ai express – The historical highway marker program in Virginia was first established in 1927, primarily targeting a white audience.
According to a guidebook on the markers and African American history published in 2019, these markers transformed the state into a captivating open-air museum, guiding travelers on their journeys.
According to Jennifer Loux, the highway marker program manager for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, this concept was much more convenient for white travelers than for Black travelers during that time.
According to Loux, the open road held the allure of freedom and excitement for white motorists, but it was a different story for African Americans. The rampant segregation and racial prejudice of the time meant that black travelers were frequently denied service at roadside establishments, or were treated unfairly compared to their white counterparts.
The topics showcased on the markers themselves were also influenced by the primarily white audience.
Before 1930, only three out of the 700 markers focused on Black history. By 1941, this number had only increased to nine. In contrast, a significant portion of the initial 700 markers were dedicated to Civil War history.
The lack of historical markers related to Black history still persists, even after nearly a century. However, the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) is actively working to address this issue.
In Virginia, there are a total of 2,698 markers, not including those that solely mark county borders. Loux states that approximately 17% of these markers, which amounts to 451, are dedicated to commemorating Black history.
In just a few years, there has been a significant increase in the focus on Black history. According to her, 63% of all new markers in the last five years have been dedicated to Black history.
In Southwest and Southside, several new markers have been erected to commemorate significant individuals and places. One such marker pays tribute to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, a renowned sociologist and civil rights advocate hailing from Bristol. Another marker honors Samuel F. Kelso, who, despite being born into slavery, emerged as one of Lynchburg’s earliest Black educators following the Civil War. Additionally, there are markers that acknowledge sites of historical significance, such as the African American section of Maple Hill Cemetery in Bluefield.
However, there is still much work to be done in order to provide a more comprehensive history of Virginia through the use of historical markers.
According to Julie Langan, director of DHR, one reason for this imbalance is that the field of historic preservation is relatively new.
According to the expert, during the late ’60s, people primarily paid attention to the most renowned and historically significant properties. These properties included sites associated with presidents, military battles, and aesthetically pleasing buildings. However, what they overlooked was the significance of the remaining properties.
The historical marker program, in its early days, had a bias towards topics such as colonial churches and houses, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and westward expansion.
Langan explained that not only was Black history overlooked, but history about women and indigenous people was also neglected.
“It’s the same situation with the Virginia Landmarks Register,” she explained. “In the past, our focus was limited, but now we have a more comprehensive understanding of history and a greater dedication to inclusivity.”
DHR is now actively working to address the gaps that have been created due to what Langan refers to as a distorted representation of history.
According to Loux, there have been recent developments that have contributed to the increase in the number of markers dedicated to Black history.
The Northam administration took the initiative to organize a contest during Black History Month, inviting K-12 students to propose topics for new highway markers. Around 15 markers were created based on the ideas submitted by children from various parts of Virginia.
The General Assembly granted $100,000 in funding to the DHR in 2021 with the aim of diversifying the subject matter of the highway marker program.
The allocation of funds will lead to the creation of approximately 33 to 35 new markers dedicated to Black history. These markers will cover topics that have been identified as “high-priority” by DHR. According to Loux, 16 markers have already been installed, with six awaiting installation and two currently on order. The remaining markers are at different stages of the approval process.
Furthermore, DHR is receiving the majority of marker ideas from community groups or individuals through applications.
According to Loux, there has been a remarkable surge in the interest surrounding African American history. He mentions that a significant portion of the applications they receive over the past five years or so are focused on various aspects of Black history.
In 1979, DHR started accepting applications from the public for highway markers. Prior to that, the topics of markers were solely determined by the staff.
According to Loux, the staff had the sole authority to choose the topics until the 1970s. This resulted in the neglect of African American history in the early decades of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
According to her, the application system has opened up this process to the public, leading to an increase in diverse suggestions and making the program more inclusive.
“We are overwhelmed by the public’s interest,” Langan acknowledged. “It is incredibly challenging to have to turn people away or inform them that they are at the back of a lengthy queue. Unfortunately, this is the reality we face.”
In order to proceed with the application, successful applicants will be required to cover the expenses associated with the manufacturing and installation of the marker. These costs amount to approximately $3,000 at present.
DHR has not received any discretionary funding from the General Assembly since the 2021 grant. This poses a significant obstacle for the organization when its staff believes that a particular project or initiative deserves a marker but no application has been submitted by the public.
According to Langan, the team has a wish list of topics they want to cover, but there are instances where certain topics remain on the list for an extended period of time.
The wish list comprises of several markers in different locations. One of them is in Franklin County, dedicated to Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. During the 1930s, this church was renowned as one of the largest Protestant congregations globally. Another marker is in Appomattox County, commemorating CCC Camp 1351. This camp consisted of Black World War I veterans who played a significant role in transforming the area into the Appomattox Court House Historical Park.
According to Langan, there have been some complaints about DHR’s recent emphasis on underrepresented topics. However, there has also been a great deal of positive feedback.
“We do receive criticism from those who claim that we only concentrate on minority topics, but that is because we have neglected them for far too long,” she explained. “Even with our current efforts, there remains a noticeable disparity. While we have made an effort to include more markers related to African Americans in recent years, they still make up an insufficient percentage of the overall markers that address their experiences.”
Loux and Langan highlight the distinction between a historical marker, which aims to educate, and a monument or memorial, which intends to celebrate.
DHR’s application guidelines for a marker state that the primary aim of erecting markers is to educate the public about Virginia’s history, rather than to honor, memorialize, or commemorate specific individuals, events, or locations.
According to Langan, markers are not meant to be honorific, but rather they prioritize accuracy.
According to her, scholars thoroughly review the text on markers multiple times. The Department of Historic Resources (DHR) ensures that the information presented to the public through these markers is accurate and reliable.
Since the 1990s, DHR has consistently reviewed and updated the text whenever an older marker needs to be replaced. According to Loux, these updates are made based on modern historical scholarship.
According to the spokesperson, the goal is to enhance the accuracy and completeness of the marker’s texts by providing historical context and including information that may have been overlooked or ignored when the original marker was erected.
According to Langan, when it comes to erecting a monument, there may not be a need for such rigorous verification. In fact, monuments often tend to reflect the personal bias of those responsible for their installation.
According to the speaker, there are monuments that were once considered factual but are now seen as inaccurate representations of history.
According to Loux, when a community installs a marker, they usually celebrate the occasion, especially if they were the ones who applied for it. However, it is important to note that the marker’s main purpose is to provide educational information.
DHR will continue to prioritize Black history and other overlooked topics, despite the considerable progress made in recent years, according to Langan.
“I believe it is crucial for us to enhance the representation of indigenous history through the addition of more markers. It is disheartening that we are lagging behind in this area,” she expressed with a tinge of embarrassment. “Furthermore, it is imperative that we acknowledge and honor the significant contributions of women by erecting more markers dedicated to their achievements.”
According to her, these subjects will hopefully witness an increase in indicators.
“We are committed to prioritizing underrepresented segments,” Langan emphasized. “While we will continue to explore African American history, we also aim to address the wider disparity and do a better job in this regard.”
Virginia’s historic markers have long overlooked the contributions and stories of Black history. However, there has been a significant shift in recent years to rectify this omission.