Budget request for African-American history center stirs frustrations

The Rupert House in New Market is the potential site for an African-American history center, but the process is raising questions with African American groups in the Valley. (Photos by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

While several Shenandoah Valley groups want to raise the profile of African-American history in the region, a proposal for a new history center in New Market is causing friction over who gets make the decisions, tell those stories and even pick the site. 

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation has asked the Virginia General Assembly for a budget amendment that will give them the money they need to purchase a historic building in the town of New Market. 

The group’s plan is to turn it into a history center that will become the main focal point in a future trail of African-American history throughout the Valley. The trail will highlight the stories of African Americans lost and whitewashed over time.

Several local groups, including the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project in Harrisonburg and the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville are appealing to lawmakers in Richmond to postpone passing the budget amendment for a year.

They say that the Battlefields Foundation still highlights and celebrates Confederate history, and also argue that the building the group has proposed to buy is not as important to African-American history as others in the Valley are. These groups also point out that the Battlefields Foundation board doesn’t have any people of color. 

With the amendment expected to be taken up in committee this week, both groups have been calling state legislators and lobbying for their perspectives to be heard.

The Rupert House

The building in question is the Rupert House in New Market. It was home to a Scottish immigrant who taught African American children in her home before and after the Civil War. 

According to the New Market Historical Society, Mrs. Jessie Rupert was harassed and ostracized for decades for burning a rebel flag during the Civil War and teaching black children in her home. In the years after the Civil War, the KKK threatened Rupert after she hung an American flag outside her home on George Washington’s birthday. 

The budget amendment calls for $825,000 for two years for the Battlefields Foundation to the purchase and fully restore the structure. 

The Battlefields Foundation says the location is fitting for a history center because it once served as a school for black children, said Keven Walker, the association’s chief executive officer.  

“The structure was surrounded by vigilantes who were threatening the teacher and the students because this white teacher happened to be educating recently freed African Americans,”  Walker said.

Walker said he hopes creating the center will be the spark for an African American “history trail” where people can learn about the history and achievements of African Americans in the region. 

“We envision a trail that links historic sites that are associated with African American history from Winchester and Berryville all the way up the Valley — all the way to Staunton,” Walker said. 

Robin Lyttle, the African American Black Heritage Project’s president, said while her group and others are interested in an African American History Center, they disagree with the proposed location.

Lyttle said the proposed site is relevant to Reconstruction and underscores Northern sympathies inthe Shenandoah Valley, but it’s not appropriate for an African American History Center. Instead, she pointed to the Dallard-Newman House in Harrisonburg, Montgomery Home in Staunton, or other homes and buildings in the area that have African American roots. 

Lyttle is not alone. Dorothy Davis, a board member of the Josephine School Cultural Museum in Berryville, said the idea to purchase the Rupert House is “curious.” 

“We decided after conferring, that our mission does not fit with what the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield group is proposing,” Davis said. 

Disagreements arise in a January meeting

The sign marks the town’s historic district where the Rupert House is.

On Jan. 15, after the Battlefields Foundation requested the budget amendment, the group invited members of area African-American groups to its New Market offices for a meeting to work together.

Both Lyttle at the Black Heritage Project and Walker at the Battlefields Foundation confirmed the meeting did not go well. 

“At that meeting, when we were trying to not only let them know about what our vision is but also enlist their support and their input, the meeting broke down very quickly when they could not sway us from investing some of this budget amendment at New Market,” Walker said. 

“We went away with the feeling of frustration and were very saddened,” Lyttle said. “They weren’t willing to consider other sites, or that they had engaged any African Americans in the conversation prior to submitting this amendment.” 

Walker said the proposed budget amendment was the start of the project and that they hoped members of the African-American community would lead it. 

“Our Board of Trustees has established a subcommittee of our education and interpretation committee of our board that is going to be specifically to lead this project,” Walker said. “If we get these funds, we are going to be looking to members of the African American community to fill the seats of that committee, and to be the true planners and leaders of this project.” 

Lyttle said representation must matter moving forward if a more truthful presentation of African American history is to be taught.

“White Americans cannot write African-American history,” said Lyttle, who is white. “Certainly, we contribute, we can help, but this is their history. Their voices need to be a part of this conversation.” 

She said a young African-American woman asked her, “Well, isn’t it better than nothing?’”

“And I [said] no, no. History’s not told properly from the proper perspective,” Lyttle said. “We just can’t go backwards.” 

Walker said the process has always been to start with securing the funding, and then creating the committees to build the ideas. He says that the idea is still in its infancy, and they can’t move forward without proper funding.

“If the budget amendment goes through, we are going to put out another call to identify leaders in the black community to be involved with this thing,” Walker said.

But Davis said that’s too late. Without representation during this process, it increases the likelihood that the Battlefields Foundation won’t be able to create a fair and accurate portrayal of African-American life in the Valley, she said. 

 “I think we need to be included as a part of the foundation and beginning — not wait until we get the money. ‘We draw you in, and then we get the funding, and now trust us, we will take you on as board members,’” Davis said. “That’s not the way honest business is done.” 

Davis said the effort is an opportunity to “go forward together as equal partners.”

“We don’t want to be led blindly — and we won’t be, believe me — by someone who does not know the history of African Americans in the Shenandoah Valley,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation as the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Association.

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