She Died Because She Was Different

In 1952, Rufus Emerson, a Black transgender woman was murdered by police in downtown Norfolk. Her story is kept alive by one local historian.

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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Outlife757 Magazine. It has since been updated to reflect new information that has since come to light.

Tucked away in a rundown industrial section off of Tidewater Drive in Norfolk, Calvary Cemetery provides a fascinating snapshot of over 100 years of African American life in Hampton Roads. Calvary was established in 1877 as the City’s black burial ground. For nearly a century, most of Norfolk’s black citizens were interred there as there were no other public cemeteries would allow it until the mid-1970s. 

A stroll through the property reveals a remarkable chronology of important contributions made by Norfolk’s African American citizens to the history of not only Norfolk, but of Hampton Roads. The epitaphs found here document the lives of every aspect of African American society, from doctors, lawyers, and businessmen to soldiers, sailors, and laborers. 

Many notable civil rights activists, doctors, spiritual leaders, sports heroes, and service men and women lie at rest on the 68-acre property. So do former slaves, many of their graves unidentified and unmarked. The few that are marked are easily identified by the fact that the headstones display only their death date. Most enslaved Africans never knew their birth dates, and neither did their families. 

One such unmarked grave near the main entrance, however, has been identified as a 30 year-old person of color named Rufus Emerson who was murdered on a hot June night in 1952.

Little is known about Rufus prior to her murder, and what we do know is only due to a few public records and news reports in the local papers following his death. We do know she was born in Norfolk in 1922 and lived on Fenchrich Drive off Market Street and St. Paul’s Boulevard.

From the news reports following her death, we can surmise that Rufus might have been transgender in a day when that terminology did not exist. Her driver’s license indicated she identified as female, and in this article we will refer to her with the appropriate pronouns.

And she might have been a sex worker. 

“If you’re Black and identify as transgender in 1952 Norfolk, your family has probably disowned you, and you’re not going to get a job,” said Shannon Stafford, a Norfolk cemetery historian. “So what else are you going to do?”

Shannon Stafford at Rufus Emerson’s unmarked gravesite in Calvary Cemetery, Norfolk.

The tragic story of her death begins the night of June 11 when, according to the conflicting news accounts, police received notification from a cab driver identified as Mr. Lewis spotted Emerson “in pedal pushers and a blouse” on the 700 block of Granby Street, which in 1952 had a notorious reputation for prostitution. Rufus, who lived a few short blocks away, would not have been an unusual sight there.  

Lewis claimed that Emerson was heckling or soliciting sailors and reported the incident to Officer William Robinette, who was nearby, and accompanied the cabbie back to the scene. According to Robinette’s later testimony, Emerson stuck her head and torso through Robinette’s car window, grabbed him in the crotch, and released him when she realized the officer was carrying a pistol. Robinette then testified that he showed Emerson his badge and attempted to arrest her. 

The officer claimed that Emerson fled on foot, throwing a brick at him and threatening to “cut his guts out.” Robinette said he chased Emerson down York Street and into Southall’s Lane, which at that time was a narrow alley.

Robinette said that Emerson scratched him, attempted to tear his shirt off, and assaulted him with a plank. He also testified that as she threatened Robinette, she had her hand in her pocket, prompting the officer to pull his revolver. When Emerson attempted to flee again, he shot her. The bullet entered through her chest and exited out her back but did not immediately kill her. As Emerson lay dying, Robinette called dispatch to say that he had shot a “colored female.” She died en route to the hospital. Robinette was charged with murder. 

“Two newspapers, the Norfolk Journal and Guide and the Virginian Pilot, printed two completely different accounts of what happened, and the truth is that the officer’s testimony during his murder trial does not match either news report,” said Stafford. “So guess what happened? He was acquitted on the first day of the trial.” 

Since no one stepped forward to claim Rufus’ body, the City paid to have her buried in Calvary in what may be the Emerson family plot. None of the six graves in the plot are marked, however, and researchers only know the location from the cemetery burial record.

Stafford says his reason for telling Rufus’ story are to keep her memory alive. He had hoped to raise money to place a modest headstone on the grave, but that requires permission from next of kin, and Rufus doesn’t have any living relatives.

Instead, Stafford includes Rufus burial plot on his regular cemetery tours.

“As far as I can tell, Rufus’ death was the first time the killing of a trans person of color by Norfolk police was publicly documented,” Stafford said. “I’m sure her killing was not the first, though, and sadly not the last.”

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