Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County Museum
By Gary Carroll
The significant roles that African Americans played in the history of Fauquier County come alive within the walls of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County’s museum in The Plains. Located just off Main Street, on Loudoun Avenue right before the railroad tracks, the museum opened in 1997. Since then it has opened the eyes of the many visitors who have walked through the impressive museum or attended one of the numerous programs in its large, church-like auditorium.
The museum is the result of a vision of two sisters, Karen Hughes White and Angela Davidson. Meeting the two within the museum’s well-stocked library, I was impressed by their dedication to the mission of providing a fuller understanding of how the presence and activities of the County’s African American community have influenced and enriched Fauquier’s history. As I chatted with White, we discovered common interests. We were both raised in Fauquier County and we both have English and Irish as a significant percentage of our ancestry. We share an interest in Monticello and Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved African Americans (one an ancestor of White’s), and a keen interest in the Civil War and its impact on Fauquier County.
Keeping this in mind made my trek through the museum even more meaningful. As Ms. Davidson sent me on my way downstairs to the museum, she pointed out that on my initial stop I would be in Africa. Indeed, entering the museum I found myself surrounded by African art and handicraft, a model wearing regal African dress, and a large map designating numerous African empires. A translated note written by a Portuguese explorer in the late 15th century, discussing the African tradition of making slaves of their captured enemies, alerted me to the dark history of the transAtlantic slave trade that was to follow. At the next stop in my visit was a wooden mock-up and drawing of the inside of a slave trip, illustrating the extraordinarily cramped and unsanitary conditions slaves would have endured.
Turning the corner, I began to see the story of African American slaves in Virginia. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the initial arrival of 20 Africans aboard a Dutch ship at Jamestown colony. Initially called “indentured servants,” African laborers’ legal status as slaves officially began in the 1660s. The number of enslaved Africans proliferated through the following centuries and the first slaves appeared in Fauquier County in the latter 18th century. By the 1850s, Fauquier County’s population was more than 50 percent African American, some 90 percent of whom were enslaved. The museum provides insight by displaying copies of official notices concerning the sale and purchase of enslaved persons and their transfer from one owner to another, and notices from owners of escaped slaves in Fauquier County promising bounty for the return of their “property.”
Through viewing further exhibits, I became familiar with more of the history of African Americans in Fauquier. Over time, some slaves did earn money to buy their freedom or the freedom of relatives. Some others were voluntarily emancipated by their owners, but the majority remained enslaved. Both free and enslaved African Americans played a major role in the commerce of the county. They provided the workforce for the large farms in the northern part of the county and also served in various trades as blacksmiths, masons, and carpenters, as well as seamstresses and domestic laborers.
The Civil War of the 1860s disrupted and destroyed the local economy and lifestyle, and ultimately provided for the emancipation of the enslaved populations. A number of African Americans in the county were incorporated into the Confederate Army where they played important roles as teamsters, blacksmiths, and support personnel. Anthony Dangerfield, a local enslaved man, for example, was sent to be a personal servant in the local Black Horse Cavalry.
Following the war, many African Americans moved north to find new jobs; those who stayed formalized marriages that had been held informally during slavery and took up residence on land vacated by large landowners or bequeathed to them by their former masters. The museum displays how emancipated African Americans built homes and organized towns on their new land. Blackwelltown, near Midland, and Morgantown, near Marshall, were two such towns. Photographs of some of the early residents of Blackwelltown are prominently displayed on a wall of the museum. African Americans began to engage in political activity as full citizens, most of them supporting the national Republican Party as it sought to reconstruct war-torn Virginia. They were often hampered and threatened by some local whites who sought to intimidate them.
Despite these challenges, local African Americans built new communities near rural churches that often became the focal point of their lives. Throughout Fauquier County we can still see many of these small wooden church buildings with names like Little Zion, First Springs Baptist, Mount Morris, and Ebeneezer Church. During the time when education of African Americans in the county was inadequate, many of these churches were also used as schoolhouses.
African American artists and images are also featured. One portion of the museum contains prints of the 1881 painting Pastoral Visit, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art, by Warrenton native Richard Brooke. It depicts the interior of 28 Smith Street in Warrenton and displays a tableau of African American personalities, captioned “The spiritual strength of an elderly visiting pastor, the musical prowess of the host, and the nurturing motherhood of the mother.” It provides a nostalgic view of the gentility of African American life at the time.
A more recent set of prints dominates one wall of the museum. Paintings by Jerry Jones, Jr., who grew up in Warrenton, show a recent series of houses and scenes in Madison Town—the eastern edge of old Warrenton where he grew up.
Other sections of the museum contain photos of African Americans who grew up in the County and later left to be successful in a variety of academic and professional fields. Also displayed is a collection of photographs of African American Fauquier natives who served faithfully in America’s wars over the years.
The museum is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays for visitors and researchers, on other days by request, or when it hosts one of its informative programs or lectures. aahafauquier.org.
The Afro-American Historical Association Association (AHHA) of Fauquier County is located in The Plains at 4243 Loudon Avenue and is open to the general public, schools, and other organizations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and by appointment. In addition to the museum, AHHA offers visitors opportunities to do genealogical research, search community records, or visit its library. AHHA also offers lectures, films, dramas, and other presentations. On May 18 visitors can participate in a book-signing featuring Char McCargo Bah and his book Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom, which tells the story of freed slaves who made their way to Alexandria, Virginia at the end of the war.