By Bridget Manley, publisher
A historical marker will go up in front of the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center later this year as one of 16 new historical markers approved for 2021 — signs meant to show more about Virginia’s history than battlefields and presidential birthplaces.
The Lucy F. Simms School is already listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and on the National Register of Historic Places, but the historical marker, which the the Virginia Department of Historical Resources approved, will help recognize the school’s significance to Virginia history.
Stephanie Howard, the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center supervisor, said she was elated when she heard the application for the marker was approved.
“It was a reaction of excitement and joy because it was a long time coming and a long time overdue,” Howard said. “All of us on the board, as well as all of us in parks and recreation, we were all excited.”
The Lucy F. Simms School was named in honor of pioneering African American educator, Lucy F. Simms, and served African/American students in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County between 1938-1965.
“The marker is very important,” Howard said. “It’s history — it’s our history. It’s very important that people know their history. Lucy Simms, in regards to education, was very important to the community and very important to the Black community.”
Harrisonburg and surrounding area of Rockingham County boast 34 historical markers that tell about the origins of Harrisonburg, the birthplace of Edgar Amos Love, the importance of Newtown Cemetery and founding of James Madison University, among others.
The Simms School historical marker is part of a wider initiative in the last few decades to diversify a program that, since its inception in the 1920s, told mostly war and battle history.
The nation’s oldest program
Virginia started the nation’s first marker program in 1927, with a few markers erected between Richmond and Mount Vernon on U.S. Route 1. The program was designed to encourage tourism during the early age of automobiles. People could learn more about Virginia history, while spending money in the towns they drove through. After Virginia’s program began, other states noticed and began their own programs.
Virginia’s program initially focused on historical sites important to the American Revolution, the Civil War, frontier history and westward movement.
“It was definitely oriented towards the ‘great white man’ style of history that was very popular back then,” said Jennifer Loux, the highway marker program manager for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Randall Jones, the department’s public information officer, said some of the earliest markers were limited in information, often missing context and sometimes leaving the reader with more questions than answers.
One example of those was erected along the southbound late of Route 11 past Mount Crawford, he said.
“There’s a sign that says, ‘Sheridan’s Last Turn,’” Jones said. “It’s a one sentence sign that says, ‘Here Sheridan Turned.’”
Of the first 700 markers, Loux said only three focused on African American history, and almost none focused on women or Native American history.
That began to change, however, after Virginia stopped paying for markers for the program in 1976 and required organizations that applied for a marker to pay the cost of it.
“The state actually selected marker topics and funded the manufacture of the signs up until the late 1970s,” Loux said. “The program moved to an application system, where anyone in the public can apply for a marker. That opened it up to a broader group of people suggesting topics.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the program received a federal grant intended to help further diversify it, which opened it up to more applicants and allowed for a wider look at all history.
“At that point, there was a real concerted effort made at getting new markers made about African American history, women and Native Americans,” Loux said.
Jones said the program has reflected a broader swath of Virginia’s history. For instance, he pointed to the marker that went up last November in Broadway dedicated to Trissels Mennonite Church, the oldest continuous Mennonite church in the nation.
There are now more than 2,500 markers across the Commonwealth.
Historical, not honorific
The Department of Historical Resources has had to make it clear the markers are educational — not honorific or celebratory.
In the last year in particular, as Virginians have reckoned with the history and intent behind statues of the “Lost Cause” narrative, some historical markers have also come under fire.
In September, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to remove the historical marker for the first confederate soldier killed in the Civil War. Loux said the board didn’t have the authority to do so.
It raised larger issues about what is honorific and what is intended for education, and Loux said the program is intended for educational purposes only.
“Our purpose in erecting them is educational, to educate the public about significant historical places or events,” Loux said. “Our markers are not intended to be honorific or celebratory. They are not a pat on the back. We are not applauding the subjects of these markers. We are just talking about facts that happened in history.”
Loux said the department strives not to editorialize but to present the historical information in a neutral tone.
“These markers are not in the same category as memorials or statues,” Loux said.
Jones said providing historical context is essential.
“It’s to provide educational information about the history — where it happened, who was involved — to provide enough context so people understand,” he said.
The journey to a marker
Each application for a marker goes through rigorous process for approval, Loux said.
The basic criteria are that the topic has to be at least a regional level of significance — not of hyperlocal importance to a city or town — and the event has to have happened more than 50 years before the application.
“The markers are intended to be out on the roadside for decades,” Loux said. “In fact, we do still have a few out there that were put up in the 1920s.”
Each applicant must propose text for the marker, highlighting what’s important about the subject. They must also provide historic documents to verify the accuracy of their applications, as well as a proposed site for the marker.
Loux said her office then performs fact checking and does more research and edit the text to get as much educational and historical information packed into 120 words — the amount that can fit on a marker.
“We really have to zero in on making sure that everything we do say there is accurate and is backed up by evidence,” Loux said.
As for the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, Jones said the language proposed on the marker had to be changed after historians discovered that Lucy Simms and Booker T. Washington studied at the same school but did not attend at the same time as originally thought.
And, as part of the process, citizens can voice objection to markers.
Markers have been stolen and have been defaced and damaged. They have been found at flea markets and even in a dorm room at UVA, Jones said. If markers get damaged by a car and the sponsoring organization doesn’t have the money to replace it, it might not get put back up.
For the City of Harrisonburg and the Lucy Simms Center, a committee formed and gathered the materials needed to complete the application, and Howard said Loux and Jones helped them through the entire application process, making it easier for them to complete the application.
Howard said she hopes to have an in-person ceremony when the sign arrives but are making plans for a virtual ceremony if COVID restrictions are still in place. A date has not been set yet, but they are hopeful to have a ceremony later this year.
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