BERRYVILLE — A historical marker recognizing an anti-slavery activist is to be erected in Clarke County near where he lived for a few years.
The Virginia Board of Historic Resources recently approved the marker in recognition of John Curtiss Underwood. The marker is to be installed along John Mosby Highway (U.S. 50) near Mt. Carmel Road.
“John C. Underwood, an attorney from New York, settled near here early in the 1850s,” the marker’s approved text reads. “Harassed for his antislavery activism and his work on behalf of the Republican Party, he left Virginia in 1856. Pres. Abraham Lincoln appointed him a federal judge for Virginia’s eastern district in 1863. An outspoken advocate of equal rights for African Americans after the Civil War, Underwood was elected president of Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1867–68. Among the convention’s 105 members were 24 African Americans. The ‘Underwood Constitution,’ ratified in 1869, granted Black men the right to vote, established a system of free public schools, and secured other democratic reforms.”
Born in 1809, Underwood gained a reputation as an outspoken radical who frequently was contemptuous of his critics, according to the website Encyclopedia Virginia.
Underwood’s judicial actions, including efforts to confiscate Confederate estates to try and eradicate slavery, often appeared to have been politically motivated, the website states. It recalls that after the war, Underwood presided over the grand jury that indicted former Confederate president Jefferson Davis for treason.
According to the website “Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation,” the Underwood Constitution basically redesigned local government in Virginia to include practices used by townships in New England believed to be more democratic. For example, the General Assembly was required to establish a statewide system of free public schools for all children. The governor was granted the right to veto bills passed by legislators. And, voting rights were granted to every male ages 21 and older — regardless of race — except for some Confederacy supporters.
Underwood remained a judge until he died in 1873. However, harassment prompted him to leave his Clarke County residence in 1856. Turner Ashby, a cavalry commander known as the “Black Knight of the Confederacy,” led a vigilante mob against the judge, historical records show.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) is sponsoring the marker. It develops historical markers not to specifically honor their subjects, but rather to educate the public about people, places or events of regional, state or national importance. Therefore, the markers aren’t considered to be memorials, the department emphasized in a news release.
Jennifer Loux, the DHR’s highway marker program manager, said Underwood was chosen for recognition because, despite playing an important role in the antislavery movement, he’s “not widely remembered in Virginia today.”
While there are many Civil War markers throughout Virginia, Loux said “we are lacking in markers about Reconstruction (era history) and wanted to fill in that gap.”
Clarke County historian Maral Kalbian explained that Underwood’s story is “really unique” and “a lot of people in the county don’t know about it.”
Asked why, Kalbian speculated it’s because “he was here for a relatively short period of time, and he lived up on the mountain” along the Clarke/Loudoun County line. Little history of the mountain so far has been uncovered, she said.
The house near Mt. Carmel Road in which Underwood lived no longer stands, she added.
Kalbian and Nathan Stalvey, executive director of the Clarke County Historical Association, both said they were pleased to find out the marker is to be installed.
“The more that enables us to tell a more complete story of the history of this county, the better,” Stalvey said.
The marker’s installation date is undecided, but Loux estimated that it will be at least 5-6 months.
First, she said, a Virginia Department of Transportation traffic engineer must determine the intended site is suitable. Then the DHR must order the marker from Sewah Studios, a foundry in Ohio. The department will cover the $1,770 cost.
A dedication event currently isn’t planned, as Loux said the DHR doesn’t organize such events. But if a local organization wants to organize one, it and the department can coordinate a date and time, she said.
During an upcoming meeting, the Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission will discuss whether to organize a ceremony, Kalbian said.
Virginia’s highway marker program is the oldest in the nation, the first marker having been installed in 1927. Today, more than 2,600 markers are installed statewide.