Remembering Local Newtowns

By: Anna Lysa-Gayle Email
By: Anna Lysa-Gayle Email

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -- Take a walk down memory lane with the people who have seen two historic communities treasured by African Americans transformed from segregation to now.

The places are known as Newtown; one in Staunton and another in Harrisonburg and Ophie Kier, Gloria Carter and Kenneth Venable grew up in those two cities and have old memories of Newtown.

Over the years, the two historically black communities have changed in more ways than one.

"It made us feel kind of lost because that was our own. That was our own little neighborhood. That was our own little place to go," said Carter, who lived in Harrisonburg's Newtown.

That place Carter called her own was destroyed in the 1960s due to an urban renewal project.

Before parking lots were put in the area near Roses in Harrisonburg, there were homes and Carter lived in one of them.

"I had three small children at the time and they just set them on fire. Can you imagine a two story home being burned right beside you?" asked Carter.

The Rockingham County Administration Center was one of the buildings built after homes were destroyed in the Newtown area.

Ophie Kier and Kenneth Venable also remember their historic Newtown with problems of its own.

Once known for being a segregated area; a place where many black families lived and many black businesses flourished.

"Augusta Street was known as where all the really professional black businesses were. If you looked as far as dentist offices," said Venable, who grew up in Staunton's Newtown Historic District.

Venable remembers a time when playing basketball when what is now the community center was once his high school.

He attended Booker T. Washington High School; a segregated school designed only for blacks.

He graduated in 1965 and his class was the last group of all black students before integration.

"We walked to school. We walked everywhere because it was no busing for us, but it was busing for white students," said Venable.

For Kier, even the water fountains in his high school were segregated.

"And it actually had a sign up in front of it, colored and this one would have one in front of it, white," said Kier, who grew up in Staunton's Newtown Historic District.

Kier said back then, going to the theater was not allowed as Staunton's Dixie Theater was also segregated.

His experience in Staunton schools, differed from Venable's because he was one of the first children in the area to attend school with white students.

"The name calling, the threats. Yeah there was a challenge at first, people aren't accepting at first light, so it took a while to be accepted," said Kier, "Back during the 50s and 60s. African Americans didn't speak of the atrocities that they suffered, the hardships that they suffered because it was a bit humiliating."

One event Kier vividly remembers, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

"I refused to go to school the date of his funeral and I received my first zero, I believe then," said Kier.

Both Newtowns have changed dramatically with black businesses torn down and new buildings erected.

"The businesses were a necessity at one point in time, because that was the only place you could purchase," said Kier.

While competition forced those businesses to close, Staunton's Newtown is now left with abandoned homes in need of repair, which is something Kier, now a member of the Staunton City Council, hopes to change.

"Newtown to me right now means, we have a community that has to recover. It's going to take the restoration of these buildings and putting people in them that want that community setting back," said Kier.

One thing both Newtowns will always have is a rich black history and Venable said education is the key to moving forward.

"You have to really pick yourself up, learn as much as you can. Don't wait for someone to give it to you," said Venable. is happy to provide a forum for commenting and discussion. Please respect and abide by the house rules:

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