Roses, Roots, Branches, Buds

By Sofia Samatar

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 


When you first arrived in the city, you were struck by the ghostly atmosphere of the parking lot of Roses Discount Store. That was before you knew the history of this place. Now you can’t help wondering: can a landscape absorb the vibrations of an event, can a loss curdle the air, can stones speak? This seems too mystical—surely the destruction of a section of town in the middle of the last century, including a thriving African American neighborhood, cannot actually be imprinted in the bricks of a retail outfit or the plastic bus shelters of a transit hub. But then why, you wonder, walking past, glancing quickly over your shoulder, why this hollow sense of woe, this wild dismay? Is it the size of the parking lot, which always seems too large for the few cars gathered here, creating an eerie, deserted impression? Is it the long blank wall of the store, filled in with pebbly, dun-colored cement where it seems there should be windows? Something in the air here is so blue. You have read stories of people who knew this place, like the resident who said, “It’s really funny to go down that part of Mason Street where they tore down beautiful homes and there’s nothing, there’s a 7-Eleven on the corner.” Or Ruth Toliver, who played here as a child: “We rode our bicycles all over town, and everybody knew everybody.” She remembered the night of ruin. “We were at the new home on Myrtle Street when my husband, Lowell, came in and said he had just come by Mason Street and saw the original home place being torched. A silence permeated the home as though a family member had died. We could smell the burning no matter where we went in the house.” 


You walk up Gay Street, turn left, then right, and enter the Newtown Cemetery. A flag flutters its stars and stripes in the wind. Some gravestones are worn and mossy; others look freshly cut in fine red stone. Fabric flowers adorn them: poinsettias, carnations, roses. Here is a small stone elephant. A cardinal painted pink. A deep hush has settled here, pierced only by birdsong, the houses surrounding the cemetery seeming to hold the space in a ceremonial circle, an embrace. At the top of the hill, a sign informs you that African Americans established the community of Newtown after the Civil War, founding this cemetery in 1869, a place open to “all persons of color.” Gazing downhill as the sun sends a flimsy radiance through the clouds, you think of your uncle, who came to the Friendly City in the 1970s, leaving his home country of Somalia to study at the Mennonite college a couple of miles from here. You remember a story he told: how he went into town to get a haircut and the white barber told him he couldn’t cut your uncle’s type of hair, your uncle would have to go to a certain hill, the barber said, describing the hill with an unrepeatable word, and your uncle, young and alone in the city, found his way to the place, certainly somewhere near here, in the Northeast Neighborhood. Did he walk past this cemetery? What was it like then? It wasn’t yet part of the National Register of Historic Places. Did he stop to look at the headstones, did he notice how old they were, did he feel tenderly toward the artificial flowers?


Before leaving the cemetery, you stop at the grave of Lucy F. Simms, the brilliant teacher, born enslaved in 1856, who went on to educate three generations of children. A carved lily extends its leaves from the pallor of her grave marker. The delicacy of the chipped stone, its gradations from white to dark gray, remind you of a photograph you saw online, a record of Simms’s 1905 class, the sober expressions of the children exuding the indefinable haunting look of old pictures. Their neat collars and upraised heads linger in your mind as you walk farther north, passing the education center named for Simms, so that you can almost see their faces superimposed on the kids assembled for some activity on the steps of the brick building where Simms’s work goes on. So history branches over the neighborhood. Here’s Ralph Sampson Park, named for the basketball player, another local offshoot. The park is empty today, and you walk alone up the gravel path, through the fine shadows cast by the dangling earrings of a red maple tree, past the picnic shelters, the blue and green futsal court, remembering how you once saw Ralph Sampson downtown at the Italian restaurant. First you thought you saw a man standing at the bar, but then you looked again, struck by something odd in the angle of his limbs, and you realized he was sitting down, resting an arm on the bar, but he was taller than an ordinary man standing. You remember not wanting to stare, but sneaking a few brief glances, recognizing the most famous person in your town, fascinated by his casual elegance, overwhelmed by the immediate presence of Ralph Sampson: not the history of Ralph Sampson, or the errors of Ralph Sampson, or even the accomplishments of Ralph Sampson, but the sheer physical fact of Ralph Sampson sitting in a restaurant like other people. Ralph Sampson! you thought. Ralph Sampson!


Walking home down Kelley Street, you pause at a quiet, unassuming place: a white house with dark green trim behind a white picket fence. There’s no sign to mark it, but you know from the address that it’s the Dallard-Newman House, once the home of the writer George A. Newman. During his lifetime, Newman wasn’t known as a writer. But in the 1870s, he wrote a novel he never published, a 480-page thriller called A Miserable Revenge: A Story of Life in Virginia. “A finer estate than that of Joshua Sowers could not be found in all Virginia,” it begins. “We will not give the exact date, let it suffice for us to say we begin our story April the first, in a certain part of the nineteenth century. The morning was a clear, beautiful one. We locate the scene of our story in the county of Frederick, a short distance from the then small town of Winchester. The estate was rightly named Brookland, for the land was covered with brooks.” You walk down Gay Street, crossing Blacks Run, in your city that could be described as covered with brooks, taking a secret, tingling breath from the old house—for while it’s gratifying to live in the hometown of radical educators and basketball stars, the happiest thing for you, of course, is to live in the hometown of a writer. 

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