Cadiz, Ohio, USA- July 5, 2016: The Harrison County Courthouse standing in the background with a period Civil War canon displayed in the foreground.
Southwest Virginia has casually forgotten the racial violence at its heart, as if this ugly history never happened. Instead, the Confederacy is memorialized, new stores are built on top of unique historical landmarks, and community leaders too often simply ignore the few known artifacts that tie the region to the exploitation of the slaves on which much of Appalachian society was built.
But publicly recognizing the history of race-based violence would dispel the myth that slavery was unimportant here in Appalachia, and in Southwest Virginia in particular, as conversations about racial inequality and injustice take place across Virginia, Appalachia, and the country.
Elected representatives and ordinary folks, large institutions and small town community associations all can shine light on their shameful shared history, and shift the tone of the conversation toward recognition and memorialization.
Just last year, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed two bills (HB 1547, HB 2296) into law that give equal status to African American cemeteries and their preservation by the state.
But before those official measures, a shift was already apparent in the small town of Quicksburg in the Shenandoah Valley, where the local government publicly dedicated a slave cemetery in the spring of 2016 with a plaque, trails and benches.
The Rev. Bill Haley played a major role in the memorialization process. He is the executive director of Corhaven, a nonprofit “retreat farm” in the town.
A few years ago, Haley learned of the long forgotten slave cemetery after he purchased adjacent land to expand the retreat. Since then, he has worked alongside his family and some residents to recognize and memorialize the racial injustice that built his corner of Virginia.
Arnold remembers going with her family to decorate slave graves near her church cemetery in West Tennessee, where her ancestors were once enslaved. Arnold writes in The New York Times that the memorialization project is significant because it shines a light on “overlooked lives (that) are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country.” The cemeteries and slave stories “offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity,” Arnold said, and preserving them “contributes to our own humanity.”
Public memorialization efforts like this are evidence that a shift is afoot in local legislation, as well as in the national and regional conversations about racial inequality and injustice. They mark a tonal change beyond the more obvious and visible nationwide conversation raised by Black Lives Matter on police violence against Black bodies, disagreements over Civil War memorials, and neo-Nazi-white supremacist/anarchist street clashes.
A History of Race-Based Violence
Census records show that slavery has been a violent and unjust part of Southwest Virginia’s basic moral framework and political economy since the 18th century.
Gordon Aronhime examined census records from Washington County in his article “Slavery on the Upper Holston” in 1980, which also included census records for surrounding counties. The records show that in 1786, the north fork of the Holston River Valley in Southwest Virginia had a population of over 5,693 people, including 383 slaves, or 6.73 percent of the population. In 1830, 16.45 percent of the people living in Washington County were slaves. The number of slaves peaked in 1850 and declined in Southwest Virginia until the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Southwest Virginia had relatively few slaves compared to counties in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia, which enslaved between 40 and 60 percent or more of the population. The Piedmont region of Virginia was similar to the coastal areas in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.
The town of Abingdon, the seat of Washington County, had a thriving slave economy and was a market stop along the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Alexandria, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Edward Ball writes that this trail was a three-month-long forced coffle from slave markets in cities like Richmond and Alexandria to market destinations in the Lower South. Armed white men forced groups of bound slaves to walk for 10 hours per day. Between 1810 and 1860, nearly 450,000 slaves were forcibly marched through Virginia along the Great Wagon Road, or what people today call U.S. Route 11. Ball points out that in the Upper South, Virginia was the top source of Black slaves for the Lower South. Abingdon and Southwest Virginia were mountain markets along the way to the great plantations of the antebellum South.
Our history in Southwest Virginia is built on race-based violence and labor exploitation. The forced labor of Black slaves was central to the early development, growth, expansion, and affluence enjoyed especially by the more prosperous white, land and business owning families. That brute fact is nowhere recognized today in Southwest Virginia.
The political problem today is that all those stories seem to be forgotten, and the political and economic establishment acts as if this history did not happen. The violence and exploitation is not publicly recognized or memorialized, which perhaps would go some way to healing our collective wounds. Instead, we have numerous publicly recognized monuments dedicated to the white, mostly wealthy, and mostly male heroes of the Civil and Revolutionary Wars.
Casually Forgetting the Past in the Present
The Resting Tree slave cemetery near the Washington County and Bristol City border on the Jeb Stuart Highway holds an estimated 100 unmarked and largely unmaintained slave graves. The ancient White Oak served as a shade tree for slaves forced to work the vast fields of Robert Preston’s plantation, according to local historian V. N. “Bud” Philips. Philips lobbied Bristol City, Washington County and civic organizations to mark the site nearly two decades ago, but to no avail. Philips has since died and the cemetery remains largely ignored.
The Meadows development project in Abingdon is the most publicized example of this pattern of disregard for history. The farm was once a slave-run plantation. In 2015, the Abingdon Town Council learned that slave graves were likely located on the property and possibly also Native American graves. The Bristol Herald Courier reported that the Abingdon Town Council, lead by the Mayor and Vice Mayor, repeatedlydenied motions to allow the farm property to be searched for free by knowledgeable town and county residents like local historians, the Washington County Cemetery Association, or the Friends of Abingdon. Friends of Abingdon have also filed lawsuits in federal court to stop the development project, but to no avail.
Instead, with legal authorization, Abingdon has already broken ground on an outdoor sports complex for youth and league play on one part of The Meadows. Food City has broken ground on another bigger grocery store on another part of the property. Reportedly, all of the outbuildings and barns are going to be destroyed, but the house preserved.
Conspicuously absent are any official markers that recognize the historical facts of the legal system of slavery and exploited labor that accompanied the Confederate government in Southwest Virginia. Thousands of legally owned slaves in Washington County were registered as property at the Abingdon courthouse. Today, the Common Confederate Soldier statue and the memorial to the five Confederate generals from Washington County stand on its lawn. The courthouse and the Confederate memorials are all located on U.S. Route 11, once the “Slave Trail of Tears,” and Abingdon’s Main Street.
All of this violence, exploitation and stark inequality are nowhere to be found in public memory, denied by elected representatives and civic organizations, bulldozed over, and developed into entertainment and consumer venues, the embodied myth of whiteness in its mundane form.
Resisting the Myth
Casually forgetting the past is not an acceptable response because to borrow from Sandra Arnold, our humanity is at stake. Repeating the consensus myth that race never mattered and that chattel slavery didn’t exist in the mountains fails to ring true, in light of the evidence. One way to resist this myth of whiteness would be to publicly memorialize the racial violence at the heart of Southwest Virginia.
Jacob L. Stump is an author, professor and small business owner from Konnarock in Southwest Virginia. This article originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia.
Davion Taylor might have been great in high school, if he had played in games, rather than just practiced with his team.
Hard to really know.
The hints of the hybrid linebacker’s talent, however, may just be presenting themselves at Colorado this season.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, Taylor observed the Sabbath from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays during his high school days by resting and worshipping. Meaning, he didn’t play in Friday night games. So he didn’t star at South Pike High in Mississippi and instead helped fill water bottles before games, then headed home for prayer.
He didn’t give up on his dream, though.
Taylor adjusted his religious observances once he turned 18, attended Coahoma Community College, caught the eye of Colorado, and now everyone’s seeing what South Pike High’s best practice player looks like in the big time .
“I sometimes doubt myself since I didn’t play high school ball. But I know I’m good enough,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Taylor, who had a fumble recovery in a win at Nebraska on Saturday as the Buffaloes moved to 2-0. “I know I made it here for a reason.”
Taylor hails from Magnolia, Mississippi. He’s the son of Stephanie Taylor, who was drawn to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in her early 20s and raised Davion and his older brother Ladarris on the teachings of the religion. Friday nights were for tranquility of mind in keeping the Sabbath. The family prayed, studied the bible and watched Christian programming.
And Saturdays were reserved for church.
“This was a way to keep us spiritually fed,” his mother said.
As a kid, Taylor frequently attended the youth practices of his friends — just to watch and study the game.
He eventually went out for the middle school football team. His coach, John Culpepper, can still recall the first time he spotted Taylor, who was all of 120 pounds at the time.
“A little bitty fella,” said Culpepper, who would later be his varsity coach his senior year at South Pike. “You sometimes overlooked them when they’re that small. But not him. You could see he had all the talent in the world.”
At South Pike High, he prepared like he was a starter and went through all the drills, even if he wasn’t going to see the field. He was like another coach out there.
For Friday night home games, the routine was pretty much the same: Prepare the Gatorade, help line the field and set up the equipment. He would have the pregame meal with the team, wish them luck and head home before sundown.
His friends texted updates. When he had a chance, he’d watch the game film.
“I know,” he said, “that I could’ve helped get us a win or make plays.”
In his senior season, Taylor suited up in one game, since it was an early kickoff and well before sunset. From his safety position, he remembers having an interception and 10 tackles.
Mostly, though, it was just the grind of drills.
“As I was practicing, I just kept thinking, ‘This will just make my story even better,'” said Taylor, a state champion sprinter and triple jumper in high school who missed the state meet his junior year because it was held on a Saturday. “I was like, ‘I’m going to try out somewhere.'”
When he turned 18, his mom left his path up to him — his decisions were his to make, she said. He wanted to play football on the next level even if that meant playing on a Friday or Saturday.
“You have to give them rope,” his mom said. “I always wanted to see him strive to be the best.”
Taylor wants this to be clear: He wasn’t choosing football over his faith. His religion remains of utmost importance to him. He was trying to make both fit harmoniously into his life.
“If I’m doing this good and making it this far, I felt like God is on my side when it comes to this,” Taylor said. “He wouldn’t bring me this far just to let me fail and not be on my side.”
The dilemma: Getting recruiters to take notice with basically no game film. Culpepper put in a good word for him at Coahoma, a school that was featured in an episode of the football documentary “Last Chance U” for a losing streak.
“I told coaches, ‘He’s an athlete. Teach him to play, he’ll be great,'” Culpepper said.
As a walk-on at Coahoma, Taylor was nearly cut. He said he earned one of the last spots.
His freshman season he started the final three games as he moved to linebacker. His sprinter’s speed and raw ability attracted the attention of the Buffaloes, who told him they were interested.
Taylor turned in a monster sophomore season with 87 tackles. He was rated the top junior college outside linebacker in the country.
More schools expressed interest: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Baylor and Vanderbilt, to name a few. He honored his commitment to the Buffaloes after they showed early faith in him.
Taylor enrolled last January and went through spring practice while also competing in track. He finished sixth at the Pac-12 championships in the 100 meters.
To improve on the track, he studies the technique of Jamaican standout Usain Bolt, the world-record holder in the 100 and 200.
To improve on the field, the junior watches the moves of Broncos great Von Miller. Taylor is a hybrid linebacker in Colorado’s scheme and came up with a fumble recovery in the 33-28 win over Nebraska.
“He’s really catching on,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. “Every day you see the light bulb go off a little more.”
Especially in practice, where he’s long excelled.
“I just see myself getting better and better,” Taylor said. “It just gives me more and more belief that I can make it.”
The CBC Foundation panel explored the strategies that African American women are using to mobilize their communities and how their work is changing the face of government and our overall political landscape. In 2017, 98% of black women who voted in Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate made history by electing Alabama’s first Democratic senator in 20 years.
Roland Martin and Mark Thompson, host of SiriusXM’s “Make It Plain” discussed the lack of voter mobilization programs that specifically target African American men after the success of the push to mobilize Black women voters in Alabama.
But a second group of researchers disagreed. They found that whites today simply articulate racial prejudice in new ways.
For example, according to national survey data, high school seniors are increasingly expressing a form of prejudice that sociologist Tyrone Forman calls “racial apathy” – an “indifference toward societal, racial, and ethnic inequality and lack of engagement with race-related social issues.”
Racial apathy is a more passive form of prejudice than explicit articulations of bigotry and racial hostility. But such apathy can nonetheless lead white people to support policies and practices that align with the same racist logic of the past, like a lack of support for social programs and policies designed to address institutional racism or an indifference toward the suffering of people of color.
In order to better understand how white children think about race, I interviewed and observed 30 affluent, white families with kids between the ages of 10 and 13 living in a Midwestern metropolitan area. Over the course of two years, I immersed myself in the everyday lives of these families, observing them in public and in the home, and interviewing the parents and the kids. A few years later, when the kids were in high school, I re-interviewed a subset of the original group.
These children had some shared understandings of race, like the idea that “race is the color of your skin.” But when I brought up topics like racism, privilege and inequality, their responses started to diverge, and there was more variation than I anticipated.
Some kids told me that “racism is not a problem anymore.” But others told me in great detail about the racial wealth gap, employment discrimination, unequal schooling, and racist treatment of black kids by police.
As an 11-year-old named Chris explained:
“I think that the white kids, since they have more power in general in society … disciplinary actions aren’t brought down as hard upon them. But when it’s, you know, a black kid getting in trouble with the police … I think people are going to be tougher with them, because, you know, [black kids] can’t really fight back as well.”
Although some of the kids had much greater understandings of the history of racism in America, others flattened time and lumped all of African-American history together, while also mixing up names and dates.
One 11-year-old named Natalie told me:
“Racism was a problem when all those slaves were around and that, like, bus thing and the water fountain. I mean, everything was crazy back in the olden days. … But now, I mean, since Martin Luther King and, like, Eleanor Roosevelt, and how she went on the bus. And she was African-American and sat on the white part. … After the 1920s and all that, things changed.”
When it came to the understandings of privilege and inequality, some kids made comments like, “There’s no such thing [as privilege]. Everyone gets what they deserve in life, if they work for it.”
Other kids disagreed, like 11-year-old Aaron:
“I think [whites] just kind of have the upside. … And since much of society is run by white people anyway, which is an upside, more white people are, you know, accepted into jobs, so they get the upside. So, yeah, I do think they have the upside.”
I also found that many of the children expressed forms of racial apathy. When a black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer in the community, 16-year-old Jessica told me that she “did not care” about black people being killed because they “obviously did something to deserve it.”
But some kids, like 16-year-old Charlotte, had a very different reaction:
“It should all be stopped. There is actually a problem and a system that allowed this to happen. … Technically, legally, what that officer did was ‘okay’? It’s like, well, maybe that’s the problem. Maybe killing black people shouldn’t be legally ‘okay,’ you know?”
The importance of a child’s social world
Why such stark differences among these kids?
It wasn’t simply a matter of these kids repeating the views of their parents.
I found that their perspectives were shaped less by what their parents explicitly said about race and more by the social environments these kids grew up in – and how their parents constructed these environments.
Decisions parents made about where to live, where to send their kids to school, which extracurricular activities to enroll them in, where they traveled and what media they consumed work to create what I refer to as a child’s “racial context of childhood.”
Within this racial context, kids developed ideas about race by observing and interpreting what was going on around them. And because of important variations in these social environments, the children made sense of race in different ways.
All of these aspects of a child’s social environment play a role in shaping how they learn about race.
Are white kids less racist than their grandparents? My research with kids doesn’t give us any reason to believe that each new generation of white people will naturally or inevitably hold more open-minded and tolerant viewpoints on race than previous generations.
Dismantling racism in the United States will require more than just passive hope.