Welcome back to my blog post series, Come Home to Virginia – African American Historic Sites. I am a native and a resident of Virginia; my work as a historian explores public spaces with attention to visitor education and community engagement. This blog explores African American history across time and space. I look forward to, sharing my experiences as a visitor to museums and historic sites. I hope you will also read my first post Come Home to Virginia – African American Historic Sites Part I.
For this post I visited two National Park Service Sites: Booker T. Washington and Maggie L. Walker; a community museum, the Alexandria Black History Museum and a new museum, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. I hope you will enjoy reading it and I hope you will visit. Come Home to Virginia….!
The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Across the nation the National Park Service oversees over 400 official units including parks, monuments, preserves, historic sites, trails, and more. A national monument and national historic site in Virginia tell the stories of two black presidents: Booker Taliferro Washington (1856-1915), founding president of Tuskegee Institute, and Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934), first black female president of a chartered bank in the United States. Both are Virginians; both encouraged education and economic empowerment and they both embody the drive to succeed and to lift up individuals and communities.
The Booker T. Washington National Monument commemorates the life of a leader, college president, orator and statesman who was born enslaved. Some people may be familiar with his book, Up from Slavery. When you visit the 200+ acre farm and park, you’ll appreciate rural life from a different perspective. An 1850 tobacco farm has been reconstructed with demonstrations of farm life occurring regularly. Washington’s early life was centered on work and more work. He walked to Hampton Institute with the hopes of being admitted, his perseverance and strong work habits were noted, and he entered and completed the course of study to become an educator. When he was asked to direct a new institution, Tuskegee Institute, he became a leader in the larger American narrative.
When I visited, Carla Whitfield, Superintendent of the Booker T. Washington National Monument expressed the significance of learning about Booker T. Washington and the historic site. “There is truth in the axiom, ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it (said by George Santayana).’ The reality is that too few schools are educating American youth on the realities of slavery, and even more so on the Reconstruction Era, which is one of the most influential and fascinating times of United States history. Furthermore, Booker T. Washington, the most prominent leader of philosophy and education during this important period is at times being left out of entire curricula. This has led to a gap in understanding the progression of Reconstruction and what bridged the period of slavery to the civil rights era of the 20th century.”
Booker T. Washington National Monument offers a wide breadth of information pertinent to the plantation Washington was enslaved to, as the site includes several reconstructed 19th century buildings from the original property, including a tobacco barn which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors also receive a concise exposure to the accomplishments of Dr. Washington, as well as a deep knowledge of his philosophies and other civil rights-related information. Anyone can benefit from their experiences at this park, which is the only federally-recognized emancipation site in Virginia.
Visitors begin at the visitor center by viewing an award-winning video introduction to the life of Booker T. Washington. They then continue to solidify their education by participating in interactive modules, listening to audio recordings, and viewing quotations and visuals all located within the exhibit area. Passionate and knowledgeable volunteers and park rangers are available to answer any questions or assist with additional accommodations. The staff is also happy to engage in discussions regarding Booker T. Washington to help further the visitors’ understanding of Washington’s significance in American History. The bookstore offers numerous books and items related to the visit, and resources and reference materials are also available at the front desk. These include articles, charts, albums, pamphlets, and information regarding upcoming events and programs.
The park hosts three annual events, all involving living history experiences. July is Junior Ranger Month, a time when the park holds special programs for children, ages six through twelve, relating to the farm, civil rights, slavery, plantation life, and more. Visit for Harvest Time on Saturday, September 15 from 10-4 p.m. This free event includes re-enactors, farm demonstrations, crafts, children’s activities and horse-drawn carriage rides.
Booker T. Washington National Monument encourages anyone to attend and decide what their personal experience will be. The park has no admission or parking fees and the plantation area is handicap accessible. There is also a popular mile and a half walking trail through the original plantation property, along two streams. This park is an important part of the present community and the historical past of America.
The park is located 25 miles southeast of Roanoke near Smith Mountain Lake and 45 miles southwest of Lynchburg and is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission, parking, and all programs are free.
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is located in the historic neighborhood of Jackson Ward in Richmond, Va. The site commemorates the life of a progressive and talented African American woman and consists of her home of thirty years and adjacent buildings where the visitor’s center and exhibit hall are housed.
Maggie Lena Walker’s early years include helping her mother with her laundry business. This experience enabled her to appreciate the value of hard work and the earnest desire of working people to lift themselves up through education, economic empowerment, and employment. Her accomplishments include: taking over and leading the Independent Order of St. Luke, a beneficial organization, into a profitable and prosperous business; and founding the St. Luke Herald Newspaper, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and the Emporium Department Store. She served in a variety of community and civic organizations; ran successful businesses and left a history that is evidenced in a beautifully appointed and maintained home.
The Chief of Interpretation at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Dr. Andrea DeKoter believes, “Maggie Walker is someone whose story resonates with people from every walk of life, and I think one reason is because she faced obstacle after obstacle and never gave up. So often historic figures are un-relatable: they inherited wealth or a title or had access to resources that 99% of us will never have. Mrs. Walker, on the other hand, made her own success, experienced setbacks – with family, with her health – and still never flagged in her dedication to equal rights and justice. She was a visionary civil rights leader, a powerful businesswoman with incredible financial acumen, and she was also a colleague, a wife, a mother.
(Insert Maggie Walker statue pic)
The addition of her beautiful statue on Broad Street in downtown Richmond has raised awareness about the work she did not only locally but also nationally, and we have seen increased visitation at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site this past year. A tour through her home provides an intimate look at the challenges and successes she experienced, and we encourage visitors to stop by and visit us Tuesday-Saturday, 9-5. The site is completely free of charge. Also, in 2017 we introduced a new 20-minute film in our visitor center that incorporates new scholarship and images and illustrates an often overlooked period in American history.” The film is also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QR3CexPZXEk.
When you visit the Maggie Walker House:
- Take an easy walk to Adams and Broad Street to view and enjoy the most recent addition to Richmond’s public art – the Maggie Walker monument and plaza.
- Visit the Black History Museum (122 W. Leigh Street), located at the site of the Leigh Street Armory, built in 1895.
- Visit Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church (14 West Duval St.), where the John Jasper Memorial Room is housed. The Reverend John Jasper became well-known for his sermon, “The Sun Do Move” which he delivered more than 200 times.
- Visit The Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue (at the intersection of Brook Road, West Leigh and Price streets), the first statue to memorialize a black man in Richmond. Robinson was known as “The King of Tap Dancers” his films with Shirley Temple are classics. He also donated the first traffic light north of Broad Street on Adams and Leigh Streets. The sponsors, The Astoria Beneficial Club, Inc., proposed a statue honoring Robinson in 1972 “to serve as an inspiration to coming generations of young Richmonders that they too may make a meaningful contribution.” Each year, the Astorians host a commemorative service on the fourth Saturday in June. All sites are within walking distance to each other and located in the historic Jackson Ward District, itself on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Alexandria Black History Museum (ABHM) is comprised of three sites – the museum, the Watson Reading Room and the Alexandria African American Heritage Park. The Watson Reading Room is a wonderful site for research (open by appointment) and has over 4000 books on African and African American History. The museum hosts changing exhibitions on Alexandria’s African American history and a wide variety of programs from concerts to film screenings and lectures.
When I spoke with Audrey Davis, Director of the ABHM I asked her what were the two big stories that visitors would most remember. “Visitors will also learn about two early actions for African American Civil Rights that occurred in Alexandria. One in 1864 through a petition written by over 400 United States Colored Troops (USCT) to the US Army for burial rights for the fallen compatriots. The other event was a 1939 sit-in strike so that African Americans could have access to the city’s public library. Led by pioneering attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker, the actions of five young men led to the creation of the Robert Robinson Library which is the historic anchor of the Alexandria Black History Museum.”
The museum is committed to highlighting the history and culture of the local community within a national context. Public programming as well as changing, travelling and permanent exhibits serve to enlighten and engage visitors about the variety of African American experiences. When visiting the ABHM I found a friendly and engaging staff and a great gift shop with a variety of gifts, books, games and toys related to African American history. Celebrating 35 years of preserving Alexandria’s African American history and culture in 2018, the City of Alexandria welcomes guests to explore the rich black history the city has to offer. And The Alexandria Black History Museum is an engaging starting point. The museum is open Tuesday- Saturday 10 am – 4 pm.
Other nearby African American History attractions include:
- The Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library, is the site where the 1939 sit-in occurred. It is now a treasured resource for genealogists. Local histories, genealogy collections and knowledgeable staff make for a wonderful experience.
- The Northern Virginia Urban League is the headquarters of the Freedom House Museum. Located at 1315 Duke Street, the museum was once headquarters of Franklin, Armfield & Co, a large slave-trading business.
- For genealogists and cemeterians the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial is located at 1001 S. Washington Street. Here, during the Civil War nearly 1800 African Americans found freedom in Alexandria and in their final resting place.
- The Alexandria National Cemetery located at 1450 Wilkes Street also includes the final resting place of U.S. Colored Troops. Both guided and self-guided tours are available; call for appointment (703) 836-2858.
- In the Alexandria African American Heritage Park you come upon bronze sculptures in the form of trees. The installation called “Truths that Rise from the Roots Remembered” was created by Washington, D.C. sculptor, Jerome Meadows. Additional sculptures commemorate neighborhoods and individuals associated with the site and surrounding area. This one-acre cemetery resides in the larger 7.6 acre heritage park. Of the 21 burials there are six identified headstones. This satellite site for the Alexandria Black History Museum is located at 500 Holland Lane.
Formerly known as the Yorktown Victory Center, the new museum has been re-imagined and is filled with lots of hands-on experiences for children and families. Please take the time to watch the orientation film, “Liberty Fever”. Through the use of stationary silhouettes and moving shadow puppets visitors will enter into the lives of five people. It is so well done, that it was recognized by the American Alliance of Museums and received the Gold Award for museum films.
I really appreciated the personal stories included throughout the sprawling yet well-defined exhibition. On a recent visit to the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, I learned about Billy Flora, an African American soldier who became a hero at the Battle of Great Bridge in 1775, and another subject often omitted in the history books found in schools. James Lafayette, an enslaved man from nearby New Kent County, successfully spied on the British for the American forces, yet spent much of his life after the war seeking his own freedom from slavery. Artifacts, such as a Wedgwood antislavery medallion attest to the growing public opposition to slavery. A rare portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is on view; it is one of two known portraits done from the life of an African enslaved in the colonies.
The Story of Edward Moss and his family provide historical interpreters a frame of reference for discussing farm and domestic life. He owned six enslaved men, women and children. His story and connection with the enslaved people he owned tell a different story than what we have come to know about southern history. A newly constructed 12×10 foot building represents quarters for enslaved people. The log walls and wood clapboard eaves and roof, the fireplace and stick and mud chimney, the storage pit and adjacent yard and garden all provide historical context to reference the lived experience of enslaved people during the American Revolutionary period. Costumed interpreters depict life and teach visitors about life in the Revolutionary period through hands-on demonstrations and experiences.
I hope this post has also whetted your appetite and enticed you to come home to Virginia…!
Dr. Lauranett Lee is a historian, consultant and engaged citizen. She teaches at the University Of Richmond in two schools: the School of Professional and Continuing Studies and the Jepsôn School of Leadership Studies. From 2001-2016 she was the founding Curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society. In 2017 she became a fellow in the Community Trustbuilding program through Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities.