Column – New highway marker brings overdue recognition

Published 7:56 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Virginia’s African American history has all too often been overlooked, misinterpreted or just plain ignored. That made the recent unveiling of a sign celebrating early Black education in rural Isle of Wight County all the more significant.

The sign, one of Virginia’s newest historic highway markers, stands beside Main Street in front of the Schoolhouse Museum. It’s also the first highway marker in Isle of Wight devoted to the county’s African American history. 

It was requested and championed by the Schoolhouse Museum Board of Directors, a dedicated group of local volunteers committed to explaining the importance of private efforts to educate Black children in an era during which public resources were too often designated for just educating white children.

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The museum is a one-room addition to what was known as the Christian Home School, which was located in the Longview community. Christian Home was one of 30 small one- to three-room buildings built in Isle of Wight to provide an education to the county’s Black children long before schools were integrated. 

The Christian Home building, though not the addition, was a Rosenwald School, one of 5,000 such buildings constructed throughout the South by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., in collaboration with Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute and with matching funds raised in local communities.

The museum features a classroom display with representative student and teacher at work in their places. The informative displays are aimed at explaining the importance of these early education efforts.

The sign dedication took on added significance as the historic marker program was explained by Virginia’s historic preservation officer, Julie Langan, who attended the program Feb. 25.

Langan said Virginia’s highway marker program is one of the state’s most popular historic outreach projects. It’s also the nation’s oldest, begun in 1927. The initial focus of the program, she said, was quite naturally on landmark buildings and events. Locations and homes associated with presidents as well as military battles and buildings distinguished by their architectural merit — think Monticello — were the first to be recognized.

Sadly neglected was the state’s African American heritage. Only three of the first 700 markets erected before 1930 directly featured Black history, and by 1941, that number had risen to only nine. Meanwhile, a full one-third of all the markers revolved around Civil War history.

The state is now doing better, Langan said. Of the 2,600 markers now located along Virginia’s highways, a total of 451 — 17% — now focus on Black history. During the past five years, 63 percent of all new markers have focused on the state’s African American history.

“It remains a priority of the department to intentionally diversify both the properties included on the Virginia Landmarks Register as well as topics featured in the highway marker system,” she said. “We strive for a balanced, rather than skewed, presentation of the past. While we are proud of how far we have come, we are well aware that we still have a long way to go before these programs honestly and fairly represent the contributions of all Virginians — indigenous peoples, African Americans, women and other underrepresented groups.”

The Christian Home museum exhibit, she said, reflects the state’s longstanding “interest in documenting and recognizing the importance of historic schools which historically were important anchors of their communities.”

Congratulations to the Schoolhouse Museum for achieving this recognition for the early efforts by the county’s African American community to educate its children. It’s an overdue acknowledgement of the barriers that the county’s Black population overcame a century ago to see that children of their race had the benefit of an education.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is