Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Local Black History

            Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) has been cited as the father of black history.  This Virginia born Harvard Ph.D. (1912) founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915) and its Journal of Negro History and established Negro History Week (1926).  In a debate that is still heard today, some of Woodson’s contemporaries criticized his efforts to teach or understand African-American history apart from general American history.  Current wisdom suggests that designating a black history month is not wrong as long as black history is connected to the timeline of history studied throughout the year.  The following is to focus your attention on some of the black history resources in our area and the people and institutions that are collectors and repositories of this information.

            Americans’ consideration of the African-American experience is only about fifty years old.  The experience of and the lessons learned by many Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the advent of expanded mass communication as in the presentation of the television series “Roots” resulted in widespread interest in black history among all races.  Today we find increased interest and research in the experience of this population at the local level.

Antebellum black history in Virginia is difficult to document because the slave was usually illiterate and the records are mostly from the perspective of the slave owner.  Post Civil War southern “Lost-Cause” literature was also from the perspective of slave holder. Also, in this period, as well as later, dispersement of people and migration adds to the research problems. Some local history records in the antebellum period may be found in the compilation of runaway slaves,[i] the Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” a database of Virginia slave names is found in its manuscript collection,[ii]  and Census records particularly the 1850 Census data that is available on-line via the MRL website. Another source for antebellum history is found injournals and other writings of plantation owners.

During the Civil War years the local newspapers reported on runaway slaves, as well as issues related to emancipation.  The creation of a personal-history database of US Colored Troops (USCT) from this area is an on-going effort.  The published list of black troops is by state.  Research to identify the home counties of the individuals listed and to document their individual histories continues.  In Page County this effort is being lead by Robert Moore.  You can access his blog “Too long to be forgotten.”   Documenting African–Americans in Shenandoah County is a project of the local historical society.  The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society has a collection of documents and artifacts relating to the black experience.  During the Civil War slaves and free blacks in the Shenandoah Valley had to leave to enlist adding to the challenge of the research task.

The Massanutten Regional Library is also a repository of items important to the local negro experience in the area.   In addition to extensive holdings relating to black history, the local library contributed to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project– an effort to detail the individual war experience of those who served in the armed forces from WWII to the Persian Gulf War.   The books on each veteran, some of whom were black, are found the  Genealogy and  Local History Room.[iii]   The MRL’s project to document the “Vanishing Farms” of Rockingham County included the Blakely Family Farm, the longest operated and one of two black-owned farms in the County.[iv]  A recorded interview with Mary Fairfax, a long time teacher at Simms School and the first black teacher at Waterman Elementary School is also available in the Genealogy and  Local History Room.  This interview provides insight to black education in Harrisonburg over a period of fifty years.   These are only three of the unique resources on the black community in Harrisonburg available at the Library. 
Mary Fairfax and her class at Simms School.

To find out what people are doing to document its local black history you are invited to come on Monday, February 24th, at 1:00 in Main Library Conference Room.  Ruth Toliver will talk about her research and writing about the black community in Harrisonburg.  She is the author of Keeping Up With Yesterday,[v] a history of the “good old days” in Newtown Harrisonburg before the urban renewal projects..  She is also the author of The Story of Kelley Street United Brethren in Christ Church, NewTown, Harrisonburg, Virginia.   
Both publications are good examples of the history lessons one can learn when you talk to your family and the importance of writing down these remembrances. The effort provides valuable resource material in the study of black history in the area.  Copies of her book Keeping Up With Yesterday will be available for purchase at this meeting. A guide that compliments Ruth Toliver’s books is the Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitors “African American Heritage” brochure. Take advantage of the walking tour outlined in it.

Recently, Robin Lyttle[vi] established the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. Its purpose is to bring together in a centralized space those who are interested in sharing and expanding local black history.  On the second Wednesday of each month from 2-7 at Lucy F. Simms Center Lyttle holds a research and sharing session.  She also helps people who are interested in genealogy research or school research.  Robin has and is assembling a valuable secondary-resource library.   
 Her own research is on local free black inhabitants listed in the 1850 census and their trades and crafts.  Robin will be speaking about her project at the Main Library on Monday, March 24th at 1:00.

The above is just some of the resources available to documenting black history in Shenandoah Valley.  The Library will be holding two public programs featuring two women who will share their experiences researching and writing about local black history.  We also note that March is Women’s History month so we can also recognize Ruth Toliver and Robin Lyttle for their contributions to local history twice.

[i] See MRL Reference Blog, Massanutten Musing.  January 2012
[iii] Veteran’s Project.  The volumes are available at the MRL.                      .
[iv] Cheryl Metz, compiler and editor, Vanishing Farms Project: The Blakely Family Farm. McGaheysville, VA. Custom Hand Bookbinding, Dayton, VA.  2008
[v] Ruth M. Toliver, editor.  Keeping Up With Yesterday. 2009.

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