Black History

Governor Northam Announces Five New State Historical Highway Markers Addressing Black History in Virginia

Students suggested new markers through second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam announced five new state historical highway markers that address topics of national, state, and regional significance to African American history in the Commonwealth. These markers were submitted by Virginia students through the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest. The Governor was joined by First Lady Pamela Northam and members of his Cabinet for a virtual event yesterday recognizing the students and educators with this year’s winning submissions.

“The contributions of influential African Americans have frequently been ignored, underrepresented, and even silenced,” said Governor Northam. “With this initiative, we have asked students and teachers to help us tell a more accurate, comprehensive, and inclusive Virginia story by suggesting new historical markers that recognize Black Virginians and the important ways they have shaped our shared history. I am grateful to all those who have joined in our efforts to build a strong and equitable Commonwealth.”

The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest invites students, teachers, and families to learn more about African Americans who have made important contributions to Virginia history and submit ideas for new historical markers to the Department of Historical Resources. This year, 100 submissions were received and five were selected for installation.

“It was important for us to provide a unique opportunity for our students to get involved with their education by allowing them to think more deeply about Virginia history,” said Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia’s Chief Diversity Officer. “This contest elevated the need to integrate Black history into the history taught in our classrooms because Black history is American history. As we launch the ONE Virginia plan, we are providing schools with resources that will guide conversation and promote equity by telling a fuller and more complete version of Virginia’s history.”

The student winners and the names and text of five new markers are as follows:

  • “Dangerfield and Harriet Newby” (Culpeper County), nominated by Sofia Rodriguez, Michael Burgess, and Valia Anderson from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia.

    Dangerfield Newby, who was born enslaved in Virginia and later lived free in Ohio, was killed in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry as he fought to free his wife, Harriet, and their children from slavery.

  • “Mary Richards Bowser (Richmond City), nominated by Larissa Chambers, Sonia Alam, Hailey Solar, and Allison McKenzie from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia.

    Bowser, born enslaved, became a missionary to Liberia, a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the Civil War, and a teacher at freedmen’s schools.

  • “John Lyman Whitehead Jr.” (Brunswick County), nominated by Jashanti Valentine from Brunswick High School in Lawrenceville, Virginia.

    Born near Lawrenceville, Whitehead served in World War II as a Tuskegee Airman and is credited with being the Air Force’s first African American test pilot and the first African American jet pilot instructor.

  • “Edwin Bancroft Henderson” (Falls Church), nominated by Sullivan Massaro from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia.

    Henderson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame known as the “Father of Black Basketball,” organized athletic leagues for African Americans, wrote The Negro in Sports (1939), organized the first rural chapter of the NAACP, and was president of the NAACP Virginia state conference as he worked for civil rights.

  • “Samuel P. Bolling” (Cumberland County), nominated by Ashley Alvarez, Allecia Mitchell, Anna Parker, Alex Hernandez, Christopher McCoy, Adalie Ruehrmund, and Harley Thurston from Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland, Virginia.

    Born into slavery in 1819, Bolling later became a successful entrepreneur and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a member of the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that accomplished significant reforms in the 1880s.
     

“The Historical Marker Contest helped me learn more about Black Virginians who have made a difference, like Dr. Edwin Henderson,”said Sullivan Massaro, a 4th grader in Fairfax County Public Schools. “Dr. Henderson introduced the sport of basketball to Black athletes in Washington, D.C. and is a big part of why basketball is so popular today. As I researched him I learned how much he did not only for the sport of basketball, but for civil rights in Virginia. I couldn’t believe that he did not already have a historical marker, so I chose to nominate him for the contest.”

Governor Northam was joined by First Lady Northam, Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler, and Chief Diversity Officer Janice Underwood to celebrate the students and educators who participated in the contest. The grandson of Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson, selected as one of the markers for installation, provided remarks at the event, and reflected on his journey to educate others on his grandfather’s legacy.

“On behalf of the Henderson Family, I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Sullivan and his teacher Ms. Maura Keaney for the recognition of Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson’s accomplishments in Virginia by placing a historic marker in front of his home in the City of Falls Church,” said Edwin Henderson II. “This contest is part of an important effort to intertwine African American history into all school curriculum, and ensure that Virginia’s diverse history is represented honestly in classrooms across the Commonwealth.”

Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. Route 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. This 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. The Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Department of Transportation co-manage the program.

“Virginia’s historical markers tell our history in a tangible way, and these students have worked hard to ensure that these markers are inclusive, diverse, and tell the full Virginia story,” said Secretary Strickler. “I am grateful to the Department of Historic Resources for their determination to highlight untold stories, and to all the students and educators who have helped make this vision a reality.”

Virginia has erected more than 2,600 markers along Virginia’s roadways, but only 350 markers highlighted African Americans as of January 2020. Since then, 42 state historical highway markers about African American history have been approved. Ten of these new markers were suggested by students during the Governor’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest in 2020, and the five new markers are expected to be approved by the Board of Historic Resources for approval at its upcoming meeting on June 17.

“The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest allows students to participate in place-based, experiential learning,” said Secretary Qarni. “As students research local history and discover newfound heroes, they gain a deeper understanding of their ability to impact the world.”

A recording of the 2021 Black History Month Historical Marker Contest virtual celebration is available here.

Governor Northam Announces 20 New State Historical Highway Markers Highlighting Black History

Markers include student winners from Governor’s Black History Month Historical Marker Contest

RICHMOND––In recognition of Juneteenth, Governor Ralph Northam today announced 20 newly approved state historical highway markers that address topics of national, state, and regional significance in Virginia’s African American history. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved the markers at its public quarterly meeting on June 18. Five of the 20 new markers were suggested by students across the Commonwealth in the Governor’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest.

“The Commonwealth’s storied past is complicated and painful, but it is important to step up and tell a more inclusive story.” said Governor Northam. “As we elevate Juneteenth, celebrating and acknowledging the contributions of our Black communities and history is a critical and imperative step forward––especially through historical markers that are highly visible across Virginia.”

On Tuesday, Governor Northam announced Juneteenth as a paid state holiday and proclaimed the day in observance across the Commonwealth.

“We have overlooked or dismissed the important contributions of Black Virginians for far too long when telling Virginia’s history,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “That’s why Governor Northam proclaimed Juneteenth a state holiday, and why the Department of Historic Resources remains committed to the preserving and proclaiming Black history. These markers are important and highly visible symbols of our efforts to ensure historic justice and address inequities across the Commonwealth.”

The forthcoming markers highlight people, places, or events tied to African American civil rights, education, health, or Civil War and Reconstruction-era history.

“The purpose of the highway marker program is to educate the public by presenting an objective and truthful version of history,” said Director of the Department of Historic Resources Julie Langan. “It is past time for Virginians to more fully understand and appreciate the experiences and many contributions of African Americans who shaped the Virginia of today. Yesterday’s actions by the Board of Historic Resources couldn’t be more timely or fitting.”

The markers about matters of national consequence include:

  • “Stingray Point Contraband” (Middlesex County) tells of six enslaved men who fled potential impressment into the Confederate army during the Civil War.
  • “Barbara Rose Johns (1935-1991)” (Prince Edward County) notes that at age 16, Johns led a student walkout to protest conditions at Farmville’s segregated and “vastly inferior” Robert Russa Moton High School. The resulting NAACP lawsuit seeking to end segregation, Davis v. Prince Edward, was the only student-initiated case consolidated into U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional.
  • “Calvin Coolidge Green (1931-2011)” highlights Green’s leadership in integrating New Kent County. His efforts resulted in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Green v. New Kent Co., which determined that localities must swiftly integrate public schools and hastened school desegregation nationwide.
  • “Wyatt Tee Walker (1928-2018)” recalls that this Petersburg pastor served as chief of staff for several years to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The first full-time director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker helped organize major civil rights protests including the Birmingham (Alabama) Movement and the March on Washington.

The Barbara Johns and Wyatt Tee Walker markers resulted from the Black History Month Historical Marker Contest that Governor Northam announced in February. The contest encouraged schools to feature a different African American historical marker each day of February, provided teachers with resources to guide history discussions, promoted Black History Month events around the Commonwealth, and initiated a competition for students to submit ideas for new historical markers to the Virginia Department of Historical Resources. Over 285 students submitted ideas, including more than 60 students who suggested a marker be erected for Barbara Johns.

"As the leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of Black history in the Commonwealth over the past 400 years," said Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni. "The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest gave students and educators alike an opportunity to research local heroes, and celebrate the incredible contributions Black and brown individuals have made to Virginia history. I am so proud of the educators and students who are helping us tell a more complete Virginia story through their participation in this contest."

Three other markers submitted by students were approved:

  • “Camilla Ella Williams (1919-2012)” spotlights this Danville native, an operatic soprano, who became the first African American woman to secure a contract with a major opera company in the United States. An international touring soloist, she performed in Danville to raise funds for civil rights demonstrators, and sang the national anthem at the March on Washington before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • “Ona Judge (ca. 1773-1848)” (Fairfax County) recalls this woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon. After George Washington became president, Judge escaped during one of Washington’s many extended residences in Philadelphia to perform his presidential duties. She successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to recover her and ultimately married and raised a family in New Hampshire.
  • “Sergeant William H. Carney (1840-1908)” born into slavery in Norfolk, later gained his freedom and settled in Massachusetts around 1856. In 1863, he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and fought at Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. In May 1900, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions while experiencing heavy fire and serious wounds during the battle, which the 54th led.

In addition to the Johns and Green markers, three others center on advances in education for African Americans, focusing on specific schools. The “Campbell County Training School” and “Prospect School” (Scott County) were built with plans and funds provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, one of the most successful programs to support universal schooling for Black students during the Jim Crow era. Long before the Rosenwald initiative, one of the first African American schools in Shenandoah County opened in Strasburg by 1875. After a fire destroyed the school in 1929, the county built a new one, “Sunset Hill School.”

Two markers relay stories about African Americans in the pre-Civil War era. “The African Preacher (ca. 1746-1843)” recalls the African-born John Stewart, who ended up enslaved in Nottoway County. After becoming a licensed Baptist preacher, known for his “wisdom and oratory” and community leadership, Stewart so impressed his white neighbors that they contributed to purchasing his freedom. “Spy Hill African American Cemetery” discusses a burial ground in King George County that emerged by the mid-1800s with the graves of enslaved plantation laborers.

Post-Civil War, Reconstruction history grounds five markers. Two of those signs—“Little Zion Baptist Church” (Orange County) and “Westwood Baptist Church” (City of Richmond)—speak to the statewide trend during Reconstruction of African Americans exercising newfound autonomy to establish churches separate from white congregations. 

Three markers recount places that arose during Reconstruction. One sign for the City of Richmond, “Central Lunatic Asylum,” and one for Dinwiddie County, “Central State Hospital Cemetery,” discuss the origins and burial ground of Central State Hospital, the nation’s first stand-alone mental hospital for Black patients. The settlement of emancipated African Americans in the northern Shenandoah Valley’s Clarke County is the subject of “Bristow,” a community that originated in 1869, one of about 20 county villages emancipated people established or settled in.   

The only documented lynching of a black woman in Virginia, where more than 100 lynchings were recorded between 1877 and 1950, is relayed in the marker “Charlotte Harris Lynched, 6 March 1878” (Harrisonburg).

Twentieth-century history is the domain of two markers. “Burrell Memorial Hospital” tells about the founding in 1915 of the Roanoke area’s first hospital for Black patients. “John Chilembwe (ca. 1871-1915)” is about the leader of the first major African uprising against colonial authorities in present-day Malawi. A British Official Commission later asserted that a main cause of the revolt resulted from Chilembwe’s education in the United States, at Lynchburg’s Virginia Seminary.

The full text of the markers is available here.

“This is another win for the Commonwealth,” said Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Dr. Janice Underwood. “To move Virginia forward, it is vital that we prioritize telling a more complete narrative of our story. The extraordinary individuals represented in these markers are Black lives that mattered. In real time, we are building a road map for the country as millions across the nation reflect about Black oppression and the systemic reforms necessary for healing, reconciliation, and racial equity.”

Virginia’s historical highway marker program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently there are more than 2,600 official state markers, most of which are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), except in those localities outside of VDOT’s authority.

More information about theo Department of Historic Resources' Historical Highway Marker Program is available here.

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