It’s not often a couple can celebrate a golden anniversary, usually marked after five decades of marriage.
Earlier this month Ted and Julia Sethman joined the ranks of those who have — and renewed their vows first made in 1970.
“We never did anything for our anniversary," 75-year-old Julia Sethman said, though she and hubby Ted, also 75, always would talk about doing something.
“My husband would give me a card, but we never did a cruise, or dinner or nothing,” she said.
Their union was a rare event — the Sethmans are an interracial couple. After five decades, the couple reflected on marriage and some of the adversity they faced during their early years.
Ted, who is white, and Julia, who is African American, first met in 1969 at a mutual friend’s wedding and quickly connected.
After a short courtship, they received a license from the Hampton Circuit Court and married at Zion Baptist Church on County Street about six months later.
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At the time, interracial couples often did not wed.
In Virginia in 1970, there were 244 interracial marriages out of 52,120 overall unions with at least one white partner, according to data shared by Peter C. Hunt, a data analyst with the Virginia Department of Health’s office of information management. Data gathered is from sources believed to be accurate and reliable at that point of time, Hunt said.
Only as recent as fall 2019 did Virginia state stop listing race on marriage licenses, said Linda Batchelor, Hampton’s clerk of the circuit court.
Had it been five years prior to 1970, the couple may not have been permitted to marry at all.
THE RACIAL LANDSCAPE
Under state code, the 1924 racial purity act, which was still in effect during the mid-1960s, did not allow interracial marriage in Virginia. Similar laws prohibiting interracial relations have been on the books in Virginia dating back to the 17th century, history scholar Cassandra Newby-Alexander said.
That changed in 1967, when Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a black woman, challenged the state law that made their marriage illegal. Their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the top court ruling unanimously that it was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.
Given the time period, in the waning days of stringent Jim Crow laws, with desegregation ebbing into public education, there still was evidence of discrimination elsewhere in the region. Buckroe Beach was still mostly divided, with Bay Shore Hotel still a choice for blacks. Blacks only lived in certain neighborhoods. The local amusement park was segregated.
The Sethmans, who raised three children, said they endured many uncomfortable stares and encountered a few unsettling incidents.
“We kind of got along with each other even though that at the time, there was, you know, colored bathrooms and white bathrooms and bus stations ...,” Julia Sethman said.
But the couple shrugged it off, having received a lot of support from friends.
“Well, we just kept right on going. We can’t stop people from looking at you, or even having their opinions," Julia Sethman said. "But they never ever bought their opinions out verbally and spoke them to us. Never.”
A WEDDING IN PHOEBUS
Ted Sethman, a native of Kent, Ohio, grew up in a small community and graduated from high school in 1964.
Sethman, raised Catholic, said he went to a school that was mostly white, but his parents did know some black families.
“There was only one black person in my (graduating) class,” he said.
The excitement of the Air Force beckoned Sethman. He ultimately ended up at Langley in Hampton, where he became an E-4 specialist and airplane mechanic.
Julia Miles Wilson, who is a Hampton native and Baptist, said she became a mother at 16, quickly married as a result and did not finish high school.
With Fort Monroe, then an active military post, in the vicinity and throngs of men and women serving, Julia Sethman said her experience with white persons was generally neutral.
“We always got along with white people and always communicated with them,” Julia Sethman said. “We were always raised to get along with everybody.”
By the time she met Ted, Julia Sethman had a 7-year-old son, James, and was estranged from her son’s father.
A good friend of hers was marrying a friend of Ted’s, she said.
On the night of their wedding, Julia Miles Wilson stood at the altar and watched as friends of the groom entered the chapel.
The men were enlisted personnel stationed at Langley Air Force Base. It was an interracial group in uniform and Ted was among them.
"‘God, those are some good-looking guys … oh my gosh they are so good-looking,’” Julia Sethman said she recalled thinking.
Later at the reception, she flirted with Ted Sethman.
“I think when she kissed me, she had a mouth full of peanuts,” he said.
He asked if he could see her again.
“I said, sure. Ted kept coming back, he evidently wanted to talk to me,” Julia Sethman said. “Every time he came back ... he came back with some stuff, groceries or something to help me out with my kid. He always gave me some money to help me out. That meant a lot to me. ”
Their first date was on a hot July night at Langley Field, a local haunt for non-commissioned officers. As music from “The Echos” reverberated inside the venue, the couple danced — and fell for each other.
While they dated, there was an incident of name calling when they walked along Buckroe Beach, which still was segregated at the time.
It didn’t matter to them.
When the couple decided to wed, Ted Sethman hitchhiked back to Kent to tell his parents.
“I took a picture with me and showed them. They were kind of devastated,” he said. “My mom started crying. She wasn’t ready for something like this.”
Ted said his paternal grandparents seemed OK with it.
“They talked to my dad about it. I told my parents this is what I want to do. It was six months later before they came down,” he said.
Julia Sethman’s parents attended the couple’s wedding.
“My dad walked me down the aisle,” she said.
After their wedding, the couple lived in the Phoebus neighborhood. Throughout their marriage, they moved around Hampton — to Pembroke Avenue and Victoria Boulevard, mostly areas that were predominately populated by blacks.
They planned to have more children, but were unable to conceive. The couple adopted two girls of African American descent.
Ted Sethman took a job at Newport News Shipbuilding and recalls even in 1970, there were still signs with “white-only” drinking fountains and other signs of segregation, he said. It caught him by surprise at first because he had not been in contact with people who were really prejudiced.
Once at work, Sethman said he was offered an application from a co-worker to join the KKK.
“I said, ‘What is this? You don’t want to give this to me,’” he recalled responding. “You don’t know who my wife is, do you?”
One day while walking along Kecoughtan Road with his eldest daughter, who was 5 at the time, Ted Sethman ran into trouble with police. An officer questioned why he was walking with a black child.
“My daughter said, ... ‘that policeman is going to get you,' ” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it until I’d seen him turn around and come back … and he was wondering what I was doing with a black child. He was acting like he didn’t believe me and then she called me ‘daddy’ and that changed his mind. I felt like, why?”
Another time, an attendant at a gas station near the James River Bridge refused to cash his check, he said. The couple, their children and other relatives, who all were African American, were traveling back from North Carolina. The family needed cash for gas and tolls.
“‘I can’t do that,’" Ted Sethman said the attendant told him. "I asked why not and he said, ‘I just can’t.’ God’s grace we made it and we had enough gas to get home.”
Though the Sethmans did not say they faced discrimination in housing, the neighborhood where the couple lives now likely wouldn’t have been a choice for them when they first married in 1970.
“Right down the street from where we live ... we did not come in this part of town,” Julia Sethman said. “This was a really redneck, a redneck district of town, where they probably would have shot us. Fox Hill was known for its prejudice. They were known to not like black people.”
Some neighborhoods in Hampton, such as Fox Hill and to a lesser extent, Phoebus, tended to be closed off, compared to other parts of Hampton, Cobb said.
In Fox Hill, it likely was due to suspicion of the outside world, or any outsider, regardless of race, he said. Generations of families made their living from working the water there. Blacks and whites tended to work alongside each other, but there were social lines, not only black, but white people from other places, that was difficult to breach.
“In general terms (Fox Hill) always had been an insular community, an insular enclave,” he said.
Anecdotally, Fox Hill was considered by many black people in Hampton as a “sundown town,” and posed a real threat of bodily violence, according to Johnny Finn, associate professor of geography at Christopher Newport University.
Finn said he gathered this insight through interviews with African Americans for another project he is working on about long-terms effects of racial segregation in Hampton Roads.
“Even though the Fair Housing Act was passed … passed into law in 1968, race and racism, and the legacy of racism and housing has impacted individuals’ daily lives, all the way up (to) the present,” he said.
Married in the aftermath of the Jim Crow era, while the laws weren’t as solid as before, the beliefs lingered, Cobb added.
"The feeling of Jim Crow was still there for blacks in particular,” Cobb said. “Even though they could go to (the) movie theater or a restaurant … there was still a feeling of unease that maybe not too long along they could not come through the door.”
Scrolling through his smartphone, Ted Sethman loves showing off pictures of his family.
In addition to their three children, the Sethmans have six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren who live in the area.
Ted Sethman is retired from the shipyard. He works part-time as a driver for the New Horizons Regional Education Center. He spend time as a deacon at the couple’s current place of worship, Little Zion Baptist Church, on West Queens Street.
Julia Sethman is active in their church as well, planning luncheons and also keeps busy doing arrangements for weddings.
“They had to have a strong relationship with each other and a strong relationship with God," said Carolyn Gordon, who knew the couple when they attended Zion Baptist. “I think it was a blessing that they were able to endure and some of (the) things that they had to face every day as an interracial couple.”
The Sethmans say the love they have for each other outweighs any of those not so pleasant times, and actually there have been many good times.
“We are just simple people,” Julia Sethman said. “Ted is really a loving guy. We are going be together, forever, until we die."
“We’ve been very blessed,” Ted Sethman said.