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Now celebrated as a federal holiday, Juneteenth marks the date of June 19, 1865, when the Union Army arrived in Galveston and announced that the Civil War was over and that the enslaved men, women, and children there were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has been celebrated by many African American communities since the end of the Civil War, but it has remained largely unknown by most Americans until recently. Similarly, the history of the post-emancipation period in Virginia has been incomplete and ignored the accomplishments of many Black Virginians who helped construct a new Virginia in the decades after the Civil War. A recent push by Virginia’s state historical highway marker program has increased the markers focused on African American history to about 17 percent of all markers (excluding those that identify county borders). Lewis Longenecker, a veteran teacher with Cumberland County Public Schools, has taught World Geography, Virginia and United States History, and Civic and Economics courses, where he has emphasized using local primary sources with his students. Currently, he is one of the Library of Virginia’s Brown Teacher Research Fellows.

As a student at Bethany College, my advisor was Dr. Gary Kappel. Among the many big questions we tackled in his Historiography class was the following: What had a greater impact on the time period–events or people?  I do not exactly recall how I answered that question nearly twenty-five years ago; however, the recent unveiling of the Lucyville historical highway marker is salient proof that people make the difference, and it is those who choose to be extraordinary that drive progress.

The first person to inform me of some of Lucyville’s historic figures was the late Mrs. Delma Davenport Branch. In her retirement, she was a substitute teacher with Cumberland County Schools and well known for her commitment to community service. About ten years ago, after subbing in the US History II collaborative class, she told me a little about the founder of her church (Mt. Olive Baptist Church) and his brother-in-law, a member of the House of Delegates. Shortly after the conversation, I went online; however, there was not much information available on church founder Reuben T. Coleman and legislator Shed Dungee at that time. Thanks to the extraordinary people at the Library of Virginia and Virginia Humanities, that has changed. Currently, every African American state lawmaker elected in the nineteenth century now has a well-written biography by the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography, published online at Encyclopedia Virginia. These men also all appear in many Virginia newspapers that are now easily searchable online at the Library’s Virginia Chronicle website, which I learned about in one of the Library’s virtual educational workshops. These and other resources helped my students at Cumberland County Middle School research and advocate for a state historical highway marker about Lucyville and its significant residents.

Upper image: Students, teachers, descendants and guests at a Lucyville field trip. Center image from left: Cloe Buckner, Solonna Robertson, Audrey Dickstien and William DuFrain. Lower image from left: Xavier Bland, Roger Jamerson, Alana Jackson-Lewis and Marlie Alverez.

There were two large challenges in getting a highway marker installed. First, only roughly five per quarter are approved by the board of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Second, an individual or organization must cover the roughly $3,000 cost of the marker. Five years ago, James Lipscomb was the only African American state lawmaker from Cumberland County named on a Virginia historical highway marker. That began to change in 2021, when Cumberland County Middle School  students won the Black History Month Historic Marker Contest for their nomination of entrepreneur and legislator Samuel Bolling. African American state lawmakers of the post-Civil War period, including those from Cumberland County, were among the legislators that played a role in the establishment of public schools, advocated for equality under the law at the state level, and worked to make our representative government more representative.

Rev. Lawanda Hampton welcomes students, descendants and guests to Mount Olive Baptist Church for the speaking portion of the Lucyville Marker Unveiling.

Historical marker contests were a wonderful opportunity for students to provide leadership, improve historical perspective, add historical balance, and thus, help tell a more accurate history through Virginia’s roadside markers. My students gained a realization that there are common values such as the importance of education, unselfishness, service to others, and a love of democracy that people of all backgrounds share. Before the historical marker contests initiated by the previous governor were discontinued, the Virginia DHR website boasted that over 450 students had been engaged in this form of public history. Without the funding provided by the contest, the many potential submissions developed by Cumberland students were not able to move forward. Our regional VEA representative suggested I apply for a National Education Association Foundation Grant to cover the cost of a historical roadside marker–which we got! From there, seventh grade enrichment students used a variety of primary and secondary sources as they collaboratively completed the components of the DHR application for a historical roadside marker about the African American community of Lucyville, which was approved in 2023.

Lucyville Marker Unveiled

Photo Credit: Peter Hedlund/Virginia Humanities

Cumberland Middle School students didn’t do this work because they had to; they did it because they wanted to. Not only did they complete the application for the marker, but they also created additional projects highlighting the Lucyville story. They used primary sources to collaboratively write Story Maps that were later summarized and published as articles in Cardinal News. Some students who could have stayed in an air-conditioned classroom during summer school in 2022 chose instead to clean up the R.T. Coleman Cemetery with the Historic Preservation summer school enrichment class.

Students also wrote, filmed, and narrated (with the assistance of Cainan Townsend, director of the Moton Museum, and Clarence Green, of Underground Shorts Media) a short film, The Chronicles of Lucyville: A Historical Community Forgotten, that premiered at the official unveiling in 2024 of the Lucyville marker, a program also developed by the students.

While students made the Lucyville marker happen, our community was a consistent source of collaboration. The speaking portion of the marker dedication program was held at Mount Olive Baptist Church, the church founded by Rev. R.T. Coleman. AMMD Pine Grove Project, an alumni organization of the historic Pine Grove Tuskegee-Rosenwald School, has been an educational asset. Numerous students have participated in Pine Grove essay contests and/or spoken at the historical roadside marker unveiling last year. The Cumberland County Historical Society has helped us out with local sources. Valued individuals of the Virginia social studies community helped in multiple ways.  Each DHR staff member I have met has been helpful and an asset to our students’ work.

Close-up of the Lucyville Historical Roadside Marker

A major theme of the Lucyville story was the importance of education, as Shed Dungee attended a Freedmen’s School and voted to establish Virginia State University. Following his example, his children taught at Cumberland County Public Schools.  Thanks to Iziah Brown, Destiny Griffin, and Nick Foster, who helped with an email during summer school, Dr. Edward Ayers was persuaded to speak.  He explained and detailed, as only he could, the significance and great sacrifices many made following the Civil War for educational opportunity in Virginia. Lastly, these student experiences would not have happened without the support of colleagues and school administration at Cumberland County Middle School.

Mr. Essex B. Finney Jr. and Mrs. Sandra Trent Davis (Lucyville descendants that participated in partially student led field trips), students that played a role in the Lucyville marker or other Virginia DHR historical roadside markers, students that collaboratively wrote, recorded and narrated the Lucyville Film and the Cumberland Jazz Band (under the direction of Mrs. Victoria Kinney).

Between the valued community members, the Lucyville descendants, the featured speakers (all of whom are nationally recognized in their field) and the brilliant Cumberland Middle School students who made the Lucyville marker happen, many of the brightest and hardest-working individuals on the planet were present to unveil the Lucyville marker on April 18, 2024. However, Cumberland County Public School students are not finished. The John Robinson Virginia historical roadside marker was approved in March and likely will be installed sometime next school year. When the John Robinson marker is installed, all of Cumberland County’s state legislators who either were previously enslaved, or a free African American prior to the Civil War, will be named on a Virginia state historical roadside marker.

Lewis Longenecker

Header Image Citation

Speakers and ushers at the unveiling of the Lucyville marker from left to right: Kamira Holman (CHS Student), Alana Johnson (CHS Student), Audrey Dickstein (CMS Student), Prof. Nikky Finney (Shed Dungee’s Great-Great-Granddaughter, Professor at the University of South Carolina and winner of numerous poetry book awards), Barry Jones (CMS Student), Joey Haigh (CMS Student), Dr. Marilyn White (Shed Dungee’s Great-Granddaughter and Immediate Past President of the American Folklore Society), Abigail Lawson (CMS Student), Dr. Ed Ayers (President Emeritus of the University of Richmond, & winner of numerous national awards for teaching and writing), Mrs. Erlene Coleman Flowers (R.T. Coleman’s Great-Granddaughter, Artist and Educator), Mr. Lew Longenecker (CMS History Teacher) and Chole Buckner (CMS Student)

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