Listen: The Community Speaks
“Listen, The Community Speaks”
gathers remembrances from Fauquier natives
“Listen: The Community Speaks,” an oral history project conducted by the Afro-American Historical Association, will wrap up at the end of June 2019. The PATH Foundation awarded a grant in 2018 to the AAHA so it could capture the memories of African-American residents who were raised in Fauquier County’s black neighborhoods 50 or more years ago.
It all started with a roundtable discussion in April 2018 at Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Morgantown. Twenty participants with Fauquier County roots gathered to compare notes on their impressions of the Free State area near Marshall when they were growing up. Angela Hughes Davidson, community relations coordinator at AAHA and a moderator of the discussion, said it “was unbelievable because it ended up being a therapeutic session. People started talking about things that happened to them as a result of the integration process.”
Over the course of a year, 15 interviews have been conducted, some with individuals and some with groups. They were focused on Fauquier County’s black neighborhoods – in Ashville, Crest Hill, Frytown, Haiti, Hurleytown, Morgantown, OliverCity, Orlean, Shipmadilly, Tall Timbers, The Plains and Waterloo.
The conversations usually started out with a question about what participants remembered about their childhoods. The memories would start flowing slowly, then the remembrances tumbled over one another, rushing into shared reminiscences and overflowing the boundaries of the project.
Some of the memories are joyful, others poignant or scary; there was a lot of shared laughter as the participants discovered common ground and mutual experiences.
The Rev. Phillip C. Lewis was asked about his neighborhood in Ashville. He said, “There was a connection – I tell folks that if I did something down the road, by the time I got home somebody would have called Mom and Dad and it wouldn’t be no disputing the story.”
Churches were at the heart of all the neighborhoods. Lewis said he was baptized “at the little branch that runs down behind Miss Ethel and Mr. Ben King…. They would dam it up and go down in there. Daddy would be the one helping Rev. (Arthur) Stuart. He had his little boots on too and walk into the mud into the branch.”
He added about the influence of the church on his boyhood, “We would always be comparing notes. You bounce from Ashville to Rectortown and everybody there knew me, knew Daddy, and you’d get a little sermon there and you’d get a little sermon here.”
Lewis talked about his school years, “… when we were kids, we would get up early in the morning, we would go down to the school, start the fire, so it would be warm when everybody got to school … a little one-room school. I was there for seven grades.”
Almost all the participants had memories to share of the “colored” schools they attended, one-room schoolhouses without indoor plumbing or central heating. Fauquier County had eight Rosenwald schools, supported by Sears & Roebuck co-owner Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who helped build more than 5,300 schools for black children across the South. They comprised half of the all-black schools in the area during the first half of the 20th century.
Several “Listen: The Community Speaks” interviewees told harrowing stories they had heard from their aunts and uncles or grandparents. One remembered, “My great-grandmothers … both of them had experiences where they were raped by the slave owner. In one instance … he raped her and pushed her down in the cellar and threatened her that if she told his wife then she would be harmed worse … that would have been in the Warrenton area.”
Some talked about barriers to voting, like the poll tax, which they said was 50 cents or $1. During the Shipmadilly interview, one man said, “My mom didn’t vote; my dad didn’t either. As a matter of fact, in my neighborhood of Shipmadilly I don’t believe any of the families voted back then (in the 1940s).”
Project nearing its close
Video has been captured, memories transcribed. As the “Listen: The Community Speaks” project nears its close, AAHA staff returned to Mount Nebo to reconnect a year later with folks from the Morgantown neighborhood on the outskirts of Marshall. Some participants had been interviewed in 2018; others were sharing for the first time.
As the group compared experiences, AAHA executive director Karen White was able to list a dozen or so black families who lived near “Free State” over the years. White seems to know who married who, what their pre-married names were, how many children they had and where they lived, where they went to church and where they were buried. “Census records show how closely related we are,” she said.
Davidson focused the group’s attention on the mid-1960s. One gentleman said that as a teenager, he applied to be a waiter at Airlie, but was put to work as a dishwasher. A person who applied after him, he said, who was white, got the job as a waiter. “I kept my mouth shut, so I could keep the job. It was a good place to work and when they had events, I got to be a waiter,” he said.
Davidson pointed out that Airlie was one of the first businesses in Fauquier to hire blacks. “Of course, you could always find work in private homes …”
The man added when he and his wife wanted to buy a house, they couldn’t get a loan. “She worked at the bank, and they wouldn’t give her a loan,” he said.
He said that someone at another bank stood up for him and they got the money they needed to buy their first house. “It took someone to give you a chance.”
Davidson asked, “Our first black president was elected in 2008. First thoughts? How did you feel?”
The question elicited broad smiles all around.
“I was crying, I was so excited.”
Gene Tines, an AAHA volunteer, said that he remembers that Rectortown rented a bus for the 2008 inauguration.
Doris Fletcher, who grew up in Ashville, remembered going to both inaugurations. “It was something to see,” she enthused.
But several roundtable participants said they were afraid for the Obamas. One remembered, “He reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr., because he spoke about change. But there were threats. I truly hoped that nothing would happen to them.”
Davidson and Hughes are grateful to all the people who agreed to share their stories. Davidson said, “This has been fantastic. When I was young, kids couldn’t always stay in the house when adults were talking, but when you were allowed to, it was wonderful.”
Participant Rosetta Taylor D’Antignac added, “We used to laugh and talk about how we used to sit there like a fly on the wall; I’d be so quiet and the next thing I know they’d be talking and my mother would look around and tell us to ‘get on out of here, grown people talking’ ... There was so much wisdom in those old people’s stories and tales.”
For those Fauquier residents who would like to be a fly on the wall in the county’s traditional black neighborhoods, video and audio files as well as written transcripts of all the conversations may be found at the AAHA headquarters at 4243 Loudoun Ave. in The Plains. The AAHA is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and may be reached at 540-253-7488 or by email at email@example.com.
PATH Foundation Grant
The Afro-American Historical Association received a grant from the PATH Foundation for $65,765 to fund a “Perpetual Blackness” podcast as well as the oral history project “Listen the Community Speaks.” About $23,000 is designated for the oral histories.
Christy Connelly, president and CEO of PATH, said, “Every community can benefit as history is told through the eyes of its earliest residents. This in-depth understanding of the local history of our rural African American community will encourage education and open dialogue, important aspects for a vibrant community.”
As part of the PATH grant, AAHA was also able to have oral histories from 2001-2002 transferred from VHS to digital files, “so they will be available for folks to listen to for years to come,” said AAHA Executive Director Karen Hughes.