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Feature

On the Trail

Discovering African American History in Virginia

By Anne Edison-Swift | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

Students don't realize there is so much history right in their own back-yards,“ says Teresa Dowell-Vest. Her favorite story to tell high school students is about the walkout at R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

A student walkout at the school on April 23, 1951, set in motion more than a decade of struggle for fair education in Virginia. Rather than integrate after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Prince Edward County withheld funds for public education, closing Moton and all public schools in the county for four years until 1964, when the Supreme Court forced them to reopen. The stories of the walkout and other events in education of the Civil Rights movement are interpreted at the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville -- a site on Virginia’s African American Heritage Trail.

“In order to get the full story of any of the historic sites in Virginia, you need African American history, “ says Teresa Dowell-Vest, director of the African American Heritage Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She travels throughout the state visiting schools, libraries, and other places to talk about the sites on the trail. They include some of the oldest black churches in the country, schools that played vital roles for integration, homes of important African American leaders, and museums dedicated to interpreting African American experiences. The Legacy Museum for African American History in Lynchburg is one of the sites; their current exhibition, “Struggle, Sacrifice, and Scholarship: Black Education in Central Virginia,” features artifacts and stories from community members. There is also the restored cabin of a freed slave at Montpelier, and the home of Anne Spencer -- the first Virginian and the first African American to have her work included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry.

“When I started here in January 2000, there were thirty-three sites on a spreadsheet. Now we have a database of more than four hundred sites, and more coming in every day,” says Dowell-Vest. The database provides information -- hours, location, cost, historical significance, physical description -- and is open to the public through a searchable website at www.virginia.edu/vfh. The website is a companion resource to the trail’s guidebook -- a joint venture of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

The Virginia Foundation sought out some of the sites, and as word of the program spread, the sites started coming to them. Dowell-Vest visits many, especially, she says, those that might need some extra help before they are ready to be open to the public. Help comes in the form of $3,000 grants to preserve artifacts or develop marketing materials. The Montpelier Foundation used one of these grants to mark the 250th anniversary of James Madison’s birth with a weekend of genealogical and historical seminars, tours, and other events devoted to remembering and interpreting the experiences of slaves on the plantation.

For Dowell-Vest, bringing such sites and events to public attention is the main benefit of the African American Heritage Trail. “Personally, as a native of Virginia and an African American woman, I feel this is a history that has been long buried and needs to be told,“ she says.