For David Sides and Doug Myrick getting to know more about the neighborhood they had moved into was really important.
The couple who made their careers out of changing the way historic plantations present slavery was fascinated with the history of their own neighborhood. Sides and Myrick found they were living close to the site of a freed slave community, one of 15 in Orange County. What began as research to get a historical marker for the area turned into a year-long project that culminated with the production of “Discovering Little Petersburg,” a documentary about the history of the freed slave community outside the Town of Orange close to the Madison County line.
Sides and Myrick showed the film to an invite only crowd Nov. 10 at Bethel Baptist Church. The audience, comprised of community leaders, representatives of the Orange County Public Schools and present and former residents of Little Petersburg had a chance to learn about the history of the community presented through interviews, architectural history and research of land transfers.
“It really started as research,” said Myrick. “We were doing research for a marker and as we talked to some of the people it became clear to us that the story of Little Petersburg needed to be told and preserved.”
Sides said talking to Bethel Baptist Church Deacon James Bruce Monroe and his father James Monroe made them want to pursue the project.
“Both Bruce and his father have lived here their whole lives,” said Sides. “Talking with them we learned so much about the way of life in the community. We learned the church was central to the small community and that the residents were self-sufficient, raising their own vegetables, hogs, chickens and hunting.”
Sides and architectural historian Ann Miller believe the church’s significance in the community is in part because of the freedom it symbolized.
“Many of the people who built this church were born into slavery,” said Sides. “For them, building a place of worship wasn’t anything they could have considered. Having their own church was a powerful symbol of how far they had come.”
Little Petersburg has its origin in a land transfer of 200 acres from Governor James Kemper to Mary Freeman after the Civil War. The land is close to Walnut Hills, Kemper’s home from after the Civil War until his 1895 death. It is rumored that the name Little Petersburg came from Kemper’s veto of a law that attempted to wrestle control of the government in Petersburg from elected officials to an appointed board of commissioners. The law was seen as a way to gain back control from the elected officials that included some African-Americans and Kemper’s veto was viewed as being friendly to the newly freed slaves. Some of his other decisions like allowing an African-American militia unit to participate in the dedication of a statue of General Stonewall Jackson were construed as being friendly to the newly freed men and increased his popularity with the freed slave community.
Sides and Myrick applied the same passion and persistence to the project as they had to changing the portrayal of slavery at the historic plantations of Virginia and enlisted the help of experienced videographer, Phil Audibert and Miller. The four are hopeful that the film will spark interest in the history of the area and that local educators will see opportunities to teach history in a more comprehensive and interesting way.
Audibert noted that the project took many hours of time for his AHHA Productions. Audibert filmed interviews and field research before piecing it into a coherent film.
“This has taken many, many hours,” said Audibert.
Little Petersburg flourished from the reconstruction era until the 1960’s when many rural workers moved away in search of better opportunities. Residents of Little Petersburg recalled a friendly community where families relied on subsistence farming and work in the nearby Town of Orange. In the 1960s many younger residents looking for more job opportunities moved away. Most of the Little Petersburg properties are still deeded to the original families but when family members considered moving back home they found that access to their family land was often blocked. The original community was laid out with travel being by horse or on foot, not by road. Land surrounding the properties has been sold and developed with easements disappearing over generations making the properties difficult to use.
Each August, the Bethel Baptist Church holds a homecoming event where families return home to Orange and congregate at the church to celebrate the community and its history.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but we had it pretty good here,” said Bruce Monroe. “Everyone looked out for each other. Even if your parents were struggling you never knew it. There was always plenty of food and the adults not working looked after everyone’s kids.”
The film will be screened for the general public in March 2020.