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Saving the Valley's Black Heritage

Many of us may consider Black History only during the month of February.But Robin Lyttle of Bayse believes that Black history is American history, so she started the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.  WMRA's Luanne Austin reports.

When Robin Lyttle moved from Maryland to Rockingham County two years ago, her interest in African-American history compelled her to delve into the Shenandoah Valley’s past. She found that historians and authors had done a lot of research, but the information was scattered.

ROBIN LYTTLE: And I realized there was a rich African American history but no one central location where you could find any information out about it. So that’s when I decided to start the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. I have a website, ValleyBlackHeritage.org, where I have a lot of information about the freedmen, about the United States Colored Troops, about the communities of the Valley, all sorts of research that other historians have sent me.

In addition to creating the website, Lyttle started a monthly event at the Lucy F. Simms Center in Harrisonburg, where she enlists help in identifying photographs, makes her resources available for research, and holds genealogical sessions. So far, she’s helped about 20 area individuals to trace their family ancestry. Not long ago, Sharon Barber of Harrisonburg contacted Lyttle for help.

SHARON BARBER: It’s been a long time I’ve been wondering about my family history because I am a person about history, and I used to see Ancestry.com on television, and I thought about it, I wanted to find out about my ancestors, but I let it go. Then I heard about Robin, and then I got in touch with her and she said, yes, for me to come in, and I did, and she got me started. And ever since she got me started it’s just been wonderful and I found out so much about my ancestry.

LYTTLE: People want to know about their history and I often say our black community knows their history. What I’m able to do is help get back into those years just after the Civil War and sometimes before. I’ve helped several families who had fairly strong oral histories about where they lived and what farms they had been enslaved on and through research and DNA we’ve also been able to verify some of that history. These families are just looking to learn a little bit more about who they are and where they came from and where their roots are in Africa and Europe.

The Valley Black Heritage website contains a wealth of resources, including old photos, a list of the project’s library books and other resources, historical maps, research papers, stories on video and audio files, and links to other pertinent websites and blogs. It contains history and photos of African-American communities, churches and cemeteries in the Valley…. and more.

LYTTLE: We’re developing a book on the United States Colored Troops that were born in the Shenandoah Valley, I have identified over 700 men who were born in the Valley and fought for the Union. And we’re in the process of listing them and then also profiling them, doing research on the men, finding out about their service during the war, and then if they survived the war, where they lived following the war and a little bit about them after the war so that we can give them an identity that they did not have previous to this.

A retired lighting designer, Lyttle—who is white—believes the contributions of blacks to the history of the Shenandoah Valley has been unexplored and under-appreciated.  

LYTTLE: I feel strongly to learn, share and illuminate this history. It’s not one that’s taught in our schools. As Reverend Mansfield said during Black History Month, black history is American history and should be taught year-round.

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.