The national debate over race relations that ignited after the June 17, 2015, murders in Charleston, SC, is resonating in Loudoun—evoking a sharpened interest in how black history is presented.
The killing of nine black parishioners during a prayer service at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by 21-year-old Dylann Roof horrified the nation. Photos of Roof posing with guns and a Confederate battle flag prompted calls for the removal of Confederate symbols from statehouses and courthouses across the South.
Loudoun County has just concluded a five-year commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, historians’ lens seem refocused by the national enquiry—reevaluating their presentations on slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy, the bitter reconstruction period, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights era.
Looking Beyond the Civil War
“Of course, there’s an impact on any interpretation dealing with American history,” said Mosby Heritage Area Association President Childs Burden, who co-founded the organization in 1995. “You have to know the real meaning of the war—it can’t be ignored, when one side embraced slavery and the other did not.”
The MHAA, spurred by the Charleston murders, tasked its Outreach Committee with re-thinking its entire approach for the heritage area, including whether the nonprofit should change its name and its logo—which depicts Confederate guerilla leader Col. John Singleton Mosby.
Mosby fought hard for the Confederate cause and lost. But after the war, he became a friend of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, eventually joining his administration.
The MHAA’s logo can be seen on the roadside signs marking the geographic area in which Mosby conducted his raids. And whether that is the right focus is the question, said Executive Director Rich Gillespie.
The stories of the area—Loudoun, Fauquier, Clarke and part of Prince William counties—are “much bigger than just Mosby or the Civil War,” Gillespie said.
“Charleston was important—that made us all think harder.”
On the question of changing the organization’s name, Outreach Committee Chairman Jeff Freeman said, “There was the sense that Mosby represents more in his life than simply the Civil War and defending slavery,” adding some board members strongly feel the name should be retained.
But the logo is different. “Almost certainly, we will change the logo so it more broadly represents the landscape and its history,” he said.
Committee member and historian Marc Leepson agrees. The organization’s mission is not just to focus on Mosby, but to emphasize the history of the whole area—that goes back to Native Americans, the Revolutionary War, and Reconstruction, he said.
“That stylized Mosby, a cavalier on a horse—it shouts Civil War. We want to make it more representative of the area.”
Black History Groups Weigh In
One of the most influential groups on African-Americans in Loudoun is the Friends of Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee, founded in 2000.
Committee Chairwoman Donna Bohannon acknowledged the impact of the Charleston shooting, pointing to the effort by the local chapter of the NAACP to establish a memorial to mark the place where slaves were sold on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.
There is a Confederate statue there, but nothing for black people, she said, noting NAACP members sought the committee’s help in researching and providing information on slaves who were sold from the courthouse steps.
It’s an important part of local history that should be recognized, Bohannon said. She pointed out that the National Park Service has already done so through its Network to Freedom program, which lists the courthouse as a site on the Underground Railroad by which slaves passed to freedom. Another important part of the story, Bohannon added, was detailed in Kevin Grigsby’s book “From Loudoun to Glory,” which describes the efforts of about 300 black Loudouners who joined Union colored troops.
“From the start, our group was concerned to tell the stories of African-Americans, to collect, preserve and share those stories,” Bohannon said.
Looking to the Future
The impact of the national discussion about race relations is playing out in Loudoun in several ways—a new focus on the mission, greater research, advocacy and expanded programming—including delving into the post-Civil War era—and an emphasis on “telling the stories.”
As Bill Sellers, president and CEO of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, put it: “We can’t understand the issues of today without [the history] of the last 400 years—slavery, Civil War, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow—they’re all part of the timeline.
“We need to make sure we understand the whole spectrum of our history, its nuances and ugliness, and not sweep it under the rug.”