match and they’re shiny!’ ” McPhillips says. “ ‘I don’t know how you do it, because if I had my finger in so many pies. …’ He puts in really, really long hours, which would make most of us irritable, but he was always calm and as kind as he can be.”
Through the years he’s had colleagues from other institutions chide him for not being more personally ambitious, but he’s content.
“One thing I was able to do at Norfolk State was to reinvent myself,” he says. “After you do something for a pretty long time you get tired. Some people would leave and go elsewhere but I’ve been able to grow by taking on new responsibilities and challenges.”
Most recently that included managing some of the decisions around designing and constructing the new library that would replace his beloved building. Committees and phone calls, meetings and blueprints, contractors and subcontractors and still the writing for scholarly journals and the walking and guiding of guests through his archives and museum.
This spring he watched as the bricks and walls that had sheltered his career crashed down, and then he didn’t.
“I spent so much of my life in that building,” he says, “when I saw it coming down I thought maybe it was time for me to go.”
He will retire this summer, finally free to write a history of the soldiers and Civil War battles that took place in the fields and woods where he played as a boy. No deadlines. No committees. No interruption.
“We’ll see how that goes,” he says.