From Buffalo Forge To Lylburn Downing School

From Buffalo Forge To Lylburn Downing School

ABOVE, THE 1948 Lylburn Downing School baseball team can be seen in this photo that’s courtesy of the Rockbridge Historical Society and W&L Special Collections. BELOW, AN ADVERTISEMENT in the Lexington Gazette’s May 21, 1863, issue offered a $200-$250 reward for return of three runaway slaves: Sandy, Bryant and Jerry. All three men had been recently purchased by Rockbridge industrialist Samuel Jordan, presumably to work at his Buena Vista Furnace Works.

From Buffalo Forge To Lylburn Downing School
From Buffalo Forge To Lylburn Downing School

ATTENDEES of the State Convention of the Virginia Federation of Colored Women in June 1921 are photographed on the steps of Blandome, the home atop Diamond Hill owned by Harry Lee and Eliza Bannister Walker. Eliza Walker was president of the VFCW’s local Rockbridge Chapter. (photo courtesy of the Rockbridge Historical Society and W&L Special Collections)

Historical Society Offering ‘Local Black Histories’ Series

Over the past six weeks, the Rockbridge Historical Society has been digitally sharing a summer-long series on “Local Black Histories.”

As it grows online, this archive is gathering RHS articles, image galleries, primary sources, and multimedia links to help illustrate the lives and contributions of African-American residents across four centuries of Rockbridge history.

Eric Wilson, executive director of the Rockbridge Historical society, said the currency and urgency of the Black Lives Matters movement – and the expressed curiosities of a growing number of community members – is leading RHS to share these resources more widely.

Its website will both add and interconnect new materials as the series chronologically and thematically develops through September, to further remain as part of its standing digital collections. That archive is now accessible at

The Local Black Histories series is among the thematic “portals” currently on the website, which also include ones on Memorial Days and World War II, Hurricane Camille, and the 1918- 1920 Influenza Pandemic, all clusters that the organization has been developing since April, to provide free community sourced content through the COVID-19 closures.

Wilson explained this broad attention to a range of local African-American histories through the 19th and 20th centuries builds on a foundation of programs, articles and newsletters that RHS has produced, published and posted over the past four decades. Some items from the present menu are thumb-nailed below, with others to be spooled out in months ahead. Over time, these materials, he said, will push beyond some of the more familiar touch points before and during the Civil War, to wrestle with the long shadow of Jim Crow and trace some of the new turns and alignments through the steps of desegregation.

Wilson said this “community syllabus” of sorts was given a timely spur, at the year’s midpoint, leading toward the Juneteenth celebrations that have been growing locally and nationally in recent decades. RHS first explored its long and local histories in 2018 (see tinyurl. com/RHS-Juneteenth).

Juneteenth heralds the “final” end of slavery, as announced to the Confederacy’s last slaves in Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865, although the 13th Amendment would not be ratified until Dec. 6. In the 150 years since, a range of African-American community gatherings and rituals have evolved through a range of witness and traditions: often in family and church reunions, with distinctive cultural, musical and even distinct culinary traditions. And just last week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared Juneteenth to be a state holiday.

This year, Project Horizon and 50 local artists brought new attention to these shared celebrations, piloting a Juneteenth Art Show (still open at the Nelson Gallery through June 27). Since the beginning of June, paintings submitted by local children have graced the storefronts of Main Street businesses and restaurants.

Given its broader theme of “Freedom,” Project Horizon invited the Rockbridge Historical Society to support the exhibition by broadcasting some historical contexts. In turn, RHS’ website can now include some of those images – a community record all their own – to memorialize this moment in time.

Wilson said a common criticism of a singular “Black History” is that in textbooks or Black History Month events or popular media, the arc of significance too often, too breezily tends to jump from Southern slavery, to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to Dr. King’s Dream. These are key benchmarks, indeed, but merely a few, he said. This series looks to provide a broad and accessible reference, both for the general public, and for schools and university use.

The first cluster of articles focuses on 18th and 19th century Rockbridge and Lexington. Several pieces highlight local experiences, attitudes, and systemic dimensions of slavery in the first 100-plus years of local settlement, when the Valley, and newly established county and city, were increasingly populated by both immigrants and natives of varied European and African descent.

On the eve of the Civil War, the 1860 Rockbridge census showed that 23 percent of the county’s residents were enslaved, most commonly depended on for agricultural, industrial, and domestic labor. Additional enslaved workers were rented from other areas in the Valley, or across the Blue Ridge, often appearing on government and property records kept where their owners lived. A smaller number of free people of color lived here as well. And in the arc of time, many women and men emancipated themselves by running away, and others would find their way to serve in United States Colored Troops.

Helping to tell that story was Fitzhugh Brundage in his RHS program “Shifting Attitudes Towards Slavery in Antebellum Rockbridge County,” which he researched during a fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House in the 1980s. His essay, now featured in the online series, examines a range of local writings and speeches about slavery, between the 1790s and 1860s. Through detailed economic and census data, excerpts from diaries and local newspapers, and profiles of the many white and black residents that matter centrally in the primary sources, he provides key grounds to understand the systemic dimensions of enslaved labor, output and ownership in Rockbridge.

Brundage’s more general overview is complemented by Charles Dew’s “Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge,” a 1994 program whose highly local analysis is even more intricately mapped in his prizewinning book, “Bond of Iron.” Dew’s extended case study centers on William Weaver’s iron-making and agricultural complex in southern Rockbridge, a syndicate of regional forges and furnaces he operated from the 1820s until his death in 1863. Although conventional images of slavery tend to envision either fieldwork or housework, the enterprise at Buffalo Forge was also critically dependent on skilled craftsmen and early industrial laborers (some owned, some rented, some already free), to drive its manufacturing, cultivation, and commerce.

Other contributions to the series turn to more specific profiles of women and men whose lives transitioned from bondage to freedom. Larry Spurgeon, a genealogist who’s worked with staff at the Stonewall Jackson House, has quilted together a range of half-seen threads: snatches of newspaper accounts and personal letters, as well as family ties within the era, and on down through descendent communities. Cumulatively, his own original research illuminates the biographies of seven men, women, and children who were owned by Thomas J. Jackson when he taught at VMI, as well some of their life-trails after emancipation and into the 20th century, building new families and networks in Lincoln County, N.C.

In offering his previously unpublished manuscript as a new element to this new archive of “Local Black Histories,” Spurgeon provides fresh facts and encounters for both residents here and a wider audience of Civil War readers: all cueing new insights, interpretations and new questions, said Wilson. In offering his previously unpublished manuscript as a new element to the “Local Black Histories” archive, Spurgeon provides facts for new encounters by residents here, and a wider audience of Civil-War readers - all cueing new insights, interpretations and new questions, by turns, said Wilson.

In a future article for The News-Gazette, RHS will sketch another portrait it has newly, singularly discovered. Its hero was born into slavery in 1806, owned by one of the Rockbridge County’s prominent early families. After being moved to Missouri in the 1820s with three families settling westward, he would famously risk his life in 1863 to foil a Confederate plot to blow up a bridge in the Civil War’s western theater. Since 1876, his likeness stands as the life-model for the emancipation memorial in Lincoln Park, the first statue in the nation’s capital to include a black man, and paid in full by the contributions of freedmen and women.

This week’s web-posts were written by two Lexington natives. David Coffey unfolds a harrowing portrait of local race relations that goes beyond the Civil War into the two decades that followed emancipation. Published in 1999, “Reconstruction and Redemption in Lexington,” chronicles the arrival, backlash and failure of the Freedman’s Bureau’s tenure in Rockbridge. Coffey outlines how Lexington’s post-war recovery was also scarred by violence: street-fights with local students and cadets, reports of threatening “nightriders” in the countryside, physical attacks on black residents, and on white teachers who’d come to teach in the new “Colored School” on Randolph Street. Most chillingly, in June 1869, Jesse Edwards, who had been accused of murder, would be pulled from the county jail in June 1869, then lynched, with the editor of the Virginia Gazette pronouncing that “righteous retribution” had been done.

Coffey’s narrower window is coupled with Ted DeLaney’s longer, institutional survey of “Aspects of Black Religious and Educational Development in Lexington, 1840-1928.” He chronicles the establishment and growth of Lexington’s increasingly overcrowded “Graded Colored School” on Randolph Street (1865-1920s), before the opening of Lylburn Downing School atop Diamond Hill (1927- 1965). Along with its key focus on schools, DeLaney’s survey also points to the first and crucial priorities of local freed people, who invested time and monies to establish several churches within the first five years after emancipation, still operating as Randolph United Methodist Church (1865), First Baptist Church, Lexington (1867) and First Baptist Natural Bridge (1870).

Area residents can access this growing portal of resources at the RHS website, or join its email series by writing to receive links and copies of this works, and notice of web-postings and related events ahead.

The News-Gazette

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