Saturday, February 28, 2015

On the Trail of Willie Scott Tanners Creek

Self-referential observations rarely creep into our Hampton Roads Naval Museum posts, but as I attempted to achieve just the right perspective on the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) featured in today's post, I could not help but observe that the study of neglected historical figures can be comparable to treading an unmarked, snowy path.

The easier thing to do is simply follow the tracks others have made.  This is what researchers tend to do during the times of the year when we customarily focus our attention on particular groups overlooked in official histories of the past.  We tend to home in on powerful trailblazers from those neglected groups; those with a large paper trail.  The higher the profile, the easier the path.

When it comes to lesser-known figures, even those who were remembered for many years after their passing, one could almost literally be next door to their old haunts and not know it.  This was my Black History Month lesson for this year.

Willie Scott Tanners Creek in 1956. Virginian-Pilot Photo/ The Sargeant Memorial
Collection-Norfolk Public Library. 
Our subject for today, Willie "Scottie" Scott Tanners Creek, would have not come to our attention at all were it not for a request from the Virginian-Pilot in January to find where he worked, Building M-47.  A cursory look at the base maps in our archive revealed that M-47, a BOQ combining the fire-damaged remains of two of the original 1907 Jamestown Exposition houses sometime during the 1940s, still existed.  In fact, the building was within sight of our main entrance.  Even better, the building was under renovation and was thus mostly unoccupied, affording access to virtually the whole building.

A two-hour search, from the basement to the second floor, stem to stern, revealed no significant clues.  The building manager and a housekeeper who had both spent the better part of a decade working there knew nothing about a "Scottie's Shine Shop" ever having existed there.  I had to report back to the naval station public affairs office that, although the building existed, no evidence of where the shoe shine shop might have been was left.    

A surprise discovery made while trying to learn more about another significant African-American figure in Naval Station Norfolk's history (to be featured in a future blog post) a few weeks later changed all that.  

From a 1999 issue of the Supply Chest, the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center Norfolk's newsletter, we learned from an obituary released in 1969 that Willie Scott Tanner Creek had been born on Christmas Eve, 1883.  His shop had indeed been located for many years in the basement of Building M-47.  Furthermore, his presence at Sewell's Point predated the establishment of what was then known as the Naval Operating Base, and even the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition held there a decade before.

"Scottie had a heritage perhaps as colorful as any man on earth," the obituary went on. 

It was no exaggeration: 

Scottie's father was stolen by a Scots slave trader named Tanners Creek in England, from whom the family got the first name (Scott), and the latter half of their surname.  The slave was brought to America and sold to a wealthy plantation owner who owned the land that is now the Naval Station and the Naval Air Station.  At the end of the Cvil War, Scottie's father was willed part of the land on which Scottie was born.  With the coming of the Jamestown exposition in 1907, the elder Scott "lost his deed" but continued to live there with his family, and in 1917, when the Navy took over the property, Scott's father became valet to the first admiral of the base. 

One day, while going about his duties, the ex-slave found a bag containing $118 in the street, and he hastily returned it to the paymaster of the station.  When asked by President Theodore Roosevelt what he would like as a reward for his honesty, all he said was, "Nothing save that the Navy give my son work and provision for his lifetime."  The government fulfilled the promise and Willie Scott Tanners Creek became the proprietor of a shoe shine shop on the Station to be passed down from son to son. 

From the prodigious digital holdings of the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Norfolk Public Library, we found excellent high-resolution images of Mr. Scott Tanner Creek standing at the entrance to his shop, taken for a Virginian-Pilot feature on January 18, 1956.  Even with the obituary and the photograph, we still had problems finding where the shine shop might have been.  Thanks to a maintenance engineer who happened to be standing at the right place at the right time, we learned that there was more than one basement at M-47.  A modest set of cellar doors at the western side of what was once the North Carolina house led to a small basement now containing the house's water heaters.         

Standing in the top hat and tails he said were given to him by Secretary of the Navy (later Secretary of Defense) James Forrestal, WIllie Scott Tanners Creek stands at the entrance of his shine shop in a Virginian-Pilot photograph taken January 18, 1956, while the image to the right shows the same area on February 27, 2015.    
Writing a personality feature on Scott Tanners Creek for the Virginian-Pilot in 1956, Ann McDonough described Scottie's Shine Shop in its heyday:

If you should chance into his "office," you'd think you'd entered a Fifth Avenue shoe salon, for it's not only immaculate but has a full-length mirror, a wide selection of magazines, a radio playing a soft background of symphonies, and two hand-carved black mahogany chairs of the kind that would hold an entire family for a portrait. 

Fifteen minutes later after receiving the important tip, we had toured the claustrophobic space, which, save for a few linoleum floor tiles stubbornly adhering to the bare concrete, gave no indication that a shop of any kind existed there.  Even the plaster walls of the shop, its doors, and even its door frames were gone.  

Although he was once referred to as "A great name in the 'Norfolk Navy,'" it was as though every trace of Mr. Scott Tanners Creek's shop had been scrupulously erased. 

I harbor no illusions that an obituary tells the whole story of a man, particularly in the case of Willie Scott Tanners Creek.  In fact, it seems to only scratch the surface about a person of mysterious origins who transformed himself as the land around him transformed; from plantation, to exposition site, to the Navy's capitol.   

The more we delve into the story of Mr. Scott Tanners Creek and his origins, the more we will learn about Sewell's Point and how Naval Station Norfolk came to exist there.  As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of what was then known as the Naval Operating Base, the story of "Scottie" is not only applicable to telling the larger story of the base; his story resonates with the tribulations and triumphs of African-Americans in Tidewater Virginia during an era of unparalleled change.

If you ever paid a visit to Scottie's Shine Shop to pick up or drop off your shoes, or if you ever sat for a moment in one of Mr. Scott Tanners Creek's hand-carved mahogany chairs as your shoes were burnished to a brilliant luster, we want to hear from you.  If you even know of him or what possibly became of his chairs, or the pictures of presidents and saints that once adorned his walls, tell us about it.  

We have only begun to tell his story, and you can help us tell the rest.  

Call (757) 322-3107 or email    

Special thanks to Troy Valos of the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Slover Library, Norfolk; Frank Luettger of the Gateway Inns and Suites Maintenance Department; Naval Supply Systems Command, Fleet Logistics Center Norfolk Public Affairs; and Hampton Roads Naval Museum Registrar Katherine Renfrew for her persistence.  

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