Last Friday I had the honor and pleasure to present the keynote talk launching “Preservation Week” produced by Preservation Piedmont in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia. The theme of this year’s week long event is “Threatened Sites & Communities.” I urge as many people as possible to attend the events this week.
Though I only saw a sample of historic resources in Charlottesville I am still convinced that this is a very timely, and nationally significant, theme. I believe that the following are very significant, and permanent, elements of the traditional colonial, revolutionary, and evolving historic American legacies of this region:
The establishment of African American citizenship through land ownership. I saw several properties that were owned by African Americans before and after emancipation. Though they did not become incorporated entities, they were what I identified as “rural villages” in my “Black Settlements In AmericaTM” research. African Americans, often extended families, purchased adjacent properties and donated land for a church, cemetery, and school that they and their neighbors could attend. The settlements formed social, cultural, political, and economic networks to meet the needs of residents. Since most African Americans were only allowed to lease or rent property after the Civil War, the owner occupied settlements were the exception, as opposed to the rule. The traces, or remnants, of these are among the most rare and valuable of current American historic and cultural resources. The Sammons, Carr and Evans properties are prime examples in the Charlottesville area.
Several African American burial grounds and cemeteries included graves of locally and nationally prominent persons. I was impressed by all of them because current Charlottesville parks, schools, and other civic facilities are named for a significant number of these people of color. For example, the Daughters of Zion Cemetery was created in 1873 by the local women’s mutual aid society because African Americans were usually not allowed to be buried in the adjacent Oakwood Cemetery. Burials in Daughters of Zion include Mr. Benjamin Tonsler (1854-1917) who learned to read and write when it was illegal to teach African Americans to do so. Mr. Tonsler went on to attend Hampton Institute, befriend Booker T. Washington, and become the principal of the local Jefferson Graded School.
I saw structures and neighborhoods built by African Americans. Mr. C.B. Holt (1872-1950) was an African American carpenter who lived in the “Vinegar Hill” neighborhood, and built the “rock house” in 1926. It is one of just a few stone houses in Charlottesville. And, though Mr. Holt was “…only a carpenter”, the proportion, order and detail are comparable to many architect designed arts and crafts style residences. Professor Daniel Bluestone (University of Virginia) has done an exemplary job researching, interpreting and restoring the C.B. Holt “Rock House.”
These stories and achievements are not simply African American history, they are integral parts of American history that will not disappear even if attempts are made to ignore them. I thank Preservation Piedmont for their efforts and the City of Charlottesville and the Jefferson School for hosting me.