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Port Republic Road, Waynesboro’s Harlem, was center of local Black community

Rebecca Barnabi
(© Gary L Hider – stock.adobe.com)

The Port Republic Road community in Waynesboro is affectionately called “The Hill” by residents.

In 2002, the community was listed on the National Historic Register of Places, but its value to the local community has yet to be interpreted.

The Julius Rosenwald School served Black students in Waynesboro from grades 1 to 12 in Port Republic Road until 1965. The building is now the Rosenwald Community Center with a youth and adult open gym hours, offices for the Waynesboro Department of Parks and Recreation, a teen game room and a computer center.

Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown is Dean and Professor of History at Mary Baldwin College for Women spoke at Waynesboro Public Library Thursday evening on “Local African-American history in Waynesboro.”

To the City of Waynesboro, Port Republic Road was what Harlem is to New York City or Black Wall Street was to Tulsa or the Jackson Ward District was to Richmond. Business districts that served as the heartbeats of local Black community from the late 1800s through the 1900s. “The Hill” was home to approximately 75 family homes, three churches, a hotel, lodges and general merchandise businesses.

“I think when we talk about American history and Rosenwald, we either talk about it in terms of segregated and desegregated, but there’s no in between,” Tillerson-Brown said Thursday night. “There’s no wiggle room, and I think we’re actually still wiggling.”

In Waynesboro, Black students left Rosenwald and attended Waynesboro schools such as Waynesboro High School.

“How were they treated? What sense of community did they have inside the schools?” Tillerson-Brown said. Some Black students said all the students got along, but in the early 1970s Chris Wilmott, who integrated into the student body and athletics of Waynesboro High, was part of a protest to celebrate Black History Month.

Wilmott, 73, still lives in Port Republic. He retired 20 years ago from the United States Postal Service and began a personal mission to retrace his family’s history from the Bahamas.

Tillerson-Brown said that Americans are still dealing with the effects of segregation in the 21st Century. According to the Pew Research Center, the median household income of all Americans in 2016 was $97,300, white Americans was $171,000, but for Black Americans is $17,100.

And America’s prison statistics “help bring that into clearer focus.” NAACP reports reveal that Blacks constitute 1 million, or 58 percent of prison inmates.

“Port Republic Road was an amazing community for Waynesboro,” Tillerson-Brown said.

She added that she doesn’t think we should forget its history.

“King’s dream, you all, that’s what we remember, well it’s still not realized,” Tillerson-Brown said. “And he sure did more than dream. He worked hard and I think we need to pick up that baton and work hard.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.