WINCHESTER — A proposal to create the Shenandoah Valley African American History Center in New Market has come under fire over concerns that it doesn't have input from African Americans.
The New Market-based Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation is seeking $1.65 million in state funds to establish the center and to make improvements at the New Market Battlefield. Twenty-ninth District Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, who represents the 24th District, have patroned a budget amendment for the funds. Under the proposal, $825,000 would be provided to the foundation in fiscal year 2021 and another $825,000 in FY22.
The center would focus on the region’s black history. It would be located in a historic schoolhouse across from the foundation’s headquarters. According to the New Market Historical Society, abolitionist Jessie Rupert built the schoolhouse in 1867 with assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau and the American Missionary Society. Black and white students were taught there. Rupert was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for flying an American flag at the school, but she threatened to shoot the klansmen with a pistol she kept in her shirt pocket.
On Jan. 15, shortly after the foundation requested the funds, members of various African American organizations were invited to the foundation's headquarters to discuss the project. According to people who were at the meeting, the foundation was criticized for moving forward with the project without getting input from African Americans.
Robin Lyttle, president of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project in Harrisonburg, was at the Jan. 15 meeting. She told The Star on Monday that while she likes the idea of an African American history center, she objects to the location. She said the schoolhouse tells a “powerful story,” but it speaks more to the Reconstruction era than African American heritage. She thinks other sites, including Harrisonburg's Dallard-Newman House, which was built by freed slaves in 1875, would be more appropriate.
Lyttle noted that the foundation has an all-white board and has done very little to highlight African American history. She said she wants the foundation to postpone the project until it gets feedback from the African American community.
“Because if it goes forward without African American input it’s just not right,” Lyttle said. “And white men can’t tell African American history anymore. That’s the way it’s always been and it’s got to stop. And our governor wanted equity and this is not equity.”
Although she was not at the Jan. 15 meeting, Dorothy Davis, a board member of the Josephine School Community Museum and Clarke County African-American Cultural Center in Berryville, also has objections about the project. She said that up until very recently the foundation seemed disinterested in African American history. She also dislikes that the foundation erected a new Confederate monument in September at the Third Winchester Battlefield in Frederick County at a time when some communities are taking down Confederate monuments or considering taking them down because they are a reminder of the nation's slave-holding past.
"The idea that they have suddenly decided to establish and support an African American history center without even having contact with African American groups ...in the [Shenandoah] Valley. It’s puzzling," Davis said.
Keven Walker, chief executive officer of the foundation, which manages the eight-county Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, disputes the notion that the group is a Confederate or "Lost Cause" organization. He said the foundation believes that monuments help tell the stories of soldiers and civilians. And while the foundation does have an all-white board, he said it has had African American members in the past.
"We pride ourselves in being a colorblind organization,” Walker said. “And so the people who are on our board and on our staff have been selected not on the basis of the color of their skin, but on what they bring to promoting the heritage and culture of the Shenandoah Valley."
On Monday, Walker met with several local NAACP members and Kristen Laise, executive director of Belle Grove Plantation near Middletown, to try to garner support for the project. The meeting was held at the foundation's visitors center at the Third Winchester Battlefield Park. Davis was there briefly.
“I don’t think we did a good enough job early in our history about talking about any of the social history,” Walker conceded during the meeting. “Not just African American history, but any of the social history. What were women’s roles in all of this? How did the women’s suffrage movement grow out of the strength. We haven’t been telling any of those stories. But that’s not just us. The public history of the United States has been an evolving history ... and we are a part of that.”
James R. Coates Jr., the local NAACP's legal redress chairman, told Walker that part of the opposition to the project may have something to do with public perception of the foundation. Coates said it seems like the foundation’s public relations outreach is stronger with those who want to erect Confederate monuments than it is with those who would prefer to see Union monuments or no Civil War monuments at all.
Some people at the meeting said foundation events seem to draw enthusiastic support from organizations such as the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Walker said it has always been the foundation's intent to have the black community heavily involved in the development of the African American history center. But right now all the group has is a concept.
He also believes the New Market schoolhouse is an appropriate location to tell African American history. “The KKK surrounded that building and threatened those black children and that white teacher and she had to carry a gun under her skirt to protect those children,” Walker said. “Now tell me that’s not a black enough site."
He added that the foundation rushed to pursue state funds because it had a limited amount of time to do so.
“We had a window,” Walker said. “And we have, for the first time in a long time, a General Assembly made up of Democrats." He said Democrats are traditionally more willing to spend money on projects in general. "So all of these things align for a moment. Do we just not take that moment?”
Coates told Walker it would be “asinine not to do it just because you have opposition.”
“You are going to have opposition regardless of what you do or regardless of what you say,” Coates said.
After the meeting, Coates said he was "thoroughly pleased" with what he heard. “[Walker] caused me to think quite a bit. And I am nowhere near as negative about the project as I was coming in from what I had been hearing from other sources. I see a lot of room for collaboration. I see no reason why this thing couldn’t go forward. Does it need tweaking? Absolutely.”
Coates said the local NAACP hasn't taken an official position on the project. It won't be able to consider the matter until its next meeting in March.
However, some of the group's members individually have expressed support. Local NAACP Education Chairman Tyson Gilpin sent a letter of support for the project to Virginia lawmakers, saying “attention to African-American culture in the Shenandoah Valley is long overdue.”
Professor Jonathan Noyalas, director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute, also sent a letter of support. “Support of this budget amendment will provide resources necessary to show not only the difficulties African Americans confronted during the Civil War era in the Valley, but to challenge the Lost Cause narrative which has permeated the Valley for far too long,” he wrote.
The Lost Cause is an ideology that the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War was just and heroic.
The Northeast Neighborhood Association, an African American-founded nonprofit group in Harrisonburg, has also expressed support for the center.
But funding may elude the project, as it has not been included in the House or Senate budget proposals. According to Collins, the House and Senate Conference Committee could add the project, but that would be extremely unlikely.
Even if it doesn't receive the funds, the foundation will still pursue the project, but raising the money will be difficult, Walker said.