Battlefield battles: Proposed African American history museum draws criticism

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation's headquarters in New Market. The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s headquarters in New Market.

The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, a historic preservation group that installed a monument to Confederate soldiers in Winchester last year, is now angling for a $1.6 million grant from the state of Virginia for the creation of a different kind of monument—an African American history center. 

Some local black history organizations have expressed concerns.

“We were sort of dumbfounded when we learned that they had requested funding for the Shenandoah Valley African American history center,” says Dorothy Davis, a board member at the Josephine School Community Museum, a black history center in Berryville. “They generally have not been forthcoming to support African American groups, organizations, museums, in the valley.”

The Battlefields Foundation uses private money as well as $435,000 annually from the National Parks Service to acquire, maintain, and interpret Civil War sites in an eight-county bloc in the Shenandoah Valley. It hopes to open a center focused on the region’s black history in an old building across the street from its office in New Market.

A budget amendment, submitted by Republicans Chris Collins and Emmett Hanger, would give the group $825,000 each year for two years to support the black history project, as well as unspecified “visitor improvements to the New Market Battlefield.” Collins says the Battlefields Foundation has done good work in the past to encourage lucrative Civil War-based tourism in the area, and though he’s heard criticism, he has no plans to pull the amendment. Hanger’s office did not respond to request for comment. 

Keven Walker, the CEO of the Battlefields Foundation, says the amendment represents an unprecedented investment in the under-appreciated African American history of the region, and that groups opposed to the project have “been spreading half truths and slanted information” in an effort to slow things down.

Robin Lyttle, director of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, is among those with concerns about the proposal. She says the Battlefields Foundation didn’t approach her until after the amendment had already been submitted, and that when she asked for more time, Walker said they were going to go ahead with the project with or without her group’s support.

“We ascertained that no African Americans had been included in the planning or discussion,” says Lyttle, who is white. She wants the amendment postponed for a year, so her group and others in the area have time to weigh in. 

“No money was put in for acquisition of resources or research,” Lyttle says. “We found out that they thought that would be volunteers.” 

The proposed museum would be on the second floor of an old schoolhouse, where black children were taught while white children were taught on the ground floor. Lyttle is worried the black history exhibit will be tucked away and inaccessible in the old house. She says she suggested multiple alternate sites nearby with more significance to local black history, but that the Battlefields Foundation wasn’t open to discussion. 

Ultimately, the Josephine School and the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project both  declined to sign on to the project. 

Walker sings a different song. “One of the things that was very absent in the valley, in our opinion, was a concerted, unified effort to preserve sites related to African American history,” he says, adding that the impressive grassroots work of groups like Lyttle’s has “not been promoted to the level that it should.”

Walker denies the claim that no African Americans were consulted in the process. According to Walker, John David Smith, Jr., the first ever black mayor of Winchester, “supports the project wholly.”

“That is a bold-faced lie,” says Smith, Jr. “I never told him that. I don’t know enough about the project to offer any type of answer.”

Walker also says he spoke with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, a community history group in Harrisonburg, who had been “extremely supportive.” When asked about the nature of that collaboration, the Northeast Neighborhood Association declined to comment on the record. 

Other local leaders have come out against the project. Tina Stevens, the first black woman ever elected to nearby Stephens City’s town council, says “It is very disturbing to me that we wouldn’t postpone this budget amendment until next year, when they can really talk to everyone.” 

“African American educators, historians, church leaders, organizers—these are all people that should be included in the conversation,” Stevens says, “and we were not.” Stevens says her views do not reflect the official position of the town council.

In 2018, the Battlefields Foundation sponsored an even-handed panel on Confederate iconography at James Madison University, featuring UVA history professor Caroline Janney and former American Civil War Museum CEO Christy Coleman.

But at the same time, the foundation allows the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nationwide group of descendants of Confederate soldiers, to meet in the foundation’s Winchester museum. The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ website tells visitors that the group is committed to “vindication of the cause” of the Confederacy, and that “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.”

Lyttle also says she is concerned about “the diversity issue” within the Battlefields Foundation’s leadership—their board is composed of 15 white men and one white woman.

Then, of course, there’s the Confederate monument that the Battlefields Foundation installed in Winchester last year, a tribute to a group of Alabama soldiers who died at the Third Battle of Winchester. The six-foot-tall monument, inscribed with a Confederate flag, was paid for entirely by a member of the group’s board of trustees. 

At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Walker said, “Unlike some other places throughout the country, here in the National Historic District monuments are going up, not coming down.”

Walker walks back that quote now, saying it was taken out of context by the Winchester Star, and that his group “wants more monuments to go up, monuments to all of our history.”

Larry Yates, a local historian and activist based in Winchester, says the Battlefields Foundation “does a lot of useful things in terms of preserving battlefields” but its museum is “basically a relic collection, with very little attention to African Americans.” 

For now, the decision is in the hands of  the state legislature. And it’s no sure thing that the amendment will pass. “If we get this budget amendment, it will be the largest appropriation ever given by the commonwealth to preserve and protect African American history in the Shenandoah Valley,” Walker says. 

But the Josephine School’s Davis isn’t convinced that the Battlefields Foundation is the right organization for the money. “They haven’t been a very positive force in the valley in supporting African American groups or activities,” she says. “They think they have, but they haven’t.”

 

Updated 2/19 to to reflect that the organization is called the Battlefields Foundation, not the Battlefield Foundation.

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Everette Bowman
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Everette Bowman

You got Be fucking kidding me new market va they don’t deserve that money! Give it to Perryville not new market

Dennis M. Atwood
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Dennis M. Atwood

I had NO prior knowledge of this initiative, yet what a tangled web of parochialism, miscommunication, pettiness and jealousy is revealed in this article (assuming IT is accurate). An apparent lack of inclusion in the planning process, but why not applaud a new chapter in SVBF’s work – and consider that it may be building a tent in which all the relevant groups could fit? Somehow some leadership needs to open some doors rather than banging on one without first trying to turn the knob.