African American history is more than a story of an ethnic group. It’s a window on America itself. Along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, there are memorials, exhibits, and museums that recount the African American experience. Some sites are destinations all their own; others make for fascinating stops while touring the Journey. The locations of the sites are listed south to north and described by proximity to Routes 15 or 20, the mainline of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground.
Mulberry Row was a 1000-foot strand of cabins and workshops located at the Main House at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. There were dwelling for black and white workers on the row. Jefferson’s commercial nail manufacturing shop was there, too. Five cabins were occupied by slaves who performed household chores, such as cooking and washing. Sally Hemings, servant to Jefferson’s daughters, is thought to have lived in one of the cabins for a time. The cabins were outfitted with dirt floors, wooden chimneys and a few necessities, but no furnishings. Slaves who wanted chairs and tables had to earn money after working hours in order to purchase them. Since the 1970s, archaeological research has uncovered and interpreted Mulberry Row. Tours of this special exhibit, called “Plantation Community,” offer a frank and informative glimpse into the lives of those enslaved and in servitude at Monticello. The exhibit is also a fascinating look at the process of archaeology.
Life in the cabins. Sally Hemings
Hugh Carr was born into slavery sometime about 1840. After emancipation, he became a farmworker, and in 1870 purchased the first 58 acres of the farm he would name Riverview. In 1875, as the farm manager at Woodlawn Farm, where he had been enslaved, he saved money to expand his own farm operation, eventually acquiring 120 acres by 1890. Carr managed to send five of his seven children to college and to transfer his economically successful operation over to a daughter and son-in-law. The stately house and barn he built are still standing. The barn, which is open to the public, contains exhibits and houses the foundation offices. The land, now 200 acres, is managed as a nature education center, with historical exhibits on the Carr family. Carr is buried in the family graveyard at Riverview. To learn about Carr and his family before your visit, see the history pages of the foundation website.
About 45 miles north of Charlottesville, on Route 20, is James Madison’s Montpelier. There are two programs to learn about African American history at Montpelier. The first explores enslavement at the Montpelier, the second explores the life of George Gilmore after emancipation.
The Montpelier Enslaved Community Tour is a guided tour through the Madison estate. Stops include the sites of slave dwellings, the slave cemetery, blacksmith shop, and the mansion basement. James Madison owned about a hundred slaves, a sizable and distinct community of people and multiple generations at Montpelier. The tour touches on their community life and offers observations about Madison and slavery. The hour-long tour is offered once each week, Saturday, 11:00 a.m., from April through October.
The Gilmore Cabin is a simple one-room cabin located a half-mile from the Montpelier visitor center. The cabin’s owner, George Gilmore, was born a slave at Montpelier in 1810, but it is his life after emancipation that is the story. Gilmore, like millions of other emancipated African Americans, suddenly found himself with choices about where to live and how to make a living. He leased the land and built the cabin in 1870, creating a self-reliant homestead of gardens, stockyard, and orchard. Like all subsistence farmers, white and black, Gilmore and each family member, participated in the cash economy through part-time employment, small enterprises (such as his wife’s work washing and mending clothes) and selling surplus farm goods. In 1910, he purchased 16 acres from Madison’s descendants. Gilmore’s descendants have assisted in archaeology and research at the farm.
Montpelier is undergoing extensive restoration, but the mansion house is open during the project. This is a rare opportunity to tour the site while under construction.
Jane Serepta Dean founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in 1894. Born a slave in Prince William County in 1852, Jennie Dean founded a school where young African-American men and women could learn a trade and gain economic independence. The school was a residential institution offering both academic and vocational instruction. Frederick Douglas spoke at the dedication ceremony in 1894. The memorial is four-acre park that contains a bronze model of the campus, interpretive markers and a kiosk describing Dean’s tireless efforts to raise money for the school. Historical markers outline the some of the original buildings. Highlights include the photographs of some of the students who attended the school between 1894 and 1966 and the audio program at the kiosk.
Moving north along the Journey to The Plains, we find the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County , located on Route 55 Perhaps better known for its genealogical resource center and educational programs, the organization also features a marvelous exhibit space on local, regional and national African American history. Following footprints painted onto the floor, you begin in Africa in the 1600s and finish in the 1960s at lunch counters and public rallies. Along the way are newspaper articles, paintings, photographs and artifacts that turns you from detached observer of history into a neighbor of local families who still reside in the area. I liken this museum to a small theater company, short on funding but not on a commitment to good story telling. It is a treasure. While you’re there pick up a driving tour to African American churches in Fauquier County.
Thanks to a cleverly crafted African American Heritage walking tour of Leesburg, anyone can enjoy a walk through this scenic Piedmont town and come away with an episodic understanding of civil rights in America. Like all walking tours, this one takes you to cemeteries, streetscapes, and buildings which are viewed nearly entirely from the exterior. The narrative is downright good story-telling.
Take the Loudoun County Courthouse. This is where famed Civil Rights lawyer Charles Houston, assisted by young litigator Thurgood Marshall, successfully made the case that separate but equal was far from equal. His appearance did not end segregated schools in Loudoun but did lead to the establishment and construction of an African American high school in Loudoun, enabling black children to leave dilapidated one-room schools that lacked running water or heat.
Another stop is the Tally-Ho Theater. Today it is still a charming in-town movie house with a popular coffee house attached. It’s on this tour to remind that only a generation ago, black people were restricted to the balcony. In 1965, a few black movie-goers decided to move downstairs. They were not challenged, and the segregationist practice evaporated.
And then there is the intersection of three streets at the top of a hill. Until the 1930s, these streets were closed on snowy days so that kids could sled. While all the children mingled at the intersection at the top of the hill, black and white kids sledded down different streets. Standing at the spot, you can’t help but recall W.E.B. Du Bois. In the Niagara Movement’s five demands for Civil Rights, among the criticisms of racism was that is was “silly.” The sledding hill says it all. (By the way, you can discover Du Bois on this tour, at Harpers Ferry.)
There also is a building named for John W. Tolbert, who in the 1970s became the first African American elected to the Leesburg town council. The building, which was relocated to its current address, had been owned by a prominent African American family. It was preserved through Tolbert’s leadership.
You don’t this walking tour to be wowed by architecture; you take it for the story, which you absorb in between stops for coffee or to peek at antiques, art, and other offerings along the way.
The tiny village of Waterford was an anomaly in Virginia. Settled by Northern Quakers, Waterford was founded on the principals of tolerance and equality. As the town grew, not all of the new landowners shared this worldview. So the town had both a large free black population, some of whom owned property and enslaved people. The Quaker commitment to education meant there were schools for black children—albeit separate ones—long before most Southern black children had schools. Actually, Waterford had them at a time when it was illegal to teach African Americans to read. It was known as a free town during the Civil War, a reputation that brought enmity from Confederate troops but did not spare it from the harassment of Northern troops.
The best time to take this tour is during the hugely popular annual Waterford Fair during the first weekend each October. Three stops along the tour are open to the public: the Second Street School, the John Wesley Church, and the Mill.
To understand the entire epoch from slavery through the establishment of the NAACP, there is nothing like a visit to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Through the life of one little town on the Potomac, you learn about industrial history beginning in the early 19th century, slavery and the Civil War, and the founding of the modern Civil Rights movement in the early 20th century.
There are six major exhibits at the park devoted to African American history. The best-known is John Brown’s raid of the federal armory in 1859. The John Brown museum includes artifacts, storyboards and video presentations charting the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement. There also is a section of the iron fence from the firehouse. It is massive, about seven feet tall. It’s not stowed behind ropes or barriers; it’s right there to touch, positioned in front of a mural of the firehouse where Brown’s men holed up. It’s a crafty touch. You grab onto that fence, you see the doomed would-be liberators on the other side, and you can’t help but be introspective. Upstairs is the Allies of Freedom exhibit about the five black men who participated in John Brown’s raid—four of whom died in battle or were later hanged.
Also in Harpers Ferry’s lower town are Black Voices and the Storer College Niagara Movement exhibits. Black Voices is an interactive display built on the stories of local Harpers Ferry residents in the days before emancipation. There are several exhibits, each depicting one person’s story. After reading a short storyboard introducing that person’s account, you pick up a telephone to hear a narrator relay the story in the first person. The exhibit unsettles you in a surprising way. Whether intentional or not, the experience is one of being on the phone, listening to a neighbor break your heart with a story about an injustice visited upon another neighbor.
Across the street is the Storer College Niagara Exhibit. Storer College operated from 1870 until 1955 in Harpers Ferry. One of its students would later become the first president of Nigeria. The great jazz arranger Don Redman, who also a leading developer of swing and the big band sound, attended Storer.
The college hosted the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the group’s second meeting, and its first meeting on American soil—their first meeting was hastily moved across the Niagara River into Canada the previous year because no hotel in the Buffalo would have the delegation. The meeting is considered by many as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights era. Its members would help launch the NAACP a few years later.
There are more exhibits on the 1906 Niagara meeting and Civil Rights at the Storer College Campus, now a National Park Service training facility. In the main building, the Mather Training Center is a remarkable photographic exhibit of the meeting and the people behind the movement.
If you want to walk in the footsteps of history, take the walk from the visitor center to the Murphy Farm. In 1906, the Niagara delegates walked from Storer College to John Brown’s Fort, which had been dismantled and moved to the farm by the Murphy family. It’s a two-mile round trip stroll, with the added bonus of a vista offering one of the finest views of the Shenandoah River.
An organization of African American men called the Sons of Good Will established the cemetery in 1867 for the burial of Gettysburg’s Civil War veterans, who were denied burial in the National Cemetery. Thirty Civil War veterans are buried here. In 1906, when housing development uprooted the town’s other black cemetery, the remains were transferred here and the cemetery renamed Lincoln Cemetery.
The Inn dates to the Revolutionary War era, but with its proximity to Gettysburg, the Civil War gets top billing here. The inn is said to have been a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Restaurant patrons are invited to view a hiding place discovered behind second-story walls that the innkeepers have preserved as an unadorned exhibit. Abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was known to dine there during his time as a Gettysburg lawyer. Ironically, at the same time the inn harbored fugitive slaves, it served vats of soup to Confederate troops who bivouacked nearby. While few people will drive to Fairfield just for this modest exhibit, the food and atmosphere are worthy of the diversion. Order lunch in Squire Miller’s Tavern or dinner in the Mansion House; explore the place while you await your meal.
Just a short walk from the battlefield visitor center in Gettysburg, Dobbin House is the oldest building in Gettysburg, built in the 1770s by Alexander Dobbin for his seminary. Those 18-inch stone walls and slanted floors give the place a lot of charm. Its involvement in African American history is as a station on the Underground Railroad. There is an exhibit room upstairs featuring artifacts uncovered during an archaeological dig covering more than two centuries of activity on the location. Just beyond, up a narrow staircase, is a nifty Underground Railroad display. Beyond a false bookshelf and behind the wall are three life-sized wax figures, two adults and a child. They are crouched into a space that allows just enough room to sit. The Dobbin House staff will direct you to the exhibit; lunch is served in the cozy tavern downstairs.
Farnsworth House is well-known for its food, tavern, overnight guest rooms, and entertaining ghost stories. It also has a bookstore specializing in Civil War and World War Two books, both new and out-of-print. The shop is included in this itinerary for its outstanding inventory of books on the African American experience through the Antebellum and Civil War eras.