Changing the Narrative: Students tell undertold stories of the black community through paintings

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — If you walk into the Smith House art gallery during the month of February, you'll be greeted with a series of paintings, all telling the under told stories of African Americans in Harrisonburg.

Susan Zurbrigg, an art professor at James Madison, is behind the "Changing the Narrative" project which was funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Virginia Humanities Foundation.

"This project is to redress some of the cultural erasure that has existed for African Americans in the Valley and the United States," Zurbrigg said. "It is to bring to light the stories and histories of African Americans who have really had to live with the unfortunate circumstances of segregation and racism."

Each painting, completed by students ages 14-18 during a one week span, gives a visual representation of the black experience in the Shenandoah Valley.

The exhibit includes paintings of the historic Dallard-Newman House, Newtown, the first black Mennonites, and Urban Renewal.

"The historic Dallard-Newman house was built by former slaves. One student created a beautiful piece that has hands moving across the structure to show the many hands that are coming together. It also has the Northern Star to represent the former slaves who inhabited it," Zurbrigg said.

Two paintings represent the detrimental effects that Urban Renewal had on the black community during the 1960s and 1970s.

"Homes that were built and owned by African Americans were destroyed through fires or wrecking balls, and it was a sad chapter in which African Americans were not able to build equity and their own businesses," Zurbrigg said. "This left a scar on Harrisonburg's history."

One student explored the life of Roberta Webb, a black Mennonite woman whose two daughters were denied acceptance into Eastern Mennonite University because of their race.

Another student focused on the Harris pool. It was a place built for blacks in Newtown, but it was shut down in the 1980s.

"It was a wonderful place for the community to swim and have joy, but it was filled with cement, and a church was built on top of it," Zurbrigg said. "It really left an absence of an easy, walkable, convenient, and local community pool."

This exhibit also includes an art intervention that commemorates Charlotte Harris, a black woman who was lynched by a white mob near Harrisonburg in 1878.

"Change the Narrative" will be on display until the end of February.