Gov. Ralph Northam announced five new state historical highway markers that address topics of national, state, and regional significance to African American history in the Commonwealth. These markers were submitted by Virginia students through the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest.
“The contributions of influential African Americans have frequently been ignored, underrepresented, and even silenced,” said Northam. “With this initiative, we have asked students and teachers to help us tell a more accurate, comprehensive, and inclusive Virginia story by suggesting new historical markers that recognize Black Virginians and the important ways they have shaped our shared history. I am grateful to all those who have joined in our efforts to build a strong and equitable Commonwealth.”
The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest invites students, teachers, and families to learn more about African Americans who have made important contributions to Virginia history and submit ideas for new historical markers to the Department of Historical Resources. This year, 100 submissions were received and five were selected for installation.
“It was important for us to provide a unique opportunity for our students to get involved with their education by allowing them to think more deeply about Virginia history,” said Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia’s Chief Diversity Officer. “This contest elevated the need to integrate Black history into the history taught in our classrooms because Black history is American history. As we launch the ONE Virginia plan, we are providing schools with resources that will guide conversation and promote equity by telling a fuller and more complete version of Virginia’s history.”
The student winners and the names and text of five new markers are as follows:
“Dangerfield and Harriet Newby” (Culpeper County), nominated by Sofia Rodriguez, Michael Burgess, and Valia Anderson from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia. Dangerfield Newby, who was born enslaved in Virginia and later lived free in Ohio, was killed in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry as he fought to free his wife, Harriet, and their children from slavery.
“Mary Richards Bowser (Richmond City), nominated by Larissa Chambers, Sonia Alam, Hailey Solar, and Allison McKenzie from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia. Bowser, born enslaved, became a missionary to Liberia, a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the Civil War, and a teacher at freedmen’s schools.
“John Lyman Whitehead Jr.” (Brunswick County), nominated by Jashanti Valentine from Brunswick High School in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Born near Lawrenceville, Whitehead served in World War II as a Tuskegee Airman and is credited with being the Air Force’s first African American test pilot and the first African American jet pilot instructor.
“Edwin Bancroft Henderson” (Falls Church), nominated by Sullivan Massaro from Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, Virginia. Henderson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame known as the “Father of Black Basketball,” organized athletic leagues for African Americans, wrote The Negro in Sports (1939), organized the first rural chapter of the NAACP, and was president of the NAACP Virginia state conference as he worked for civil rights.
“Samuel P. Bolling” (Cumberland County), nominated by Ashley Alvarez, Allecia Mitchell, Anna Parker, Alex Hernandez, Christopher McCoy, Adalie Ruehrmund, and Harley Thurston from Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland, Virginia. Born into slavery in 1819, Bolling later became a successful entrepreneur and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a member of the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that accomplished significant reforms in the 1880s.
Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. Route 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. This program is an effort to recognize and chronicle events, accomplishments, sacrifices, and personalities of historic importance to Virginia’s story. The signs are known for their black lettering against a silver background and their distinctive shape. The Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Department of Transportation co-manage the program.
Virginia has erected more than 2,600 markers along Virginia’s roadways, but only 350 markers highlighted African Americans as of January 2020. Since then, 42 state historical highway markers about African American history have been approved. Ten of these new markers were suggested by students during the Governor’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest in 2020, and the five new markers are expected to be approved by the Board of Historic Resources for approval at its upcoming meeting on June 17.