Walking through time: New local tour delves into African American history

The Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project collects information and photographs (like this one) revealing African Americans’ rich history in Harrisonburg.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

When Monica Robinson, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, visits cemeteries and 19th century houses and historical sites, she feels an echo of the traumas and victories of those who were there before. 

“We know that we’re standing on hallowed ground, and you can feel the heaviness. You can feel the sadness. But you can also feel the joy,” she told The Citizen. 

Last week, the heritage project published the self-guided “Roots Run Deep” tour booklet that takes travelers through 24 African American historical sites in Harrisonburg. The route can be traversed on foot or by car. 

Robin Lyttle, president of the executive board of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, and Monica Robinson, executive director, standing in front of a historical photo exhibit installed at the Friendly City Food Co-op. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

The organization was founded in 2013 to research and share African American history in the Shenandoah Valley. Their headquarters, a little house in Harrisonburg’s Northeast neighborhood, is full of genealogical documents, old photos, books by local authors, and artifacts.

Robin Lyttle, president of the executive board of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, said they’ve wanted to design tours for years now. They’ve also published a route for a 20-minute driving tour around the Zenda countryside, northeast of Harrisonburg, where many African American families made their home in the late 1800s. 

“It’s a good way to learn and share,” Lyttle said. “We’re going to be moving into Shenandoah and Page and Rockingham counties, and eventually [tours] will be all over the valley.”

On the Harrisonburg tour, only about half of the sites are still standing. Many of the homes and businesses the heritage researchers identified from interviews and old photos were destroyed in the “urban renewal” projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the city of Harrisonburg seized large swaths of the Black neighborhood through eminent domain and sold them to developers.

With the help of the heritage project’s historical photos, one can imagine walking by the store windows, belfries and front porches of that earlier time while strolling down modern sidewalks.

The annual Christmas party thrown by the Blue Circle 30 Club, a men’s group that met in the Newman Insurance office building on East Wolfe Street. (Courtesy of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project)
The site of the Blue Circle 30 Club is now the parking lot of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

“We want people to be able to go in … and really see the contributions and the life and understand the communities that were demolished in the urban renewal project,” Robinson said. 

Robinson was a teacher prior to heading up the heritage project, so one of the tour stops closest to her heart is the Effinger Street School, which was built in the 1880s for Black children to attend.

Renowned educator Lucy F. Simms poses with her students outside of the Effinger Street School. (Courtesy of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project)
Where the school sat is now a sea of asphalt outside the Rose’s Discount Store. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

A new school was built in 1938, four years after Simms’ death and was named in her honor. Black students attended the Lucy F. Simms School (now the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center) until 1965, when many schools became integrated.

Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Robinson said she loves talking to those with personal memories of the school – including her mother, who grew up just down the street with her 12 siblings in the “heart of the Black community.” She graduated from Harrisonburg High School in 1967, just a few years after integration. 

“Being able to connect now with teachers who taught there before, hearing stories about May Day celebrations and choir photos and really being part of what my Mom lived when she grew up, is really special to me,” Robinson said. 

Mary Awkard Fairfax, standing, with one of her classes. (Courtesy of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project)

Mary Awkard Fairfax, standing, taught at the Lucy F. Simms School and, after integration, at Waterman Elementary School. 

According to the heritage project, Fairfax went to Columbia University for her master’s degree because she was barred from enrolling in the segregated local universities. Her home on Broad Street, which is now a private residence, is one of the few houses of that era that survived urban renewal. 

Simms is buried at the Newtown Cemetery. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Another stop along the tour is the Newtown Cemetery, which “has been the primary burial ground for the city’s African American dead since its founding in 1869,” according to the guide. 

Simms is buried here, as are other influential figures, such as Dr. Eugene “Doc” Dickerson, a surgeon who lived in Harrisonburg and practiced medicine at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Robinson heard some of the stories captured in the tour from her parents growing up, which fueled her yearning to know more about the community’s history. She said it’s important to interview elders in this line of work, both to capture what memories they have left and to honor their ownership of their stories. 

Many of those stories – of segregation, KKK processions and discrimination at work – are intense. Robinson said the interview process alone can sometimes trigger someone to relive a traumatic event.

“It was rough for them. But they survived,” she said. “So I find great peace in honoring those places that caused tragedy to people, because now we’re here to say: ‘We see you. We understand you. We acknowledge that these things were wrong, and we’re going to do what we can to make it right in our own special way.'”

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