African Americans in Shenandoah County
The first African Americans were brought to Shenandoah County as slaves during the 18th century. The exact date of their arrival is unknown, but we do know that by 1783 there were 362 slaves in the county. That number would grow to 2,423 in 1820 when one in seven people were slaves. These individuals were considered to be property, had no rights, and were viewed as less than human. Almost everyone accepted and participated in this system. Records indicate only a few individuals ever openly opposed slavery in this area.
Few of the slaves are remembered today. They left behind almost no written records. The only physical reminders of their presence are their burial sites and the buildings they were forced to construct for their masters.
The Civil War changed black and white relations. Shenandoah County strongly supported the Confederate States of America and fought to preserve slavery. In the end, the Federal Government emerged victorious and passed the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. Soon after that, the 14th amendment was also ratified. It granted citizenship to all people in the United States and demanded they be given equal protection under the law.
Southerners reacted quickly to these new laws and the Federal government attempts to enforce them. They were determined to ensure whites remained socially and economically dominate in a society where other races were now considered to be people instead of property. So they passed laws that enforced racial segregation.
These became known as “Jim Crow” laws. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of these actions in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision which declared that public facilities could be segregated under the doctrine “separate but equal.” Local residents worked hard to ensure Jim Crow was established in Shenandoah County. Sometimes they even resorted to violence. By the beginning of the 20th century segregation, both formal and informal, was part of Shenandoah County.
Almost every town had separate black and white communities defined by geography and enforced by social standards. The African American section was often in the poorer part of town where government services, adequate housing, and opportunities were lacking. Though children from both races often played together, and adults could come and go freely, both communities kept to themselves. These areas had separate schools, churches, restaurants, and social institutions.
This system was enforced in accordance with the laws of Virginia. Police could be used to enforce these restrictions. However, they were rarely needed. Instead, locals followed the established system’s unwritten rules for fear of being ostracized from society and most believed as long as everyone stayed in their place, everything would be fine. If all else failed, things got dirty. The KKK and other organizations were active in this area. Crosses would be burned as warnings to those who did not follow the system.
In the 1960s this began to change. Despite overwhelming resistance from whites, African Americans began to integrate local schools and institutions. It would take many decades for their work to be completed. Some informal segregation lasted until the 1990s.
Even when segregation began to fade, its effects did not. The majority of the African Americans had departed the county to find better economic opportunities and today their communities are a shadow of their former selves. While this happens, their collective memory begins to fade. Today many people in the county do not know there was ever a large black population here or that there were ever any racial issues. Unfortunately this has created a silence that leaves our history as one the last segregated segments of society.
This tour seeks to address this issue by interpreting some of the many African American related history sites in Shenandoah County.