On this day in 1942, Virginia's Camp Peary—now a top-secret military and CIA facility—was officially established as a training center for the U.S. Navy's construction battalions, the Seabees. Unofficially, the Navy had started moving in months before, booting families off their land with as little as 48 hours notice—this after legally condemning the property. "Just compensation" was, for some, peanuts; for others . . . a peanut butter sandwich. My grandparents got a little over $1,700 for less than half a dozen acres, but they, along with several hundred other African Americans (they were about 80 percent of the area's population), lost their home, farm, church, and the measure of autonomy that all of these gave them in the segregated South.
Since then, Camp Peary has had a lot of tenants—German POWs, Boy Scouts, Tibetan insurgents, Soviet spies—and a few would-be ones. Right after the war, the state of Virginia tried to sell the base to the United Nations Organization, which was hunting for a headquarters for the new international body. Virginia couldn’t meet the UNO's “essential criteria” for a new home. Among these: “No general racial discrimination.”
A member of the US delegation, which had schlepped all the way to London to pitch Camp Peary's 10,000 acres, just outside of Williamsburg, conveyed the search committee's message to the press: “We were told that so long as Virginia has a ‘Jim Crow’ law, it could not be considered.” The UNO added a kind of up-yours coda to the rejection: “If under any circumstances Virginia could assure the UNO committee that the impediment would be removed, then the (interim) committee would recommend the Williamsburg site be considered. The same holds true for any State below the Mason-Dixon Line.” Pretty progressive for 1946. That was on January 5, 1946, a day to celebrate. —BP