Thursday, October 7, 2021

Vice City: Norfolk in the Second World War

By Alec Bright
HRNM Volunteer

Sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, and merchant marines came to Norfolk for the naval station, army base, and new naval airwing stations, while blue collar workers, merchants, and women came to Norfolk to try and earn a living in the city’s growing economy. For some women this meant turning to prostitution. Prostitution in the city meant that, “Norfolk became nationally known in the early years of the war as a city of rampant vice with few redeeming qualities.”[1] Pressured by the federal government to curtail all manner of vice, including the rise in prostitution, local law enforcement struggled to deal with this particular consequence of the wartime boom. Until mid-1942, Norfolk’s leaders were left on their own to control what the federal government deemed a “crisis.” Finally, when concerns about vice in Norfolk garnered the attention of national media outlets, the federal government offered its aid, putting an end to the problem it had caused.
On October 19, 1941, the Virginian Pilot ran an article called “Nests of Vice Elsewhere.” This article captured the growing problem of vice spreading to the surrounding area. (Virginian Pilot)

The economic uncertainty that came to define Norfolk was particularly distressing for women, as finding employment that could cover the ever-rising cost of living was near impossible. Challenged to find any meaningful employment, their male counterparts could simply enlist if necessary.[2] In dire need of income, an increasing number of women turned to prostitution. In the 1940s, prostitution became the focus of national campaigns aimed at warning people of the dangers of spreading venereal disease, as well as moral campaigns against the solicitation of sex led by Evangelical sectors of the United States. Before World War Two, Norfolk’s city officials and its police department agreed that a segregated vice district should exist to keep prostitution and venereal disease in a controllable environment. Their plan allowed four hundred prostitutes to work on East Main Street in downtown, provided they were in brothels adjoined to city-sponsored medical facilities. Prostitutes were required to get their health checked weekly and carry a card certifying their health. If they kept to their end of the deal, police rarely worried themselves about the events on East Main. As more people flooded into Norfolk, monitoring and administering the city’s vice policy became increasingly unrealistic.
Tattoo parlors were another popular destination for Sailors visiting downtown Norfolk. This image shows famous tattoo artist “Cap” Coleman, who practiced on East Main Street in Norfolk. (Sargeant Memorial Collection)

Despite efforts to provide entertainment that was legal and “moral,” these events were largely considered a joke amongst Sailors and soldiers in the city.[3] In early 1940, City Manager Charles Borland, Mayor Joseph Wood, and Police Chief John F Woods worked simultaneously to retain authority over the now growing segregated vice district on East Main Street. Apart from seeing that the women stayed inside their district, the local police had little to offer in terms of policing and by November 1940, visiting the brothels downtown had become so popular among Sailors that the Navy began to complain of rising numbers of venereal disease among its service members.

Despite protest from local leaders, on January 1, 1941, at the behest of the federal government and the Navy, the brothels on East Main Street were ordered to close or face prosecution.[4] As a result, houses of vice sprang up throughout Norfolk and the surrounding county. Policing prostitution became nearly impossible for the Norfolk police department and “chaos and crisis, not order and control,” came to describe public health and criminality in Norfolk, as vice infiltrated all corners of the city. An October 1941 article in the Virginian-Pilot explained that “all over Ghent and in other sections of Norfolk, little nests of vice have sprung up.”[5]
East Main Street was the most popular street for Sailors to visit. Restaurants like the Krazy Kat drew Sailors in for a variety of entertainment. (Sargeant Memorial Collection)
Even with successful raids against brothels across the city, the problem persisted because there was no penal structure to punish offenders after they were arrested. In the first six months of 1942 there were over 1,000 arrests for prostitution and 995 convictions; however, with only one jail, the majority of the offenders were released back onto the streets within days. As the problem escalated, the Navy found that 75% of new venereal disease cases recorded in Norfolk were contracted from tourist cabins outside the city. Often, the reported location was near Sewell’s Point and Cottage Toll (Tidewater Drive), a region policed by only three officers from Norfolk.

Public opinion of Norfolk was at an all time low. In the popular magazine American Mercury, noted journalist Blan Van Urk wrote an article titled, “Norfolk – Our Worst War Town,” in which he laid out the challenges of policing vice and controlling the spread of venereal disease in Norfolk. Several articles ran in the Virginian-Pilot and Norfolk Dispatch newspapers echoing the concerns of Van Urk and giving a voice to the local population. Finally, in the middle of 1942, the Navy began to use its own police, the Shore Patrol, to enforce anti-vice measures and bring harsher punishment to Sailors than the local police could. At the same time, pressure mounted on the federal government to act as more of America became concerned with the reputation of one of its Navy towns.

On April 7, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the creation of the President’s Committee on Congested Production Areas. Soon after, in a joint raid carried out by Norfolk Police, Shore Patrol, and federal agents, 115 arrests were made, 55 of which were Sailors, all charged with vice-related crimes. The Committee, along with the Federal Works Agency (FWA), quickly went into action and worked to address such crime through the construction of adequate hospitals and jails.

In 1941, the venereal disease rate in the Navy had been 107 per 1,000, by 1943 the rate had dropped to only 37 in 1,000. The Navy taking responsibility and federal efforts led by the FWA and FDR’s Congested Production Areas Committee had changed the face of Norfolk’s vice issues for the better. Finally, after three years of pleas for support from Norfolk’s officials in constructing adequate facilities for those caught enjoying the vice districts, new hospitals and jails were constructed outside of Norfolk’s city limits, finally meeting the needs of the area.

Ultimately, a problem fueled by wartime activity and then national pressures required direct federal intervention for relief. Before World War Two, Norfolk’s segregated vice district operated with tacit approval from the city within a controlled environment. It was the pressure put on the city by the Navy, federal government, general population, and the tension in Norfolk created by the population increase that caused prostitution and vice throughout the area to spiral out of control. Once Norfolk’s issues reached the national consciousness, the federal government was obligated to provide aid in regaining control of one of its most important wartime centers.

[1] Pippa Holloway, Sexuality, Politics, and Social Control in Virginia: 1920 – 1945 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 167.
[2] Charles Marsh, ed. The Hampton Roads Communities in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 255 – 256.
[3] Marvin Schlegel, Conscripted City: Norfolk in World War II (Norfolk, VA: Norfolk War History Commission, 1951), 6.
[4] “Segregated Districts to go, Borland,” Virginian Pilot, November 8, 1940, 2.
[5] Virginian Pilot, October 19, 1941, sec. 2, p. 1.

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