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The rich and vibrant story of Virginia cannot be told fully without knowledge of the African- American experience. The lives of both ordinary men and women – in both slavery and in freedom – and the lives of such notables as Maggie Walker, Booker T. Washington, John Mercer Langston, Anne Spencer, Robert R. Moton, Vernon and Barbara Johns and others are an important part of the fabric of Virginia history.
All across Virginia are sites and sights that celebrate these people and the events of their lives. In the capital city of Richmond alone are at least a dozen places to stand amid the glories of the past. Richmond sites include the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the John Marshall House.
The Maggie Walker home has been restored to its 1930s appearance, and honors the first woman in the United States to charter and serve as president of a bank.
The John Marshall House, built in 1790, was the home, for 45 years, of the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice who sought to end slavery.
Virginia State University, chartered in 1882 as the nation's first state-supported college for African Americans, is today home to more than 5,000 students. And Virginia Union University, founded in 1865, is among the nation's oldest historically black universities. It is located in the Historic Jackson Ward, a 40-block neighborhood known, from the '20s through the '60s, as the "Harlem of the South."
The Hampton Roads area is similarly rich in African American heritage sites, highlighted perhaps by the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, an African American entertainment and performance center that re-opened in 2004 with all the charm and character that earned it the name "The Apollo of the South."
Hampton University's Emancipation Oak was the site of the first Southern reading of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, an act which accelerated the demand for African-American education. Mary Peake, daughter of a freed woman, conducted the first lessons taught under the oak..The region is also home to a variety of churches and events with strong ties to the African American community and experience.
There are many more names that are part of the glory of Virginia's past. Booker T. Washington, born into slavery on a tobacco farm in 1856, became one of the nation's leading educators and writers. The Booker T. Washington National Monument is in Franklin County along Rte. 40.
At Colonial National Historical Park near Jamestown and Yorktown, visit the site of the arrival of the first Africans, in 1619, in what would become the United States. Yorktown was an important port of entry for enslaved Africans bound for Williamsburg. And during the 1781 seige of Yorktown, African Americans were a part of both sides, building fortifications for the British and serving under arms in General George Washington's army.
Petersburg, south of Richmond, is home to Petersburg National Battlefield, which commemorates not only the longest seige in American history, but also the city that was considered to have the largest number of free African Americans when the Civil War began. And during the war, the greatest concentration of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) was at Petersburg. That force ranged between 9,000 and 16,000 men. In the Petersburg Campaign, USCTs partipated in six major engagements and earned 15 of the 16 total Medals of Honor awarded to African Americans during the Civil War.
Northern Virginia is home to a treasure trove of African American sites. After the Civil War, Oatlands, in Leesburg, became a refuge for relatives, friends and emancipated slaves left homeless. The Loudoun Museum's exhibits include displays on the Liberian Movement, the Underground Railroad and John W. Jones.
In Alexandria, stop at the Ramsay House Visitors Center to pick up a copy "A Remarkable and Courageous Journey: A Guide to Alexandria's African American History." Next, visit the Alexandria African American Heritage Park, dedicated to Alexandria's African Americans and their contribution to the growth of the city.
Visit the nearby Bruin "Negro" Jail, one of the most prominent slave dealers of the early 19th century.
These are but a few of the rich and varied sites all across Virginia. For a directory of many more, and for listings of African American festivals, go to www.virginia.org and click on the African American button under the History & Heritage header.
See African American Itineraries here.
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