Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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A Man Named Dr. James Riddick
Norfolk, Virginia

Traveling down the east side of Granby Street at 35th Street, one can see a rather large monument sitting in an open area in Lafayette Park. We old timers still call this City Park. Interestingly, no one ever sees this monument when driving past the park. It sits all alone in a grassy field. It’s the only monument erected by the people of Norfolk to an outstanding mayor and physician who served as mayor from 1902 to 1912.

If citizens of Norfolk were asked to name the most efficient mayor of Norfolk, the majority of Norfolk citizens would be clueless. They would have no idea, nor would they have an answer. However, I would choose Mayor Riddick, for he was undoubtedly a strong leader, a thoughtful mayor and physician. Unfortunately, like many of our city officials and mayors, they seem to fall through the cracks of time.

Mayor Riddick was a highly educated Mayor. He possessed a natural intellectual curiosity all life. He had a voracious appetite for reading, and great communication skills with citizens and patients. He had a razor-sharp memory and never forgot a name or an address. He was a friend to all! Norfolkians were his family.

Doctor James Graves Riddick was born in Sussex County, Virginia. He was the son of a minister, Rev. James Riddick of the Methodist Church.  He was educated at McCabe’s school in Petersburg, preparing for Randolph-Macon College where he graduated with honors. From there he went on to Physicians & Surgeons College of Baltimore where he received his medical degree. After becoming a physician in 1883, he moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he established his home and medical practice. He soon became known as a caring physician, and as a physician was a remarkable diagnostician, on examination of his patients. In 1886 he was elected Health Officer, a position he held for 12 years until he retired in 1898.

Dr. Riddick married Sallie Yates Council, the daughter of Rev. Councill, a well-known Baptist minister in Alexandria, Virginia. She was a graduate of Hollins College in Virginia.

During the early part of the 1900’s, many citizens did not like the path Norfolk was on. Dr. James Riddick was also one of these citizens. Norfolk had crime, alcohol, gambling, drugs and prostitution problems. These problems were getting out of control.

A group of his followers, who well-educated men in Norfolk, wanted him to run for mayor. These citizens and supporters urged him to run. Dr. Riddick never gave a campaign speech, he never visited the polling places, but it was his devoted supporters of Norfolk that got the word out on his platform: to clean up Norfolk.  

It was a tough race. His opponent was the popular Democrat, George H. Dawes (1847-1915), a local wholesale dealer in bananas and fruit on Roanoke Square. Mr. Dawes was well known and well educated too. He played the cello in Norfolk concerts and in the symphony 

On April 24, 1902, when all ballots were counted, James G. Riddick, M.D. was declared the new mayor of Norfolk. There were much rejoicing. He would be the first physician to be elected mayor of Norfolk.

However, on July 2, 1902, The Virginian-Pilot headlines read:


New Administration Was Inaugurated Yesterday With Flying Colors – Mayor Riddick Causes It to Be Known, That He will start the Much Needed Reforms At Once, By Causing All Laws on the Books to be observed.

On August 9th 1902, after a month in office, he Virginian-Pilot reported, "MAYOR RIDDICK IS WELL IN THE COUNCIL FIGHT.

"He is dumb and Repeats the Statement That He Has nothing to Say, But the Wiseacres Know the Mayor Has Something up His Sleeve  -- Wait and See His Watchword."

There is a fight going on between Mayor Riddick, council and the politicians. As the article stated, "Mayor Riddick will not kneel." 

Mayor Riddick would end up a three-time Mayor of Norfolk, and the citizens were pleased about his ambition to clean up the city. Much needed reforms were needed in place for Norfolk. He was his own man, not puppet to someone else. During his long term as mayor, he also practiced his profession as a medical doctor, which enabled him to make progress in cleanliness in our city, especially in water and milk contamination. The mayor's two professions played an important role in developing Norfolk into a new city with limited crime and moving Norfolk into a much healthier city. He loved children and was a friend of the friendless and poor. He never sent a medical bill for his services during the time as mayor

One of the first things Mayor Riddick did was to go out and meet city employees and inspect the different departments, especially the Fire, Police and Health Departments.

Two months after he was elected Mayor, on August 1902, small pox visited our area. Being a physician, Dr. Riddick knew what to do. He did not want to quarantine the whole city, so he quickly made preparations to vaccinate the entire city.  The very sick were sent to Craney Island to isolate them from the public. His plans and arrangements were to divide the city into districts as soon as possible. Special policemen would accompany each physician to put down any rebellion against the vaccine. Five thousand dollars was appropriated to carry out this vaccination program. At the time, it was thought that only one thousand would be used, but if any monies were left over they would be used for sanitary work in cleaning up the city.

Then in November 1902, Mayor Riddick had to clean out the gypsies of Norfolk. A Joe gypsy and his wife Fannie, alias Aunt Fannie of Cove Street, were operating a house of ill-repute. Also, Joe gypsy was peddling morphine and giving out hypodermic injections, an unknown price per shot.  This was largely confined to the underworld of Norfolk.  They were arrested, fined and ordered to leave Norfolk.

But one of my favorite stories was when a mad dog had bitten three young children near Main Street. At that time, Norfolk did not have the serum to treat hydrophobia (rabies), so individuals were sent to Richmond, Virginia, for treatment. Mayor Riddick stepped in and talked to the parents. Two of the victims were African-Americans and he paid for the treatment himself, explaining to the parents why it was important to have these children sent to Richmond. He appointed a special deputy to see that the children would be safe. Within a few days they were all reunited with their parents.  

During his long term as Mayor, he saw many cases of hydrophobia (rabies) in our city. Police officers were allowed to shoot and kill any dog foaming at the mouth. On July 2, 1910, Norfolk had several vicious canine attacks with policemen and young children. These vicious dogs was suspected of rabies. A mad dog had been on the loose and a few young children in the Atlantic Ward were bitten, when Policeman Wilkerson shot and killed the dog. The children that were attacked by the mad dog were Charles and Clarence Meakin on Camp Avenue and Georgia Swinson on West Avenue, along with a Fannie Henry. These children did not have to be sent to Richmond, for Norfolk now had the serum to treat hydrophobia.

On October 16, 1902, after only a few months in office, an article appeared in the Virginian-Pilot, "UP IN SMOKE, thousands of dollars of gambling paraphernalia went up in smoke." Mayor Riddick issued orders to siege all gambling equipment. All gambling equipment was confiscated and orders given by the Mayor himself to burn all gambling equipment in front of the police station. That morning there was a at Monticello Club, Granby St. & opposite the Tazewell Apartment, owned by Tobe Mapp.

Another controversy arose when Mayor Riddick appointed Solomon Bridgeport, an African-American man, to be keeper of the city morgue which would be built later. This position called for handling all unidentified bodies found in Norfolk waters called "floaters" picked up in the Elizabeth River and her tributaries. Many policemen expressed dissatisfaction with this decision. As Mayor Riddick said, "We need to build a new morgue, along with a new laboratory. Afterwards, it is essential to plan for a new modern jail to be built." The council was stunned!

Being a medical man Mayor Riddick realized the importance of a new laboratory to test milk, as well as water, in our city. Doctor Charles Mason Andrews was appointed head bacteriologist to oversee this department. Dr. Charles James Andrews (1876-1950) became the first BACTERIOLOGIST for Norfolk and he was called the Germ Hunter, making sure that our milk and water were safe to drink.

On April 11, 1906, Mayor Riddick declared a Good Housecleaning Day, targeted alleys, dirty streets, etc. that needed cleaning. The women of the city loved it! Many citizens helped cleaning the trash out of these unsightliness streets and alleys. The reason: the 1907 Jamestown Exposition was getting underway in Norfolk County. Mayor Riddick wanted a clean city for the many visitors who would be visiting the exposition and staying at our hotels here in the city.

During his administration, Mayor Riddick had his eye on the saloon business. A cleanup was in order. Norfolk had a large Temperance Movement that opposed alcohol. On September 4, 1910, an Irish-born man, saloon worker got drunk and went home and shot his family. John J. Smyth gunned down his wife Bridget Sullivan and daughter Rita due to being drunk.  The saloons had always had a bad name for drunkenness. Mr. Smyth would go to the electric chair for his crime.

Next on the list was trying to clean up gambling from the Horse Racing in Norfolk County, near the Jamestown Fair grounds. This was in Norfolk County, not the City of Norfolk. Riddick had no jurisdiction over the race track. This race track was located at the corner of Terminal and Hampton Blvd. However, in the fall of 1910, reports began to reach Mayor Riddick and Governor Mann in Richmond, that bookmakers were taking bets at the races. Although officials denied the reports, the stories persisted circulating around. Governor Mann was determined to close the Norfolk track. But it would be a new governor, Henry C. Stuart, that succeeded in closing the race track in 1914. Mayor Riddick at that time was no longer in office.

During his long reign as mayor of Norfolk, James Riddick's great aim in life was improvements for the city of Norfolk. Every effort was done to enlist the interest of all people to help in the improvements of our city.  Among the changes were in the health of Norfolk, clean streets and improvements in Department of Fire and Police. Saloons, gambling houses and prostitution were diminished greatly.

On June 12, 1912, Mayor Riddick was defeated as mayor by Capt. Wyndham R. Mayo, (1844-1926) called "The Organization Candidate." Dr. Riddick was defeated only by 243 votes. The Democratic team was now in power. Mayor Riddick would retire to his medical profession here in Norfolk.

In April 13, 1913, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Dr. James G. Riddick was thrown from his buggy when he was struck by a runaway horse at Church and Charlotte Streets. The horse belonged to the Atlantic & Pacific Tea company. He fell on his chest and was badly stunned by the blow. However, within a few minutes he was back up on his feet in his buggy and proceeded to his patient.

In 1917, former mayor James G. Riddick was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. His sickness was kept secret and he continued to work until he passed away on February 15, 1918. He is considered to be one of the oldest practicing physicians here in Norfolk.

While as mayor, he personally signed his letters and documents, a testament to his character: J. G. Riddick, M.D. Mayor. He was always a physician first. The oath of Hippocrates ruled his daily life. Poverty found him ready to help the needy, and many times that needy person never got a bill.  Having served three terms as Mayor, Dr. Riddick never made a single campaign speech, nor never visited the polling place to talk to voters. When his candidacy was announced as running for Mayor, his friends did the rest to get him elected.

Mayor Riddick had a vision for a cleaner, safer Norfolk. He kept his promises and practiced his profession as a medical doctor while attending to the city business.

On November 21, 1925, with hundreds of citizens in attendance at City Park, a large, upright granite memorial was unveiled and dedicated to keep Mayor Riddick’s memory alive. This monument was bought by private donations from many grateful citizens of Norfolk in loving memory of a great mayor and physician of Norfolk, James G. Riddick, M.D.

Riddick Memorial

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com