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The Legend of Colden House

Published 2:55pm Tuesday, May 7, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

I’m writing this column while sitting in a chair on the front porch of the Colden House at 403 Main St., circa 1912. Of course nobody’s home. But I decided to sit here in honor of Leon S. Colden and his wife Gertrude, the long-deceased namesakes of Suffolk’s most historic home owned by a black family.

Colden House was built by Leon’s father Willie on the site of and using materials from Alms House, which was constructed in 1754. The Coldens tore down Alms House — where First Baptist Church, Mahan, had been organized — to build their home.

It’s fascinating history. But what’s even more fascinating is the urban legend surrounding the house.

Leon Colden, the first cousin of Dr. Charles Colden, sold insurance for a living. Gertrude was a homemaker and ran the family produce stand at old City Market. Apparently the Colden family was famous for selling coconut cakes and pies at Christmas.

I’m sitting on the porch of their old house because, as the story goes, the Colden family never got a chance to.

Legend has it that back then a white neighbor or neighbors paid the family not to sit or stand on the front porch. The objection wasn’t so much to them building the house, but apparently somebody didn’t want folks passing by to know a black family lived on Main Street among Suffolk’s elite.

If the story is true, there’s an exquisite and creative irony at play here, a peculiar kindness and courtesy mixed in with racism at its worst. And there’s also the kind of agreement I’d imagine only a lawyer could devise.

Surviving relatives are unanimous about one thing. All tell me they never saw the Colden family sit on the front porch or enter the house through the front door. The family always went in through the back door or a side entrance from Mahan Street.

It strikes me that an incredibly sophisticated nuance would have been at play. In other parts of the South, a black man who built a house like that in a white neighborhood could have gotten a visit from the Ku Klux Klan, followed promptly by a family funeral.

Even so, imagine coming home to the indignity of that kind of arrangement. Clearly the family lived under a public and private magnifying glass.

Such an agreement wouldn’t have been fair or right. But relationships, like everything else, aren’t always right or fair. To say the least, slavery complicated the relationship between blacks and whites in America. So like everywhere else in the nation, it took time for folks to get comfortable with a black family living on Main Street in Suffolk.

Racism takes time to filter. Dysfunction born of bondage eventually evolves into authentic relationship, which then becomes friendship and trust — and along the way, love develops.

Perhaps time will clarify the mystery of Colden House, which nonetheless is still one of the most important historic homes in Suffolk, along with Riddick’s Folly and Truitt House.

Meanwhile, enjoying the breeze and the view from its wooden wraparound porch, I realize what Colden House does for all of us: It reminds us what used to be, shows us how things have changed and calls us to conclude that the best is yet to come.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dedwards247@comcast.net.

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