African American groups in Valley successfully lobby legislature to postpone decision on history center

By Bridget Manley, publisher

A state budget amendment to pay for a proposed African American History Center in New Market failed to make it into the House or Senate versions of the budget after several area African American groups successfully lobbied against the measure. 

“The bill died,” confirmed Virginia Department of Historic Resources spokesman Randall Jones.

The budget amendment, which would have given the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation the funding to purchase a historic home on Main Street caused frustration among African American groups in the Valley. 

Many representatives said the proposed location for the history center was not as important to African American history as other sites in the Valley.

The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project in Harrisonburg, the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville and other local groups appealed to lawmakers in Richmond, asking that the funding request be postponed for one year so that they could scout other locations.

Robin Lyttle, president of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, said the New Market building, where a white woman educated black children in her home during Reconstruction after the Civil War, was historical but not appropriate for a history center. 

She said legislators heard their concerns and acted appropriately. 

“I think we made our points intelligently, and I think that played to our favor,” Lyttle said of her group’s first major attempt at lobbying in the General Assembly. “

She said it also helped that asking to postpone it by one year wasn’t an unreasonable request. 

In January, the Battlefields Foundation invited African American groups to its New Market offices for a meeting to work together, but both groups — the Black Heritage Project and the Battlefields Foundation — confirmed the meeting did not go well. 

The Battlefields Foundation’s plan was to turn the building into the main focal point in a trail of African American history throughout the Valley. The trail would highlight the stories of African Americans who were lost or whitewashed by history.

Representatives with the Battlefields Foundation did not respond to a request for comment about the proposal’s fate.

Lyttle said she believes local African American groups and churches could piece together their own trail or work with the Foundation moving forward on a more inclusive plan. 

“We aren’t going to actively participate, because we are not a historic site,” Lyttle said. “Since we were invited to the meeting on the 15th, we felt it necessary to point out the flaws in this year’s proposed budget amendment, and now there will be time for groups like Josephine’s Museum, Long’s Chapel, the Dallard-Newman HouseMontgomery Hall, [local] NAACP’s — I can think of any number of groups.”

Lyttle said she received support from a variety of sources, including the Black Heritage Project’s board, friends of the group,and other organizations in Harrisonburg that offered advice and expertise. 

“It was a grassroots network, really,” Lyttle said. “We met with folks from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society to get their feedback [and] we met with JMU professors who are also part of the historical society and got their suggestions, which were very valuable. It just sort of spread.” 

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