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Sussex History

History of Sussex County, Virginia

History of Sussex County, Virginia

Sussex County, Virginia was created by an act of the Virginia Legislature in 1754.  Sussex was taken from a part of the County of Surry.  English settlement in Surry began approximately the same time that the headquarters of the Virginia Colony was fixed across the river at Jamestown in 1607.  The Virginia Colony grew and spread out from its small beginning at Jamestown until in 1634, it was divided into eight original shires or counties.  One of the eight was James City County which occupied both sides of the James River with its center  of government at Jamestown.

The population of the colony increased and in 1652, the part of James City County south of the James River was cut off and named Surry without the “e” for Surrey County, England.

By agreement with the native Americans, English settlement in the Surry area was not allowed beyond the Blackwater  River until about 1700, almost one-hundred years after the first English came to Surry.

The country south of the Blackwater was settled rapidly and Sussex County was cut off from Surry in 1754.  There has been little change in the boundaries since that time.  Sussex County is bounded on the north by the County of Prince George, northeast by the County of Surry and the Blackwater River, and on the south by the Counties of Greensville and Southampton and to the west by the County of Dinwiddie.

Who were the people who settled Sussex County in the beginning? The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe and other native Americans were already here.  In the United States Census of 1790, 10549 persons were reported. Of that number, 54.8% were Africans and of that number, approximately, 10% were free in 1790 and 33% were free in 1860.

Read about Sussex County during the American Revolutionary War >

The Quakers also left their on the spiritual history of the County.  Concentrated near Seacock Swamp near the Wakefield area of the County, they were at the forefront, along with the Methodists, in efforts to emancipate the slaves who formed the majority of the County population.  Nearly four hundred slaves were freed in Sussex County by will or deed during the first three decades following 1776.  One of these Quakers  was John W. Watkins, County Surveyor from 1817 to 1830.  He, like many of his neighbors, moved to Jefferson County. Ohio, along with  their freed slaves, to live on free soil.  Michael Bailey, who was Clerk of the Sussex County Court from 1785 until his death in 1798, was one of the Quakers who freed his slaves, but was discharged from that religious group for not attending meetings and for serving as a public official.

Through Jarratt and Stony Creek (incorporated towns within Sussex County) was built, in 1832, the nation’s first interstate railroad, the Petersburg and Weldon (now CSX Railway).  Through Wakefield and Waverly (also incorporated towns within the County) in 1853 were laid the lines of the Norfolk Southern (formerly Norfolk and Western) Railway. These railroads put four towns in Sussex on the map, as these communities began to grow by the establishments of depots.  Waverly, the oldest town (chartered in 1879).  Wakefield was incorporated in 1902; Stony Creek, in 1915; and Jarratt received its charter in 1938.  General William Mahone, who built the Norfolk railroad through Sussex, is memorialized by having Route 460, which parallels it, named in his honor.  His wife, Otelia, is remembered for naming the depots established along the way: Waverly for Sir Walter Scott’s series of romantic novels and  Wakefield for Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield.  Mahone a native of Southampton County, was educated in Sussex at Littleton Academy, distinguished himself as a commander of the successful Confederate counterattack during the Battle of the Crater in 1864 and was the prominent political leader of the Readjuster Republican party in postwar Virginia.

Read about Sussex County during the American Civil War and Reconstruction >

The twentieth century, now nearing its end, has ushered in changes which have swept the lifestyles and viewpoints of the citizens of Sussex County into a large mainstream with the rest of the state, the country and the world. Sussex County saw the dawn of the century as the same slow agrarian county it had always been, still largely dependent upon the horse for getting about. Segregation of the races was accepted and not challenged. Women did not vote. Each magisterial district had its own school board. The county looked after its own roads. One of the prominent leaders of the county at the beginning of the century was Jesse Felix West of Waverly (died 1929), who had served as the last County Court judge, then became judge of the Circuit Court and subsequently a justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals. He gave the keynote address at the dedication of the Confederate monument in 1913. Twenty of the county's young men were killed in the First World War (1914-1919), including handsome William Franklin Chappell, whose oratorical skills as a teenager had shown his great potential as a future leader in the county.

Despite its small population, Sussex exhibited considerable political shrewdness in this century. From 1920 until 1991, with the exception of only a few years, Sussex was represented in the senate of Virginia by one of its own citizens: William B. Cocke of "Smithfield" near the Courthouse, 1920-1924; William O. Rogers of Waverly, 1924-1936; Garland Gray of Waverly, 1940-1945, 1948-1971; and Elmon T. Gray of Waverly, 1971-1991. Senator Rogers (died 1951) served on the Senate Finance Committee and was instrumental in the construction of Route 460 through the county. After his tenure in the Senate, he served as county treasurer until his death. Senator Garland Gray (1902-1977) became one of the most powerful and influential men in the Commonwealth. He is best remembered for his chairmanship of the commission called to deal with the problem of public school integration in 1954. He was in the "high command" of the Byrd Organization and was the leading Democratic candidate for governor in 1957, but he deferred to J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., in the interest of party unity. His son, Elmon T. Gray, succeeded him as senator, serving on the Senate Finance Committee.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, and America's entrance into the Second World War (1941-1945), touched the county with the accompanying deprivations and sacrifices. Twenty-five young men of Sussex County paid the ultimate price during the Second World War, two of them falling on the coast of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Sussex men also gave their lives in Korea and in Vietnam.

As late as 1950, most automobiles were black in color and did not travel long distances frequently.  Richmond was a day trip only a few times a year, for most citizens who went there. Most school children wore dungarees and tee shirts until the mid-1950s. Some mothers made dresses for their daughters out of flowered feed bags. There were no Jones to keep up with, but the disparity between the economic levels of whites and blacks was very noticeable. Many blacks lived in shacks and did not have indoor plumbing.

The 1960s saw the beginning of significant changes in the public schools. Central High School near the Courthouse opened in 1960 as a replacement of the old Sussex County Training School in Waverly, which had been the county's lone black high school and had produced its first graduates in 1927. Fifteen small black elementary schools west of the Nottoway River closed in March of 1961, with the opening of Central Elementary School. The new Ellen Warren Chambliss Elementary School at Wakefield, also initially a black school, opened in 1962. The new Annie B. Jackson Elementary School at Waverly opened in April 1965, and in the fall of 1965, a new Jefferson Elementary School opened at Jarratt. The old white high schools at Wakefield and Jarratt, which had been producing high school graduates from 1910 and 1912, respectively, closed in 1964 to merge with Waverly and Stony Creek high schools. Many white Wakefield, refusing to give up their school, established Tidewater Academy in 1964 to resist the movement towards consolidation. Waverly High School, which had its first graduating class in 1908, and Stony Creek High School, which saw its first graduates in 1912, were closed in 1970, when Sussex Central became the county's only high school. Although total integration of the entire county school system was accomplished that year, it was in the fall of 1965, with token integration at Stony Creek and Waverly high schools, that the public schools were actually integrated for the first time in the county's history.

Inevitably, the structure of county life continued to change in the 1970s with the election of the first black members of the Board of Supervisors in 1975: Joseph F. Newsome of Courthouse District and Glover W. Pegram of Stony Creek District. Millard Stith, Sr., had been the first black appointed to the School Board in 1971. In 1984, the Board of Supervisors gained its first black majority; in 1991, blacks constituted a majority on the School Board. The transition to a biracial government has been harmonious and one dedicated to the advancement and well­being of all of the citizens of Sussex County.

There have been six landmarks in the county named to the Virginia Landmarks Register andthe National Register of Historic Places. The old courthouse (completed in 1828 by Dabney Cosby, who came to Sussex after completing the building of the University of Virginia under Jefferson), along with the 1817 and 1923 clerk's offices, the 1800 Dillard House and the 1810 Bannister House, collectively have been designated the Sussex Courthouse Historic District. The Miles Carpenter House and Museum at Waverly recognizes the county's noted folk artist who lived there. The four other landmarks are plantation houses which have survived and are significant for their architecture and historical background. These are "Chester," "Fortsville," "Hunting Quarter" and "Little Town." "Chester," near Homeville, built in 1793 by Captain William Harrison (1747-1822) of the Revolution, is noteworthy architecturally for its huge double chimneys joined on two levels by connecting closets. Its interior woodwork has also survived. "Fortsville," the home of John Y. Mason near Grizzard, also dates to the late eighteenth century, being built by Lewis Fort, Mason's father-in-law. "Hunting Quarter," was built after 1745 by Captain Henry Harrison of the French and Indian War. Captain Harrison (died 1772) was a broth­er of Benjamin Harrison, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. According to tradition, a cane which belonged to President William Henry Harrison (1774-1841), the nephew of the builder, hung over one of the mantels in the house. "Hunting Quarter" remained in the possession of the Harrison family until 1887. "Little Town," home of the Bailey family and built in 1814 by James C. Bailey, who succeeded his father as county clerk and who served the longest as such, a mere twenty-six years, is the only early brick dwelling to survive in Sussex.


Excerpts from:

A Synopsis Of The History Of Sussex County; Gary Williams, Sussex County Clerk of Circuit Court



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