House Built by Former Slaves Becomes a Museum

May 22, 2018

In Northeast Harrisonburg, a group is working to restore a house built by formerly enslaved people. The house survived urban development in the mid-1900s, and will be the site for a museum about the community’s history. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

[Sounds of hammering/house repairs]

KAREN THOMAS: There is no better place but this home to tell the history of the community. It has survived a lot.

Karen Thomas is the president and founder of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, or NENA, in Harrisonburg. On a recent morning, she’s showing me the Dallard-Newman House on the corner of Kelley and Myrtle Streets, in what used to be called Newtown.

THOMAS: This house was built in 1895 by the former slaves from the river bank plantation in Elkton. When they were freed they settled here, and they built this house….

The house, which Thomas said NENA is currently renting but has an agreement to purchase for $46,000, is being rehabilitated to become a museum, library and the headquarters for the community organization.

The house is next door to a church. Together they are listed in the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register of Historic Places as the Bethel AME Church and Dallard-Newman House Historic District.

THOMAS: The craftsmanship of these men that built this house and the church – It seems like every day we see something different, you know, that we’ve never noticed before. And back here I’ve heard that that door used to be where the ice man would come and leave ice in a bucket back there. He would come through here and they had a big old tub here, and that’s where they would dump the ice at, for them. Yeah, it’s so interesting.

Thomas grew up in this neighborhood, as did Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, who said she wants this house to be a place where people can come to learn about the history of African-Americans.

DEANNA REED: It’s important that you come here once we have it open as a museum because you can actually, when you’re here, you can feel the ancestors in this house.

[Sources: Picturing Harrisonburg: Visions of a Shenandoah Valley City since 1828 by David Ehrenpreis and Keeping Up With Yesterday by Ruth Toliver]

That history includes urban renewal in the late 1950s and 60s, when the city used eminent domain to tear down  some 150 homes in Newtown – including rental properties in disrepair but also well-cared-for homes owned by residents – to be replaced with businesses and parking lots along Mason Street – Roses department store and the Elizabeth Street parking deck, for examples. For the displaced people, the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority built nearly 100 public housing units.

In his 2017 book Picturing Harrisonburg: Visions of a Shenandoah Valley City since 1828, James Madison University professor David Ehrenpreis writes that this urban development came at [quote] “extraordinarily high” human costs, “particularly to the African-American community.”

Eldon Kurtz is on the NENA board of directors.

ELDON KURTZ: The feelings are very similar to folks up on the mountain that were displaced with the Shenandoah National Park, when that came through. People’s family homestead – that’s – Even if the houses weren’t the grandest homes, they were people’s homes. That was their property. That was their – they were landowners at that point. And so they lost that base of ownership in the community, so that’s a tragic part of the history. There’s still wounds, deep wounds from that, from families that have been here for the long haul.

NENA organizer Steven Thomas said that he’s proud of how volunteers in the community, including the carpenters here today, have supported the Dallard-Newman House restoration.

STEVEN THOMAS: The hands that built this home were hands that had previously been held in bondage, and so to see the people come out to support what we’re trying to do here, which is to take what we believe is a living memorial and to adequately and appropriately honor it and honor the space, and then of course make it available to the community all over again. It’s a task that isn’t easy but it’s certainly one that is spiritually and culturally fulfilling in very rare ways.

Karen Thomas points to a picture in the 2009 book Keeping Up With Yesterday by Ruth Toliver.

THOMAS: This is my dad, right here. There were big beautiful homes in this community, and this is how they had their outings that they had in each other’s homes.

She’s looking to the broader community for ongoing help and funding for the museum, through a GoFundMe campaign.

THOMAS: It was terrible how they came through and tore the neighborhood down, and just displaced people and destroyed their homes. This is why this house is so important and so significant, to tell the history of all that and the history that came before all that, how the community was built, and tell our history the way it should be told from people that lived it, and their ancestors.

She expects the museum and library to open in 2019.