Josephine Street grant bid progresses

Posted: January 24, 2014

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — Preserving the history of the African-American community of “Josephine City,” and recreating the vibrancy of that neighborhood following the Civil War, were the main goals of past and present residents and county and town officials at a meeting Thursday afternoon.

The gathering at the Josephine School Community Museum was called to discuss a vision for the street, now part of Berryville, in an effort to win a planning grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

The street grew up after the Civil War, from land that was once part of Clermont Farm. The farm is now the property of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

African-Americans, some former slaves, purchased lots and built homes and churches and shops. For many years, the street was known as Josephine City, sitting on the southeast edge of Berryville.

With no educational opportunities available to their children, the residents built their own school. That building, now a national historic landmark, is home to a museum of the history of African-Americans in Berryville and Clarke County.

During the meeting, resident Geneva Jackson recalled the many restaurants and stores that were part of the community when she was growing up, six decades ago.

But there were no jobs available in the area, she said, and the children moved away looking for employment.

“We didn’t teach our children our history,” said resident John Page. Without that history, they didn’t develop deep roots in the community, he said.

With a $10,000 planning grant, the community may be able to do something about making Josephine Street more attractive to a new generation.

Tyler Klein, senior planner with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission in Front Royal, said a $3,000 grant is making it possible to put together a proposal to the state agency to get the planning money.

Following an hour’s discussion, the group agreed that there are three areas of focus.

One issue is the housing stock on the street.

Many of the houses have historic interest, and are currently being cataloged by architectural historian Maral Kalbian as part of a plan to nominate the entire street to the Virginia and National landmarks registries.

However, there are a number of houses that are vacant and deteriorating.

Jackson said the house next to hers is “a pile of junk lumber.”

However, getting those lots cleaned up or restored is difficult, said attorney Michael Hobert, chairman of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors. The original owners have died without wills and the ownership of the lots is dispersed over many descendants, some of whom can’t be found.

There are legal means to get a clear title to sell the land and distribute the proceeds to the heirs, he said, but that, too, would cost money.

Town Councilman H. Allen Kitselman III said another avenue to pursue is the possibility of securing federal or state rehabilitation tax credits for the houses that could contribute to a future historic district.

Kenneth Liggins, president of the Josephine Improvement Association — a civic improvement organization that has a long history of improving the neighborhood — said he’d like to see markers put up on various lots outlining the history of the buildings that were there in the past. It would, he said, be a way to preserve the history and pass it on.

The second area of focus at Thursday’s meeting was the infrastructure of Josephine Street.

Jackson said there are still two or three houses on the street that are not connected to the town’s sanitary sewer system. Sidewalks, and street lighting are also concerns.

The third area of focus was vacant land.

Hobert noted that Clarke County still owns several acres, just west of the Johnson-Williams Community Apartments, which could be used for some public purpose.

Lynelle Wilkins, of Winchester, who still owns her mother’s home on Josephine Street, suggested building a structure to hold community meetings and functions “to bring families back. Everyone likes to be close to home,” she said.

That is especially true, Liggins said, for family reunions.

Such a building could be rented by residents and used in the winter as a place for children to gather.

Klein said there would be another “management team” meeting to consider all the suggestions and decide which to include in a report to the state.

If the state agrees that the community’s vision is doable, the neighborhood could apply for the $10,000 planning grant.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com