Special status sought for Josephine Street
Posted: October 25, 2012
The Winchester Star
BERRYVILLE — Josephine Street has been Dee Dee Liggins’ home for most of her 58 years.
The community, a creation of free blacks after the Civil War, has a lot of history — and Liggins wants to see that history acknowledged.
That’s why she’s helping local architectural historian Maral Kalbian document the buildings on the nearly mile-long street for possible nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
“It is really unique,” Kalbian said Tuesday, as she and Liggins sat in the Josephine School Community Museum and discussed their plans to walk the neighborhood Saturday to document its buildings.
The street that was once known as Josephine City must meet a number of criteria to be included on the state and national registers, said Kalbian, who lives in Clarke County.
The area must be deemed to have historic significance, she said — though not every historic site reaches the necessary level of national importance.
It must be connected to a famous person, or an important time. But there must also be a special, architecturally significant building or group of buildings that still portrays the period.
Clarke County began looking at the area seven years ago, Kalbian said, for inclusion on the state and national registers.
There were discussions of adding the street to the Berryville Historic District, and also to the proposed Chapel Rural Historic District — which runs around the outside of Josephine Street. But Kalbian said the street’s history as a community of freed slaves who purchased house lots in 1870, and their struggle to build a community centered around two churches and their own school, make it “worthy of listing on its own.”
“It is such a story,” she said, “I think we can make the case. You could write a book about this community.”
Dee Dee Liggins agrees. Her mother’s and grandmother’s generations, though poor, believed in educating children for a better tomorrow and they worked to achieve that.
Within a decade of starting their community, the residents built their own grade school to provide education for black children.
Then, in the early 1900s, when black students had to travel to Washington, D.C., to attend high school, Josephine City came together to build the Clarke County Training School, to provide higher education. Later it was the Johnson-Williams Intermediate School.
“It didn’t stop there,” Liggins said. The residents set up their own organization to get street lights and push for municipal water for their street.
“That’s our history,” she said. “We were self-reliant. It showed we were independent.”
This year, the county, as a certified local government, won an $11,000 grant to take the first step and collect the information necessary to determine whether the Virginia Department of Historic Resources feels the community can qualify for the state register — which is required to be on the national register.
Berryville is not eligible for these grants, Kalbian said, but the town is supporting the effort with a $1,500 contribution to the project.
Liggins has been invaluable, Kalbian said, as an “ambassador” to the community, to explain the significance of the registry nomination and stress that it carries no strings.
“It doesn’t put any limits on the property owner,” Kalbian noted.
“Nothing is going to change.”
Inclusion on the state and national registers is an honor, but there are other benefits — such as the possibility of receiving tax credits for certain types of renovation projects within the district.
Both Liggins and Kalbian hope the multi-year process will bring out more information on the community’s history.
Liggins has already been documenting that story. She’s done a history of Zion Baptist Church, on Josephine Street, as well as several other projects involving those buried in Milton Valley Cemetery, another part of the community.
“I want to see that history recognized,” she said. “Part of it, I lived.”
Liggins can remember pumping water from a well as a child, and her job to sweep the yard in front of her house to keep it neat.
“There were almost a hundred kids on this street when I grew up,” and some got in trouble for climbing the local water tower, she recalls.
“We didn’t have much, but we had a lot of fun.”
If the Historic Resources Department declares Josephine Street eligible for the state and national registries, Kalbian said, the county will seek additional grant funds to write the nomination. That will involve collecting as much history as she can find about the community’s existence between 1870 and the end of segregation in the 1960s.
She plans to collaborate with African-American historians from the area, she said, and hopes residents will come forward with old pictures, or copies of The People’s Journal, a newspaper printed for the residents of Josephine City in the early 1900s.
In the segregated south of that time, the local newspaper rarely printed any news of the black community.
And, Kalbian added, “does anyone know anything about Josephine Williams,” for whom the street apparently was named?
“We want to make some new connections, and answer some questions about the genesis of this community.”
— Contact Val Van Meter at email@example.com