We’re about to enter a spring and summer that will be marked by lots of markers.
All across Virginia, communities will be holding ceremonies to unveil new historical markers that call attention to parts of Virginia history that until now have been overlooked.
In Lynchburg, that process began in February when a marker was put up to Samuel Kelso, who was born into slavery and after the Civil War was credited with being the founder of Virginia’s public school system.
On April 1, a marker will be unveiled in Campbell County to Samuel Bolling, who was born into slavery and later elected to the General Assembly in 1885, the height of the brief progressive era following Reconstruction that saw Virginia experiment with a multiracial government.
Sometime later in April, another marker will go up in Lynchburg to Carl Cato, a nationally known rose breeder who is credited with saving some species.
In May a new marker will recognize the Martinsville Seven, the seven Black men who were executed in 1951 for raping a white woman and whose case sparked controversy both then and now.
Later there will be new markers in Buckingham County to a historic Black church (Chief Cornerstone Baptist Church), in Mecklenburg County to a historic Black school (East End School), in Botetourt County to Olympic gold medalist Norvel Lee, and in Clarke County to John Underwood, an antebellum abolitionist who after the Civil War presided over the convention that wrote the state’s new constitution, which for the first time required elections for county boards of supervisors and instituted that public school system that Kelso advocated.
These new markers come after a busy fall that saw lots of other markers go up. In Clifton Forge, a marker to Roger Arliner Young, the first Black woman in the country to receive a doctorate in zoology. In Charlotte County, a marker to Joseph Holmes, who was born into slavery and after emancipation was elected to office – and then murdered on the courthouse steps. In Bristol, there were two markers put up: to civil rights leader Charles Spurgeon Johnson and to the historic Lee Street Baptist Church. Earlier in 2021, Roanoke saw a marker to the former Burrell Memorial Hospital, once the city’s Black hospital in the days of segregation.
You’ll notice that most of those markers either recognize Black Virginians or in some way recognize the state’s racial history. That’s no accident.
Over the past four years – when Ralph Northam was governor – there was a big push to make up for a lot of Virginia’s history that had previously been overlooked. During those four years, the Department of Historic Resources approved nearly 400 new markers, with nearly half of those recognizing nonwhite historical figures. (The department is careful to say that markers don’t “honor” the people or events mentioned, they “recognize” them.)
This pace will not continue.
In December, the Board of Historic Resources decided to reduce the number of applications it accepts from the public. There are four deadlines throughout the year. In the past, the board accepted 11 applications for the public on a first-come, first-served basis. (That doesn’t necessarily mean all 11 would get approved, just that they’d be researched.) In recent years, the department has been receiving 15 to 20 applications for those 11 slots – which means the surplus gets assigned to the next quarter. That meant in October 2021 the 11 slots for the March 2022 cycle were already taken, as were nine of the 11 slots for the June 2022 cycle. In addition, the department also sometimes initiates its own marker proposals (that’s how the Underwood marker came about, after I wrote so much about him).
A report presented to the board in December advised that “this volume is unsustainable.” For one thing, the marker program is staffed by just one full-time employee and a half-time employee.
The board decided that instead of 11 markers per quarter, it would consider five. “Handling only five applications per board cycle will allow DHR staff to devote more time to DHR-initiated markers, governor’s contest markers, and much-needed replacement markers,” the report said. “Decreasing the number of markers moving through the system will alleviate the backlog that has built up.”
It’s hard to argue with math, and this math is certainly compelling. On the other hand, Virginia is a state that loves history. You’d think that with all the money sloshing around Richmond right now, the General Assembly could find some to add even just a single staffer to the marker program so that we could get more markers. Apparently not, though. While we all profess to love history, there’s not a big constituency for history when it comes to writing budgets.
Notice, though, one phrase in the DHR language about reducing the number of public applications: “Handling only five applications per board cycle will allow DHR staff to devote more time to DHR-initiated markers, governor’s contest markers, and much-needed replacement markers.”
That’s a reference to the Black History Month historical marker competition that Northam initiated in 2020, where he encouraged schools to research historical figures and events and propose markers; 10 new markers were approved out of the first year of that; five the next year. In 2021, that was expanded to include Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, which saw another five markers approved – including one for Salem to Kim Kyusik, a Roanoke College graduate who went on to hold key roles in the Korean government.
Some schools took this project quite seriously. One of those was Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland County, where history teacher Lewis Longenecker made researching potential markers a class project. His classes were responsible for three markers being selected: the one in Cumberland County to Bolling, the one in Salem to Kyusik and one in Williamsburg to Art Matsu, a renowned pro football player and the first Asian American student to graduate from the University of William & Mary.
Longecker recently wrote an opinion piece for Cardinal News in which he lamented that Gov. Glenn Youngkin hasn’t renewed the program. Black History Month has passed with no new call. The state’s website still has information on the program, but all the deadlines are out of date. My cynical side wonders what would happen if people submitted applications to Youngkin’s controversial tips hotline for reports of “divisive concepts” being taught in schools. My more high-minded side would appeal to Youngkin to reinstate this program – and make the case for more staffing in the Department of Historic Resources.
Politically, this would seem an easy thing to do. It would also seem very much in line with what Youngkin himself has said. During the campaign, when he attacked critical race theory, he always went on to say “we are going to teach all history. The good and the bad.”
Except we’re not teaching “all history.” To the extent that historical markers teach us about history, we already know that we’re not teaching all history – if we were, we wouldn’t need any other markers. Now, going forward, in terms of adding more markers, we’re going to be teaching less than half the history we have been.
Here’s the easiest thing of all for Youngkin: He could rightly point out that change took place when Northam was governor and make political use of a delicious irony. Will he? Or do we not want to teach all history, after all?