African and African American Studies Presents ‘Lost and Found Stories’ in Symposium

Posted: November 18, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: November 17, 2010 at 4:41 pm

By Robin Herron

Wendi Manuel-Scott, director of African and African American Studies. Creative Services photo

Finding the hidden history of local African Americans was the goal of a daylong symposium held at Mason on Nov. 13 titled “Lost and Found Stories: African Americans in Northern Virginia.”

Organized by African and African American Studies (AAAS) and attended by approximately 100 people, the program partly grew out of AAAS director Wendi Manuel-Scott’s interest in recovering the history of African Americans in Northern Virginia communities.

A resident of Leesburg, Va., for the past five years, Manuel-Scott began exploring the history of her community through the Thomas Balch Library, a history and genealogy library in Leesburg, and the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee.

At the same time, Manuel-Scott, an associate professor of history and art history, began working with the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation in Falls Church, Va. Mason and the foundation are collaborating on a project titled “100 Years of African American Life and Leadership in Falls Church, Virginia,” which received funding in September from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Through her involvement in these projects, Manuel-Scott discovered that many people from a variety of backgrounds were interested in the history of African Americans in Northern Virginia. School teachers, museum curators, park employees, church members and curious citizens were researching black cemeteries, churches and communities, and were writing pamphlets and books and collecting oral histories. Some were doing it out of an interest in their community, while others wanted to know more about their own family histories.

Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of American, African American and Public History. Creative Services photo

“We decided to bring together all the people in one space and talk about black history in Northern Virginia,” Manuel-Scott says. “All of the presenters have spent years and years in the archives.”

The symposium’s morning session focused on Loudoun County, with several members of the Balch Library’s Black History Committee presenting. The afternoon session focused on Fairfax County. Altogether, eight different presentations revealed a past that is often neglected in the history books, from black communities that were obliterated by development to undocumented cemeteries where African Americans of historical stature are buried.

Keynote speaker Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of American, African American and Public History, opened the symposium by talking about the importance of memories in providing “a personal view of a moment in time.”

Crew, an expert on the Underground Railroad, spoke about the misperception that the Railroad was largely run by whites who were sympathetic to black runaways. He pointed out that careful research has revealed that blacks, some free and some slaves, also facilitated the movement of runaways, at great risk to themselves.

Historians weren’t looking in “the right places” for this hidden history, Crew explained. “That is why it is so important to do the kind of work we’re doing here today,” he said.

“This symposium is a first step to let people know what we are doing and bring them into the process,” said Manuel-Scott, who is looking forward to eventually building a website that will be both a repository for documents and information relating to African American history in Northern Virginia and a pointer to other resources for study. She envisions that it will provide “usable tools for teachers — curriculum and documents” from the elementary grades to the college level.

In the spring 2011 semester, Manuel-Scott will teach HIST 499, “African American Communities in Loudoun County, Virginia.”

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