Freedom and Liberation Day illuminates “lost history” of black leadership

When Union soldiers marched into Charlottesville and Albemarle County on March 3, 1865, over half of the population became officially free. So began a period of hope and intense political activity for African Americans in the area.

One elderly slave told a Union soldier at the time, “I’s prayed and I’s prayed for you. And now you’s here. Glory to God.”

Jalane Schmidt, who teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia, shared the quote on March 3 during the second annual celebration of Freedom and Liberation Day. The events of the day began with a procession from UVa down West Main Street and ended with a series of presentations at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.  

“I believe that this is a landmark event for our community, in terms of being able to tell the real story, the full story of what’s transpired here in our community,” said City Councilor Wes Bellamy.

Bellamy helped found Freedom and Liberation Day on the recommendation of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Monuments, and Public Spaces in 2017.

Schmidt, whose research also helped found the holiday, focused her talk on how Charlottesville lost this full story. Philanthropist Paul McIntire’s commissioning of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson memorials played a key role.

“Neither of those Confederate generals ever came to Charlottesville, except Stonewall Jackson, who came through in a coffin on the way to his burial in Lexington,” Schmidt told the audience. “Yet these monuments and the decades of Lost Cause [pro-Confederate] textbooks…have manufactured mistaken memories that have quashed our knowledge of our own local history.”

Over the course of two hours, the speakers at the Jefferson School worked to reveal the history Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments erased.

As the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, a wave of black politicians emerged across the South. They worked together with whites in the Republican Party and the local Readjuster Party to found a critical institution within Virginia –the state public education system.

“When [free, public education] began, it was very much owing to agitation by African Americans after the war,” said Cinder Stanton, former senior historian at Monticello, in an interview.

The demand for public education grew out of the experience of slavery and oppression before the war.

“[Before the Civil War] even free blacks were denied the right to have education in Charlottesville and Albemarle,” said UVa history professor Ervin L. Jordan in an interview. Jordan also spoke during Freedom and Liberation Day.

“There are many examples of people trying to secure an education secretly. There were slaves at the University of Virginia who made it their business to overhear white students,” he said. “They saw it as one of the key ways to secure their citizenship as well as future.”

James T.S. Taylor was the only black man elected in Albemarle County during Reconstruction. He was born free in Berryville, Virginia and served in the Union army during the war. As Albemarle’s representative to the 1867-1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention, he participated in an unsuccessful vote for integrated public schools.

But even segregated schools were contentious. In some places in Virginia, “parents armed themselves to accompany their children to school. [Plenty of whites] were determined that these people were going to be bound to the land,” Jordan said.

Truly escaping slavery meant both education and landownership. In 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Property to settle white and black refugees of the war and handle ex-Confederate property.

“Freed slaves, one of the things they wanted was the right to own property,” Jordan explained. “Many of them expected that the Freedmen’s Bureau was going to give them land. They expected the Bureau would confiscate ex-Confederate land and distribute it to free black folks.”

Such land redistribution did happen in some places in Virginia, but in Charlottesville, the Bureau told ex-slaves that they would have to look after themselves. Over time, many ex-slaves throughout Virginia “returned to working the land that other people owned,” Jordan said.

Taylor and fellow community leader Jesse Scott Sammons were among the African Americans who did manage to buy land locally. Sammons was also born free, and in the early 1880s, he bought 73 acres of land in the Hydraulic Mills-Union Ridge neighborhood, close to where Albemarle High School is today.

Almost sixty other black landowners lived in and around the Hydraulic Mills, which ground wheat and corn into the 1890s. Most owned five to ten acres of land each. By the 1940s, much of the community was gone. 

“Most of the farm part of [Sammons’] land was sold off by his widow and children in the 20th century – in fact the whole thing,” said Stanton, who has researched the neighborhood. “Nothing is in the family or the descendants now. All the Sammons children moved north, so there was nobody around directly related to him.”

We can’t solve our problems if we don’t know our history.

John Edwin Mason, UVa history professor

John Edwin Mason, UVa history professor

While Sammons’ descendants moved north and to other parts of the United States, demographics were changing in their hometown. According to the 1860 census, Albemarle County included 13,916 slaves, 606 free blacks, and 12,103 whites. Albemarle’s black population lost the majority in the 1890 census, and by 1940, the region was over 77 percent white.

“That’s African Americans voting with their feet. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity here in Charlottesville,” said John Edwin Mason, who teaches the history of Africa and photography at UVA. Mason was also vice chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race.

Black people were voting with their feet, because they were losing their right to vote by ballot.

The first loss came in 1876, when the Virginia General Assembly began requiring voters to pay a tax at the polls and banned potential voters who had been convicted of petty offences, like stealing chickens. The voting barriers worked; the total number of voters declined ten percent in Virginia immediately after the changes, according to Virginia Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia. 

In 1902, Virginia used new poll taxes to exclude 90 percent of the remaining African American voters and 50 percent of white voters who could not afford to pay. By 1924, when three-year-old Margaret Walker Lee unveiled the statue of her great-grandfather Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville, the area was deep in the Jim Crow era of segregation and disenfranchisement.

“We can’t solve our problems if we don’t know our history,” Mason told the crowd at the Jefferson Center. “Charlottesville is grappling with a housing crisis right now, an affordability housing crisis. That affordability housing crisis has very deep roots that extend back beyond World War II, back beyond World War I.”

Mason suggested that hanging up old photographs of Charlottesville’s African American community in schools and government buildings would help.

“Transform some of these pictures into murals. Let’s embody on the landscape this lost history, in the same way that Robert E. Lee is in the landscape telling a particular story about history,” Mason said. “The beauty of these photographs is that it doesn’t have to be expensive. To create them as a mural or to put them on a billboard, we’re not talking about a lot of money.”

Since the founding of the Blue Ribbon Commission, such ideas have proliferated. A monument to Vinegar Hill is still seeking public and private funding. Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, is undergoing a public renaming process; the survey of potential names went live at on March 6. Most recently, on Monday night, Schmidt and Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy updated City Council on plans to memorialize John Henry James, a victim of lynching in Albemarle County.