Monday, June 17

Women at Work in RVA: Catherine Via & Velma Johnson

Our Summer Symposium kicks off in Richmond, Virginia, this Thursday, and we'd like to introduce you to some of the wonderful people we'll celebrate over the course of the weekend. Since our new website isn't ready to show off just yet, we're sharing the interviews from our latest oral history project here. Every day leading up to the Summer Symposium, we'll feature two more stories from Women at Work in RVA.

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"We were poor, but we had love. But we weren't poor, though. I think any time you get all you want to eat and some clothes to wear, you ain't poor. You’re rich and don’t know it. So remember that."

Retired Crabber, Payne's Crab House (Closed)

In 1933, a massive flood on Tangier Island, which sits in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, sent Avery Payne and his family to Urbanna, a coastal town due east of Richmond. A crabber all his life, Avery spent his days out on the Rappahannock River. In the 1950s, Avery purchased J.W. Hurley & Son Seafood on Urbanna Creek and changed the name to Payne's Crab House, where the family sold both hard- and soft-shell blue crabs. Growing up, Avery's daughters, Catherine Via and Beatrice Taylor, spent their summers working alongside their father. In 1977, Payne died of a heart attack while working on the river. Together, Catherine and Beatrice kept the business going in order to keep their father's memory alive. Each morning, Catherine rose early to tend to the crabs. Beatrice would take to the river, dropping and pulling peeler pots. Beatrice was the only woman in Virginia with a commercial crabbing license. The business became a centerpiece of the town, and the family was so respected that Beatrice later became Mayor of Urbanna. In 2012, Catherine and Beatrice retired and Payne's Crab House closed. Today, three of Catherine's four sons operate crabbing and oyster businesses nearby.

“You have to help people because you don’t know who is going to have to help you.”

Mama J's Kitchen

Velma Johnson, known to everyone as Mama J, is a native of Richmond. She grew up in the West End neighborhood among 14 brothers and sisters and learned to cook from her mother, Elise Roland. Her father, Willard Roland, was head cook at the Life of Virginia Insurance Company’s cafeteria. Mama J spent 17 years as a deputy sheriff to earn a living, catering on the side. In 1999, she resigned from the department to run her catering business full time. Mama J hoped to find an event hall to use as a home base for her business. Instead, she opened a restaurant. Mama J’s son, Lester Johnson, found a building on 1st Street in Jackson Ward, a historic neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the South. They opened Mama J's Kitchen in 2009. The restaurant is down the street from where Mama J went to church as a child. It’s in the same building that used to house Troy's Department Store, the place where Mama J got the white gloves, socks, and barrettes she wore to Sunday School. Today, Mama J cooks the same dishes her mother made, and she treats her customers like family.