Learn the untold story of Danville’s civil rights summer of 1963 in our special report.
Today, if you’re interested in Danville’s tobacco legacy, its civil rights movement, its Native American history, the rise and fall of Dan River Mills, or even baseball cards, you can walk into the Danville Historical Society at 406 Cabell St. and ask.
Executive Director Robin Marcato or archivists Joe Scott and Cody Foster can show you a particular photograph, document or artifact you’d like to see.
That would’ve been impossible last year. The historical society didn’t have a physical location with public hours until 2022.
Instead, the organization’s archives were stored in dozens of boxes, piled up in the Main Street Methodist Church. The collection was almost entirely unavailable to the public, Marcato said.
“In its previous iteration, it wasn’t accessible to anyone except those who knew where the right box was,” Marcato said.
Now, the historical society is open Tuesdays through Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and anyone can visit. And there’s an email and mailing address to get in touch with its employees.
The historical society also offers tours and runs a website featuring articles on some of its materials and interesting stories about Danville’s history.
The organization was also largely inaccessible in the past because it was volunteer-based until just last year, when Marcato, Scott and Foster were hired as the first paid employees.
“Shortly after I came into DHS and saw that there was no inventory, it became clear that extra hands were necessary,” Marcato said. “DHS has had many volunteers in the past, but we wanted someone who could dedicate their time to cataloging and digitizing every week.”
Each of the three employees only works about 20 hours a week, but it’s made an extraordinary difference, she said.
Scott and Foster are also “incredibly knowledgeable about Danville’s history and have made sense of tens of thousands of unmarked items,” Marcato said.
The new iteration of the historical society, including these paid positions, was funded by donations from the community, she said. The organization also has received grants from the Community Foundation of the Dan River Region, Virginia Humanities and the River District Association.
And recently, the historical society set up its first-ever endowment at the Community Foundation, an independent public charity. The endowment will ensure the sustainability of the historical society, as well as the National Museum of Tobacco and Textiles, Marcato said.
Since they were hired, Marcato, Scott and Foster have been working to organize and digitize the historical society’s archives. The organization also has six interns, and volunteers are still welcome.
All these hands are needed because of the sheer volume of materials that need to be dealt with. There are almost half a million items in the collection, Foster said at a River District Association presentation in May.
“We have tens of thousands of photos and negatives, and we have an enormous amount of documents,” Marcato said. “If you go to the Pittsylvania Historical Society, one of our partners, they have a lot of machines. They have a lot of big stuff. We don’t. We have almost exclusively paper and photographs.”
The historical society holds court records and police-commissioned photographs from the city’s civil rights movement.
It has the business papers related to Danville’s Sutherlin Mansion, which was the temporary home of Jefferson Davis during the final week of the Civil War.
It also holds the entire collection of photographs by John Tate, who worked as a newspaper and crime scene photographer in Danville for about 40 years.
Now that the organization is more visible, other local groups often donate their old records or artifacts that otherwise would’ve been thrown away, Foster said.
Marcato, Scott and Foster are still working their way through the materials that had been boxed up, meaning that even they aren’t aware yet of everything the organization has in its collection.
“We’ve rediscovered stuff that DHS had either lost to time, or just didn’t know that it had,” Foster said.
The history of the historical society
The historical society began in 1971 to preserve Danville’s historic architecture and stop the city from demolishing any more of its Victorian-era homes.
“Mary Cahill was the person who really started it, and she gathered together a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to keep these mansions from being torn down,” Marcato said.
Cahill, who became the first president of the organization and was instrumental in founding Danville’s first historic district, the Old West End, died in 2011.
The historical society’s early efforts to save these homes were largely successful, and what the city now calls “Millionaire’s Row” is still standing as a result. For years, the organization maintained a focus on architecture — and on whatever its president was personally interested in, Marcato said.
“There was a lot of emphasis on the Confederacy and its history in Danville,” Foster said. “The society didn’t really reflect every facet of Danville’s history.”
Danville’s Black history, in particular, was passed over for decades, the historical society employees said.
“The first thing I said when I got the tour here, I said, ‘With the greatest respect, this does seem like the history of white Danville,’” Marcato said.
The historical society was part of a city that had pushed back against civil rights, an uncomfortable fact for some residents to acknowledge.
“There are so many people that I’ve talked to since I moved here that don’t want to talk about particular chapters of Danville history, because they feel they’re embarrassing to the town,” Marcato said. “I feel strongly that nothing should be embarrassing about this kind of history. It’s something that you acknowledge and you learn from and you understand.”
The historical society itself hasn’t been immune. Its former president resigned in 2020 after racist remarks were posted on his Facebook page. The organization called the comments “repugnant.”
Mark Joyner, the former president, denied that he posted the remarks, claiming that someone else was using his phone.
Today, the historical society encompasses everything from Native American history in the area to the present. For the first time since its inception in the 1970s, it is working to provide a complete and comprehensive history of the city, making it a good resource for residents.
For example, photographs from Danville’s civil rights movement had been boxed up for decades until they were rediscovered by the historical society. The photos were originally taken as police evidence and include notes by the city attorney at the time.
Hardly anyone had seen them, Marcato said, even people who participated in the movement and still lived in Danville. Now, the photos are organized in a binder and available for the public to view.
The historical society’s collection has also garnered interest from people outside Danville.
Historical tourism, also called heritage tourism, is a big driver of Virginia’s economy. Per year, Virginia’s heritage tourism industry generates $1.3 billion in taxes and contributes $6.5 billion to the economy, according to a 2017 study commissioned by Preservation Virginia.
Marcato said these numbers have likely gone up post-pandemic.
“It’s a massive industry,” she said. “We get a lot of people who drive in just to see us. We’ve had people fly in from Washington state, from New York state, from Pennsylvania. We’ve had people come in from Arizona and California just to come see us.”
Danville attracts heritage tourists who are interested in Civil War history, tobacco history and Virginia history in general. The state has “a plethora of wonderful history museums,” Marcato said, so many people pass through Danville on a longer trip to historic locations in Virginia.
One of the newest pieces of the historical society’s collection has received major attention: material from the National Tobacco and Textile Museum.
The museum operated in Danville from 1975 to 1991. When it closed, tens of thousands of artifacts were packed up, and many haven’t seen the light of day since.
“For about 30 years, the collection has been in storage in about six different places,” Marcato said. “For the past year, we’ve been working with them to get it out.”
Much of the museum’s textile material went to locations in North Carolina, but there are between 35,000 to 40,000 pieces of the tobacco collection that the historical society has been slowly moving to its Cabell Street location.
“Because it’s been in a space that’s not air-conditioned, not heated and a little open to the seasonal changes, there is some damage,” Marcato said. “But overall, it’s an extraordinary multimillion-dollar collection.”
The collection includes more than 700 T206 baseball cards, also called tobacco baseball cards.
These cards were available in cigarette and loose tobacco packs from 1909 to 1911. They appeared through 16 different brands with the American Tobacco Com.
Several T206 cards are among the most expensive sports cards ever sold. One, a Honus Wagner, was sold in 2021 for more than $6 million.
About 90% of the cards that the historical society has found are in pristine condition, Foster said.
“We’ve had collectors across the country contact us since they found out that we’ve discovered these, including the National Baseball Museum,” he said. “They’ve shown a great deal of interest and actually told our expert who has been sorting them that this is one of the largest if not the largest single conglomeration of these cards.”
The historical society employees, along with some volunteers, are still sorting the cards and other material from the tobacco museum, like cigar boxes and old cigarette packs with vintage designs.
History is ‘the story of the everyday man’
Now that the organization is accessible to the public, anyone can come in and see these items during open hours — something that Marcato wanted to ensure was possible when she joined the organization, she said.
“In order to be a proper steward of the material that was kept here, I knew I needed people who understood it and were historians, and who could go through it and catalog it properly, digitize it, put it in context, organize it,” she said. “We felt it needed to be accessible.”
Even though the history of Danville isn’t always pretty, it’s something the community should have access to and be able to learn from, Marcato said.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of our history, and we shouldn’t be afraid of context because there’s so much in Danville, good and bad, that is worth celebrating,” she said. “There are so many hidden chapters that, until we started pulling out random photos from an old tomato box, literally, I would’ve never known about.”
Marcato added that history is not just important dates and old objects. It’s the story of the everyday man.
“The greatest strength of Danville is not the history of tobacco or the history of textiles, it’s always been the history of the people,” Marcato said. “And there’s been some really extraordinary people here.”