As momentum built in late July 1987 to bounce him from office, Mayor James Holley went on the offensive.
The city's first black mayor told a church audience that the people seeking his ouster - many of them influential black residents - were trying to "destroy the dream."
Three weeks later, when organizers submitted more than 10,000 signatures to force a recall election, two attorneys stood by Holley, mounting a legal challenge as some 90 supporters rushed to review the signatures.
In seven days, Holley's followers documented 16,157 problems, more than one for every name.
Almost a quarter century later, Holley is facing another recall. Again defiant, this time it appears he is fighting on his own.
Joe Wright, a civic leader from Cavalier Manor, was among those who actively opposed the last recall. He remembered going door to door and helping a committee that had its own headquarters. Wright said he'd help again if the mayor asked. Holley, 83, hasn't.
"I'm not going to say he's by himself, but the people are not as fired up about it, because most of the people really think it's time for him to step down," Wright said.
Still, Wright said he thinks Holley has enough support to keep him in office if a recall election is set.
Catherine D. Hendricks, 91, was among those who signed the challenges that one of Holley's lawyers filed against the 1987 recall signatures.
"I haven't heard one word, really, of trying to help him at all," she said of the latest effort. "Nobody has said anything to me."
Two residents, Robert Marcus and Delores Knight, submitted 8,775 names on May 6 to trigger the latest recall initiative. To force a recall election, they need about 6,700 to pass muster as the legitimate signatures of registered voters.
Circuit Judge Dean W. Sword Jr. has set a hearing for May 27 to rule on the signatures, which are under review in the registrar's office.
Holley has filed a legal challenge, this time on his own. The two lawyers who made his case in court in 1987 have died. Last week, Holley said he did not have an attorney.
The latest recall effort started last summer after Holley's assistant at City Hall reported that the mayor had verbally abused her and ordered her to do personal tasks for him on city time.
The other six City Council members fined Holley $2,500 and asked him to retire. He declined.
Holley was successfully recalled in 1987. He ran again and was re-elected in 1996.
The 1987 movement grew partially out of comments he had made during a heated exchange over the future of I.C. Norcom High School. Some black community leaders asked Holley to intervene and stop the school from closing. He refused, and he said he felt the group sent political threats his way for doing so.
Holley responded, according to newspaper accounts, by saying, "I pretty much got you where you are.... You won't be satisfied until you have a white mayor and all the City Council persons up here are white for another 200 years."
An effort to recall Holley began in earnest after he was implicated in a hate-mail campaign against several of the people who opposed Norcom's closing.
The commonwealth's attorney at the time, Johnny E. Morrison, concluded that Holley's fingerprints were found on some of the letters. Holley denied involvement and was never charged. Morrison is now Portsmouth's chief circuit judge.
Several of those who wanted to keep Norcom open included Louise Lucas, who is now a state senator, and Kenneth Melvin, now a circuit judge. Lucas said recently she is trying to stay out of the latest recall effort.