When you think of “historic landmarks,” what comes to mind? A president’s estate, or a church that keeps rising from the ashes? A powerful university, or a school that taught children that poverty and discrimination were not powerful enough to hold them back? A new exhibition at Studio IX is examining the rich links between black self-determination and historic preservation.
“Afro-Virginia: People, Place & Power” will be premiered by Virginia Humanities African American Programs during a First Fridays reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at Studio IX at 969 Second St. SE. It offers a closer look at African American historical sites across the commonwealth and the efforts undertaken to keep them in the public consciousness — and prevent them from slipping into oblivion.
Among the local sites examined in the exhibition are the former Yancey Elementary School in Esmont and the St. John School in Cobham, a Rosenwald School site next to St. John Baptist Church. “It includes everything from a local church to a national monument,” exhibition curator Justin Reid said.
Virginia Humanities staff members Miranda Bennett and Peter Hedlund of Encyclopedia Virginia, Pat Jarrett of the Virginia Folklife Program and Reid have assembled photographs, audio recordings, maps and more to capture important sites and people in the African American historic preservation movement.
“I hope people will think more critically about their historical landscape,” said Reid, who is director of African American programs for Virginia Humanities and manager of the General Assembly African American Cultural Resources Task Force.
“We’re constantly entering spaces with no clue of what happened before we were here. We need to make sure Americans of all backgrounds are reflected in the landscape.”
The exhibition’s title connects Virginia to the Black Diaspora, concentrating on Virginians while addressing their efforts in the wider context.
Some sobering statistics point to the need for Reid’s work. Of almost 250,000 state-documented cultural and historic treasures, only 1% are connected to black history.
Reid said “Afro-Virginia” pays tribute not only to places, but also to people. The preservation projects are led by people in their 20s and in their 80s.
Some efforts in the exhibition are “very grass-roots, retiree-driven preservation projects,” Reid said. In another case, “alumni who graduated from a segregated school are leading the efforts to protect it.”
The exhibit thus reveals and celebrates the efforts of people from all backgrounds and disciplines — not just historians and scholars — who recognized the need to document and preserve important places and felt the urgency to capture the significance before the sites were lost forever.
That being said, Reid would love for more people to see themselves in history so they can follow it into a rewarding career path.
“We need more black Virginians to go into the field and train to be historians,” Reid said. “It’s hard to be it if you don’t see it. I hope more young black Virginians will be inspired to preserve these sites.”
Moving the preservation mission into the future means making the most of technology to help spread the word about four centuries of African American influence. Virginia Humanities is redesigning its Virginia African American Historic Sites Database to be released on June 19 — Juneteenth — to honor the first enslaved Africans in British-controlled North America. Records point to “20 and odd Negroes” who arrived at Old Point Comfort in 1619. Today, the site near Hampton is known as Fort Monroe.
“We’ll have some online virtual components that people can explore from anywhere,” Reid said.