Proposed African American History Center in New Market Causing Controversy

Feb 24, 2020

The Main Street in New Market
Credit Bridget Manly

Several local groups are quarreling over a proposed African American History Center in New Market, which raises the question: how important is equity when telling history? WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

On the main street running through downtown New Market, there is brick and white stucco three story building, and across the street sits a store selling civil war souvenirs.

This house was once owned by Jessie Rupert, a white woman who educated black children in her home during reconstruction following the Civil War.

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation has asked the Virginia General Assembly to include a budget amendment this year that will give them the money they need to purchase the building and turn it into an African American History Center.

Several African American groups in the Valley, including the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project in Harrisonburg and the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville, have asked lawmakers in Richmond to postpone passing the budget amendment for a year.

The Rupert House in New Market
Credit Bridget Manly

The budget amendment, which calls for $825,000 for two years, has been sponsored in the house by Delegate Chris Collins who represents Winchester and in the senate by Senator Emmitt Hanger, who represents parts of Rockingham Country.  Neither have responded to requests for comment.

The African American groups say that the Battlefields Foundation’s location for the proposed history center is not as important to African American history in the way that other buildings in the Valley are.

Further, they say, the SVBF still highlights and celebrates Confederate history, and the Foundation’s board does not have any members of color.

LYTTLE: White America can’t write African American history. Certainly we contribute, we can help, but this is their history. And their voices need to be a part of this conversation.

Robin Lyttle, who is white, is the President of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.

Robin Lyttle, President of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project

Her group met with the SVBF in January to discuss the proposed center. Both the Black Heritage Project and the Battlefields Foundation confirm the meeting went downhill quickly after realizing their groups visions did not coincide with each other.

Following the meeting, Lyttle said they began to contact lawmakers in Richmond to ask that they postpone passing the budget amendment. They want more African American groups to have a say about where it should be located and what will go inside.

Kevin Walker is the Chief Executive Officer of the SVBF.  He says that the plan to invite and involve African American groups in the Valley has always been their objective.

WALKER: It’s always been our intent, you know, to form a committee with heavy representation from the African American community. And we were hoping that groups like Robin Lyttle's would have input. They have been working on these and gathering these stories and this history for years in some cases.

Kevin Walker, Chief Executive Officer of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation

Walker says that their first step needs to be securing the funding for the project before finding people to fill the sub-committee.

WALKER: We are a non-profit, and so we have to identify a revenue stream or a funding source before we can really tackle a project. You know, looking for that funding source, applying for a grant, getting a major donor or applying for this budget amendment is like, an infant first step towards kicking off a project.

Walker says that he’s spoken with groups such as the Northeast Neighborhood Association in Harrisonburg about the project. NENA did not respond to requests for comment.

Dorothy Davis, a board member of the Josephine School Cultural Museum in Berryville, was not at the January 15th meeting, but has met with representatives of the SVBF and says that African American voices should have been included long before now.

Dorothy Davis, Board Member of the Josephine School Cultural Museum in Berryville

DAVIS: I think we need to be included as a part of the foundation, beginning. Not wait until we get the money. We draw you in, and then we get the funding, and now ‘trust us, we’ll take you on as partners, or as board members…’ That's not the way honest business is done.

Both groups have also raised concerns that the logo and branding for the Battlefields Foundation, reenactments of Civil War battles, and sponsored lectures with misinformation about black history undermine its credibility.

Larry Yates is the proprietor of the recently closed Virginia Museum of Veiled History in Winchester and an author. He says the SVBF presents a Confederate oriented history.

Larry Yates, Curator of the Virginia Museum of Veiled History

YATES: This is a white organization with an orientation towards the Confederacy, and they’ve gotten away with it for a long time because of the way the Shenandoah Valley works.

LYTTLE: I had a young African American woman look at me and say ‘well, isn’t it better than nothing?’ And I [said] no, no. History is not told properly from the proper perspective. We just can’t go backwards.

For WMRA News, I’m Bridget Manley.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the "Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation" as the "Shenandaoh Valley Battlefied Association".