Cumberland Middle School U.S. History teacher Lewis Longenecker, orange hat, helps Jack Parker, left, and Andrew Crenshaw, center, prepare for the awards ceremony held online this spring to celebrate the AAPI Heritage Month Historical Marker Contest winners. Courtesy of Cumberland County schools.

The Black History Month Historic Marker Competition was run the two previous years by the Virginia Governor’s Office and the Virginia Secretary of Education.  It was an opportunity for students from all Virginia zip codes to learn, show off their knowledge and educate others regarding African American historical figures.  As we are now in the 2nd half of February, I am slightly concerned that the marker competition will be discontinued as there has yet to be an announcement regarding a 2022 Black History Month Historical Marker Competition.   Despite that fact, I am hopeful that the marker competition will continue.  

I realize that everyone is busy these days and am understanding that the new gubernatorial administration is really busy.  I am also encouraged by Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Black History Month Proclamation which he issued on Feb 1, 2022.  His eloquently stated proclamation is one that Virginians of all political ideologies can agree on and should unite us as a commonwealth.  Governor Youngkin began, “WHEREAS, the Commonwealth of Virginia, a rich and diverse state ripe with opportunity, has been home to some of the country’s most influential African American leaders. These leaders, too numerous to list, have inspired all Americans with their stories of the triumph of the human spirit and tragic stories of cruelty rooted in bias and bigotry.”  Through the Black History Month Historic Marker Competition, my students were exposed to and conducted research on many of these influential African American leaders.  Last school year, one group of my students completed a winning submission for Samuel Bolling. While born enslaved, he became a very successful businessman and would represent Cumberland and Buckingham counties in the House of Delegates.  His story is one of self-reliance, resilience, self-sacrifice and is an example of Representative Democracy in-action.

Governor Youngkin went on to state, “WHEREAS, Virginians can be proud of pioneers like Dr. Robert Russa Moton and Maggie Lena Walker. Dr. Moton served as principal of Tuskegee University, succeeding his friend and fellow Virginian Booker T. Washington, and he overcame insurmountable odds to become a leader in establishing equality…”  My students recently read multiple brief excerpts from R.R. Moton’s autobiography, Finding A Way Out as we covered Booker T. Washington’s local impact.  From those excerpts, students learned about R.R. Moton’s first year as a teacher at the small two room Cotton Town School in Southern Cumberland County and the late 19th century student experience.  By continuing the Black History Month Historic Marker Program, students could then educate and expose others to the 19th century educational experience, events of the Civil Rights Movement or African American Leadership throughout Virginia History.

Youngkin ended his proclamation persuasively with, “NOW, THEREFORE, I, Glenn Youngkin, do hereby recognize February 2022 as BLACK HISTORY MONTH, and I call this observance to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans. Let us all celebrate our rich history and acknowledge that diversity, when genuinely embraced, strengthens our Commonwealth. Every Virginian deserves dignity and respect, the opportunity to pursue our dreams, and inclusion in the Virginia family.”  Through participation in the Black History Month and Asian American Pacific Isalnder Heritage Month Historic Marker Competitions, my students have been exposed to the importance of teamwork. They gain 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.  While I have primarily given local examples, children from all over the commonwealth have participated in historic marker competitions over the last two years. Virginia students of various ages are directly responsible for historic markers being put up from Brunswick County to Falls Church and Norfolk to Salem and many points in between.  If the Youngkin Administration were to commit to the continuation of the Black History Month and the AAPI Heritage Month Historic Marker Contests it would put this great proclamation into action. In the process, it would contribute to leaving a salient legacy of celebrating the history of all Virginians in our commonwealth.

Lewis Longenecker teaches U.S. history at Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland County.