Another fine history

Published 10:19 pm Monday, December 10, 2012

For people who lived in or traveled through the Suffolk area during the 1970s and 1980s, there are plenty of icons that have been lost to the turning of calendar pages. The Suffolk Raceway, George & Steve’s Restaurant, Red Top and Three Black Cats are just a few of the old names that will immediately conjure memories for the people who were around when Suffolk and Nansemond County were two different places — when, in fact, there was a Nansemond County at all.

But it’s likely there is no better-known icon of that era than the one depicted in the photo of a statuette alongside the road that graces the cover of “Peninsula in Passage.” The book is the latest in a series of tomes on North Suffolk history by a team whose efforts have helped reconnect the residents of many North Suffolk communities with a past that might otherwise have been lost amid the hurtling change that area is experiencing.

The statuette pictured on the cover depicts a squat African-American woman with a headscarf, bunches of flowers in each hand and a curious look on her face. She is dressed, literally from head to toe, in purple, and a paint can sits at her feet with a purple-stained brush seemingly ready to be put to use at any time.

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Few who ever saw The Purple Lady as she walked along Route 17 soon forgot the experience. They would excitedly bring up the sighting in conversations long afterward, much as one might eagerly share having glimpsed a bald eagle perched on a high branch along the road. It was the sort of event to which children — and even some adults — would attach great significance, eventually ascribing to The Purple Lady a range of mythical and mystical qualities.

And then suddenly, in the late 1980s, just as North Suffolk began to feel the first real tendrils of growth, she was gone, disappeared. Only after a report from the Toledo Blade did her fans or her family learn where she’d gone. Many people in Suffolk still remember a feeling of loss as they gradually came to realize she’d left town and the evidence of her quirky life here —her purple house and the purple telephone poles along Route 17 — were also disappearing. It was a great metaphor for the passing of the rural area that now houses the city’s fastest-growing communities.

The Suffolk River Heritage Foundation (formerly the Crittenden, Eclipse and Hobson Heritage Foundation) seeks to honor the memories of The Purple Lady and all the other people, places and things that made — and in some cases, continue to make — those communities special. “Peninsula in Passage: Driver, Bennett’s Creek, Harbour View” is a wonderful and greatly entertaining continuation of the Foundation’s historical work. Suffolk residents new and old will find plenty to enjoy between its covers.