Northam announces second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest
Gov. Ralph Northam is inviting Virginia students, educators and families to participate in the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest, which kicks off on Monday.
The contest offers opportunities to learn about African Americans who have made important contributions to Virginia history, provides teachers with resources to guide history discussions, and includes a contest where students can submit ideas for new historical markers to the Department of Historical Resources.
“This contest is a new Virginia tradition, and one of many ways we are working to tell a more accurate and comprehensive story of our shared past,” Northam said. “Historical markers are a unique and visible way to educate the public about our history, and we need to do a better job of recognizing Black Virginians who have played prominent roles in areas like improving education, championing equal justice, deepening faith communities, and advancing science, technology, and medicine throughout our history.
“I remain committed elevating initiatives like this one that help make our Commonwealth a more just, compassionate, and culturally rich place to live, work, visit, and learn,” Northam said.
Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. Route 1 and is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Historic Resources, the program is an effort to recognize and chronicle events, accomplishments, sacrifices, and personalities of historic importance to Virginia’s story.
The signs are known for their black lettering against a silver background and their distinctive shape.
“These markers bring Virginia history to a large audience, including people who may not have another occasion to learn about Virginia history,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler said. “Virginia’s markers bear the state seal, so they should provide a clear indication of our values. This annual contest helps ensure Virginia’s historical markers more equitably represent Virginia’s diversity.”
Virginia has erected more than 2,600 markers along its roadways, but as of January 2020, only 350 markers honored African Americans. Last year on Juneteenth, Northam announced 20 newly approved state historical highway markers addressing topics of national, state, and regional significance to African American history in the Commonwealth.
Ten of the markers were submitted by Virginia students through Governor Northam’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest and included civil rights pioneer Barbara Rose Johns, entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker, Sergeant William H. Carney, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
“As a classroom teacher, I believe that Black history is the cornerstone to build a better tomorrow,” said Dr. Shavonne Ruffin, a Northampton County Public Schools elementary school teacher. “The governor’s Black History Month Historical Marker Contest allowed my students an opportunity to discover the stories of influential African Americans in Virginia. It was remarkable to watch them light up as they learned about heroes like Katherine Johnson, and to witness their joy when they found out that due to their efforts, her important contributions would be forever memorialized through a historical marker.”
“I liked the contest because I got to learn about amazing people who inspire me to be a better kid and make a difference in my community,” said Javier Rodriguez-Aragon, a fifth-grader in Fairfax County Public Schools. “Last year, I nominated William H. Carney and Barbara Johns for Virginia historical markers so that more people can learn their stories and be inspired.”
Learn more about the winning markers submitted by students in the inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest here.
The contest web page includes a lesson plan and classroom activity guide developed by Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Janice Underwood, which is designed to help teachers and administrators navigate these discussions thoughtfully and inclusively and can be used for in-person or virtual classroom settings.
“As an educator, I believe deeply in the power of learning through the exploration of local history,” said Dr. Underwood. “Since 1619, stories of incredible African American Virginians have frequently been ignored. This contest allows for students to discover local heroes and provides students an opportunity for civic engagement inviting them to suggest new historical markers.”
The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest begins on Monday, Feb. 15, and suggested historical markers must be submitted by Monday, March 15. The Department of Historical Resources will review all submissions and will select the top five, in consultation with Northam and members of his Cabinet.
“As the leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of Black history in the Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest provides students and educators alike an opportunity to celebrate the incredible contributions of Black and brown Virginians. I invite all educators and students to help us tell a more complete Virginia story through participating in this contest.”
More information about how to participate in the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest is available here.