Beyond Solomon Northrup: Twelve years an education
In the 150 years since the Civil War, we in America have had time to listen and learn, time to hunger for details in our collective story. Thanks to historians who keep unearthing buried treasures, we know a lot more about our American experience. A Preserve America grant administered by the National Park Service helped Spotsylvania County, Va., open an African American Heritage Trail and share untold tales of civil war and civil rights, emancipation and education. Eleven road signs now reveal regional and national stories we didn’t learn in history class.
Driving Spotsylvania’s trail
The John J. Wright Museum and Cultural Center is the place to begin the trail. This was the first school in Spotsylvania that gave African-Americans more than seven years of education. Museum director Roger Braxton, who led the creation of the heritage trail, said, “I wanted to preserve the material history of African-American education in my hometown because it was in danger of being lost.”
Braxton returned to his Spotsylvania home after a career in the U.S. Army piloting planes and leading multicultural educational programs. In 2007, with Terry Miller, he authored the Arcadia Press-published African Americans of Spotsylvania.
“Once schools became integrated, collections of African-American students’ sports trophies, yearbooks, and photos were taken down,” said Braxton, who’s making it his mission to collect and share this personal heritage. He and assistant director Denise Benedetto have interviewed senior residents whose oral histories can now be seen and heard at the Wright Museum.
Braxton recommends visiting the Spotsylvania Courthouse, which has some of the most complete public records of any courthouse in America. Confederates buried the records during the Civil War so they wouldn’t be looted or burned as they were elsewhere. The Spotsylvania County Jail holds enough stories for several feature-length films. Learn about two slave sisters, servants to a local judge, who were jailed here and eventually released. The old jail will soon become a museum.
By the mid-1900s, one-room schoolhouses were still used to educate African-American children in Spotsylvania. Leaders from 12 churches calling themselves the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union pooled resources, bought land, built structures, and hired teachers. This four-score-plus history with still-standing tiny schoolhouses is right down I-95, a little more than an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C.
Braxton and his classmates who attended the Wright School were the first to graduate with 12 years of schooling in 1962. He and Benedetto, together with cultural leaders in adjoining Stafford County and Fredericksburg, are telling stories that go beyond Kunta Kinte of Roots fame, including those of Henry Box Brown who shipped himself to freedom, and Solomon Northrup, whose story was told in the book and film Twelve Years a Slave.
You can see sites related to all these characters in Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Fredericksburg, but the Spotsylvania African American Heritage Trail also provides insight into the struggles and achievements of African-Americans in more modern times. Take the drive. You’ll get an education.
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