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Program spotlights Virginia's African-American historical sites

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Tom Cogill
Teresa Dowell-Vest directs the African-American Heritage Program, a project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. The foundationšs president, Robert Vaughan, at right, says the foundation is concerned with defining what is most valuable in our cultural history and preserving it.

In July 1944, Irene Morgan refused to give her seat to a white passenger when she was riding on a Greyhound bus from Gloucester, Va., to Baltimore. The driver called a sheriff; when he tried to pull her off the bus, Morgan fought back, assaulting him.

Morgan took her case to the Supreme Court, assembling a legal team that included Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill. In 1946, nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a municipal bus, the court ruled that interstate buses could not be segregated.

Morgan's Gloucester homeplace is one of more than 340 historical sites being catalogued as part of the statewide African-American Heritage Program. Based at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, the program aims "to educate people about the contributions of African Americans from Virginia and to help promote sites associated with them," said coordinator Teresa Dowell-Vest.

The program has three parts: building a database, which will be available on the Web this fall; dispensing about 25 grants of up to $3,000 each over three years to museums and history-marking projects; and developing "trails" around the state to help lead people to the various sites. The last of these is a joint project of the VFH and Virginia Tourism Corporation, which will work together to create a travel guide to be published next spring.

"Governor Gilmore wants Virginia, which currently ranks 10th in the nation for tourism revenues, to be in the top five," said Dowell-Vest, adding that the state has given the program $500,000 to be used over three years.

Dry Fork one-room school
Dry Fork one-room school, ca. 1910. Courtesy: Bland Co. History Archives, John Dodson, director.

"We're constructing a database of sites across the state, encouraging organizations to increase their programming," she said, gesturing toward a map of Virginia covered with 340-plus push pins, each representing a historic place.

The sites range from such well-known tourist attractions as Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg to such seemingly insignificant ones as the Bannaker Boundary Stone in Northern Virginia, showing where Benjamin Bannaker helped lay out the city of Washington, D.C.

"It's a small stone with a fence around it, and doesn't look that impressive, but it's important for people to know where it is," Dowell-Vest said.

Among the larger sites, Montpelier is making plans for the 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth.

"They're presenting a more complete story of his life ‹ as an entrepreneur, a farmer, a framer of the Constitution," she said. "He couldn't have done all these things if he hadn't had the labor of slaves. They're encouraging the descendants of those slaves to visit, and [they're] collecting oral histories."

Several towns in Virginia, including Petersburg, Richmond, Lynchburg, Winchester, Gloucester and Hampton, have maps to African-American historic places.

Many of the sites are dilapidated, because, "for so long, we as black people were not in the habit of preservation, unless it was a functional building like a church," she said.

"History has become important to African Americans [in the last decade]. 2000 has been a big push to collect oral histories and artifacts that tell the stories of our people," she said. "We're trying to catalog our legacy."

A lot of the sites in the database are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Ridge Street in Charlottesville; the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy (Franklin County); and the Ann Spencer House in Lynchburg, commemorating a poet from the Harlem Renaissance.

Other sites include the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in Richmond; the Christiansburg Institute, the only secondary school for blacks in Southwest Virginia for much of this century; and Hampton University, founded in 1868 to educate newly emancipated African Americans, as well as Native Americans.

Some of the sites are not open to the public, but people still want to see them.

"Black history is often invisible. So many sites have been erased. They may have been paved over to create a mini-mall or [a] hotel," she said, alluding to Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill district, an African-American neighborhood and business district that was razed in the 1960s to make way for "urban renewal." (Dowell-Vest wrote a play about the neighborhood's history that was performed in Charlottesville earlier this year.)

"I hope this program will encourage people to visit places like Pittsylvania and Gutenberg counties, which are filled with small, rural towns. ... They've been home to African Americans for a long time," she said.


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