Historic highway marker to be placed outside African-American school house in Strasburg

Published: Jun. 23, 2020 at 6:55 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — Last Thursday, Governor Ralph Northam announced 20 newly approved state historical highway markers that address Virginia’s African-American history; and one of those will be placed in the town of Strasburg.

Since last year, the Queen Street Sunset Hill Alumni organization has been working with the town on the application to get the marker approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources.

The Queen Street School, one of the first schools in Shenandoah County for Black people, had opened in Strasburg by 1875. After a fire in 1929, a new school known as Sunset Hill was built there in 1930 to serve grades 1-7.

Marquetta Mitchell worked on the application and went to the old schoolhouse when she was a kid.

“I can tell you, when I went to school there, we did not know anything about putting up a landmark but we knew that at some point the schools would be integrated,” Mitchell said.

Because the county had no high school for African-American students, graduates had to go elsewhere to attend higher grades, including as far as Winchester.

“I remember thinking, ‘oh boy, I can’t wait to go to that school’ because all the teenagers went there,” Mitchell said. “They all were at the bus stop singing, playing, just doing all teenage kinds of things.”

African-American residents petitioned for better facilities, and the school board considered building a new segregated elementary school as late as 1962, eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.

But in 1964, Sunset Hill closed when Shenandoah County schools were fully desegregated.

Now, more than 50 years later, the Commonwealth will present a historic sign to be placed outside the school building. A stake currently sits in the ground where the marker will be placed but the town expects that to change soon.

“The next step would be an official notification to the applicant,” Lee Pambid, the town planner, said. “In all that information that we have seen so far, the next step is to have the sign forged.”

Mitchell said a dedication will happen for the marker as a way the community can continue to learn from their past.

“Whether history is good, bad, ugly, or different, the acceptance of history as it is, is the beginning of bringing people together,” Mitchell said.

Another marker involving African-American history in the Commonwealth will be placed at Court Square in Harrisonburg for Charlotte Harris, the only documented lynching of an African-American woman in Virginia.

About a dozen disguised people took Charlotte Harris from the custody of jailers in eastern Rockingham County on the night of March 6, 1878, and hanged her from a tree.

A grand jury that met here failed to identify any of the lynchers. Harris had been accused of inciting a young African-American man to burn the barn of a white farmer.

This man was later acquitted of all charges.

This application was submitted by the Northeast Neighborhood Association (NENA), who said they were thrilled the historical marker for Charlotte Harris had been approved by HDR. The organization said they would like to thank the committee that worked on the amazing accomplishment.

Copyright 2020 WHSV. All rights reserved.

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