20 new state historical highway markers will highlight African-American history in Virginia
Twenty newly approved state historical highway markers will address topics of national, state, and regional significance in Virginia’s African American history.
The Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved the markers at its public quarterly meeting on June 18.
Five of the 20 new markers were suggested by students across the Commonwealth in the Governor’s Inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest.
“The Commonwealth’s storied past is complicated and painful, but it is important to step up and tell a more inclusive story.” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “As we elevate Juneteenth, celebrating and acknowledging the contributions of our Black communities and history is a critical and imperative step forward–especially through historical markers that are highly visible across the Commonwealth.”
“We have overlooked or dismissed the important contributions of Black Virginians for far too long when telling Virginia’s history,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “That’s why Gov. Northam proclaimed Juneteenth a state holiday, and why the Department of Historic Resources remains committed to the preserving and proclaiming Black history. These markers are important and highly visible symbols of our efforts to ensure historic justice and address inequities across the Commonwealth.”
The forthcoming markers highlight people, places, or events tied to African American civil rights, education, health, or Civil War and Reconstruction-era history.
“The purpose of the highway marker program is to educate the public by presenting an objective and truthful version of history. It is past time for Virginians to more fully understand and appreciate the experiences and many contributions of African Americans who shaped the Virginia of today,” said Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Julie Langan. “Yesterday’s actions by the Board of Historic Resources couldn’t be more timely or fitting.”
The markers about matters of national consequence include:
- “Stingray Point Contraband” (Middlesex Co), which tells of six enslaved men who fled potential impressment into the Confederate army during the Civil War.
- “Barbara Rose Johns (1935-1991)” (Prince Edward Co.) notes that at age 16, Johns led a student walkout to protest conditions at Farmville’s segregated and “vastly inferior” Robert Russa Moton High School. The resulting NAACP lawsuit seeking to end segregation, Davis v. Prince Edward, was the only student-initiated case consolidated into U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education(1954), in which the court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional.
- “Calvin Coolidge Green (1931-2011)” highlights Green’s leadership in integrating New Kent County schools. His efforts resulted in a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Green v. New Kent Co. that localities must swiftly integrate public schools, a ruling that hastened school desegregation nationwide.
- “Wyatt Tee Walker (1928-2018)” recalls that this Petersburg pastor served as chief of staff for several years to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first full-time director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker helped organize major civil rights protests including the Birmingham (Alabama) Movement and the March on Washington.
The Barbara Johns and Wyatt Tee Walker markers resulted from the Black History Month Historical Marker Contest that Governor Northam announced in February. The contest encouraged schools to feature a different African American historical marker each day of February, provided teachers with resources to guide history discussions, promoted Black History Month events around the Commonwealth, and initiated a competition for students to submit ideas for new historical markers to the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. Over 285 students submitted ideas, including more than 60 students who suggested a marker be erected for Barbara Johns.
“As the leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of Black history in the Commonwealth over the past 400 years,” said Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni. “The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest gave students and educators alike an opportunity to research local heroes, and celebrate the incredible contributions Black and brown individuals have made to Virginia history. I am so proud of the educators and students who are helping us tell a more complete Virginia story through their participation in this contest.”
Three other markers submitted by students were approved:
- “Camilla Ella Williams (1919-2012)” spotlights this Danville native, an operatic soprano, who became the first African American woman to secure a contract with a major U.S. opera company. An international touring soloist, she performed in Danville to raise funds for civil rights demonstrators, and sang the national anthem at the March on Washington before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- “Ona Judge (ca. 1773-1848)” (Fairfax Co.) recalls this woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon. After George Washington became president, Judge escaped during one of Washington’s many extended residences in Philadelphia to perform his presidential duties. She successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to recover her and ultimately married and raised a family in New Hampshire.
- “Sgt. William H. Carney (1840-1908)” born into slavery in Norfolk, later gained his freedom and settled in Massachusetts around 1856. In 1863, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and fought at Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC. In May 1900, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions while experiencing heavy fire and serious wounds during the battle, which the 54th led.
In addition to the Johns and Green markers, three others center on advances in education for African Americans, focusing on specific schools. The “Campbell County Training School” and “Prospect School” (Scott Co.) were built with plans and funds provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, one of the most successful programs to support universal schooling for black students during the Jim Crow era. Long before the Rosenwald initiative, one of the first African American schools in Shenandoah County opened in Strasburg by 1875. After a fire destroyed the school in 1929, the county built a new one, “Sunset Hill School.”
Two markers relay stories about African Americans in the pre-Civil War era. “The African Preacher (ca. 1746-1843)” recalls the African-born John Stewart, who ended up enslaved in Nottoway County. After becoming a licensed Baptist preacher, known for his “wisdom and oratory” and community leadership, Stewart so impressed his white neighbors that they contributed to purchasing his freedom. “Spy Hill African American Cemetery” discusses a burial ground in King George County that emerged by the mid-1800s with the graves of enslaved plantation laborers.
Post-Civil War, Reconstruction history grounds five markers. Two of those signs — “Little Zion Baptist Church” (Orange Co.) and “Westwood Baptist Church” (City of Richmond) — speak to the statewide trend during Reconstruction of African Americans exercising newfound autonomy to establish churches separate from white congregations.
Three markers recount places that arose during Reconstruction. One sign for the City of Richmond, “Central Lunatic Asylum,” and one for Dinwiddie County, “Central State Hospital Cemetery,” discuss the origins and burial ground of Central State Hospital, the nation’s first stand-alone mental hospital for black patients. The settlement of emancipated African Americans in the northern Shenandoah Valley’s Clarke County is the subject of “Bristow,” a community that originated in 1869, one of about 20 county villages emancipated people established or settled in.
The only documented lynching of a black woman in Virginia, where more than 100 lynchings were recorded between 1877 and 1950, is relayed in the marker “Charlotte Harris Lynched, 6 March 1878” (Harrisonburg).
Twentieth-century history is the domain of two markers. “Burrell Memorial Hospital” tells about the founding in 1915 of the Roanoke area’s first hospital for black patients. “John Chilembwe (ca. 1871-1915)” is about the leader of the first major African uprising against colonial authorities in present-day Malawi. A British Official Commission later asserted that a main cause of the revolt resulted from Chilembwe’s education in the United States, at Lynchburg’s Virginia Seminary.
The full text of the markers is available here.
“This is another win for the Commonwealth,” said Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Dr. Janice Underwood. “To move Virginia forward, it is vital that we prioritize telling a more complete narrative of our story. The extraordinary individuals represented in these markers are Black lives that mattered. In real time, we are building a road map for the country as millions across the nation reflect about Black oppression and the systemic reforms necessary for healing, reconciliation and racial equity.”
Virginia’s historical highway marker program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently there are more than 2,600 official state markers, most of which are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, except in those localities outside of VDOT’s authority.
More information about the Historical Highway Marker Program is available on the website of the Department of Historic Resources at www.dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers/.