Indoor Plumbing Arrived in the US in the 1840s. This Town Got Tired of Waiting.

For a little over 10 years, Zenobia Washington owned a home with a bathroom and hot and cold running water. Before that, she lived in a rental home. And growing up, Washington, who was raised in Exmore, Virginia, lived in a home with no bathroom and only cold water. Washington said her family heated up water on the stove.

The Washingtons lived in New Road, a historically Black section of Exmore that was often ignored by city officials. But Washington was part of a dedicated group of community members who took matters into their own hands and improved what were long accepted conditions. She was enthusiastic about continuing that work, but she passed away shortly after speaking to YES! for this story.

While much of New Road didn’t have sewers or septic systems, other parts of Exmore did, according to a case study from New York University’s Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action.

“We had outdoor pit privies for years,” Washington said. “That’s what everyone in the community grew up with.”

This norm began to change when longtime resident Ruth Wise founded the New Road Community Development Group of Exmore, an affordable housing nonprofit. For years, Washington served as Wise’s assistant during the early stages of the New Road organization.

Ava Gabrielle-Wise, Ruth’s daughter who also grew up in New Road, recalled that many of the people who own homes in New Road today have Washington to thank, as she did much of the organization’s operations work.

“A major part of our history is lost there,” Gabrielle-Wise said.

In 1992, the New Road Community Development Group started to advocate for indoor plumbing. Then in 1995, the organization bought property and land, on which Washington’s home now sits.

Exmore is a rural town in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that in 2017 had a population of 1,396, about 38 percent of whom were Black. Washington described her hometown as “a family community.”

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