The People

The history of the Harrisonburg area's African American community is filled with remarkable individuals. Their stories illustrate and bring to life the most important passages of the history of the American people. But however fascinating, or sometimes convenient, to focus on individuals and feel good for learning their history, these individuals lived in a context. They each did their best to figure out how to survive in that context. They set up cultural patterns by solving these problems in community, and key for understanding in the past and in the present is to appreciate that context, its implications, what it says about accountability for people who have different roles in comprising and reproducing that context and who have differing degrees of power for affecting their own lives and the lives of others. In this sense, every resident is remarkable.

On meeting more and more people who were adults in the period before R4 redevelopment, a continuity shows up that runs to prior to the Civil War. The founding of Newtown, for example, involved a highly educated African American whose family has been free from almost Revolutionary times, and men who had developed high level skills at a large plantation at the technological cutting edge of its time. The media of the time is replete with testimony to the power of this community through time. Living memory has ample testimony that the non-African American community had to show respect to their fellow community members, even while the larger institutional frameworks of slavery and segregation exerted their pernicious force. Within this context, the Urban Renewal razing of the economic power base of the community was particularly devastating.

Lessons for today: processes for municipal decision making draw upon existing social structures. At times, parts of the community have been excluded by statute. At other times, or in addition, they have been informally excluded. In the present, there are fewer formal barriers but people still feel disfranchised due to social status or formal education. Nurturing in-person community lets multiple social contexts come into being, such as churches, where a person who has low social status in the outside world of white supremacy, may have high social status. Formal education is notoriously poor for solving community problems. A municipality hosting a diversity of social contexts can harbor a very rich resource for municipal government. Harrisonburg's street renaming process, the apex of recent upsurges in community engagement, is an example of tapping this wealth.

We saw in this process that much anxiety was caused because people, such as white male university professors, or well-off business owners who were accustomed to getting their way and being in charge found that on a level playing field their contributions were no more valuable than those of community members of very different socioeconomic status and formal educational status ('progressive' community leaders also seemed miffed at this).

Segregated Rockingham Memorial Hospital

The hospital was one of the key institutions in which the local power of the community came up against the formal boundaries of segregation. The following are an assortment of related clippings.

7th anniversary of Colored Hospital Aid: DNRapr301927hospitalaid.pdf
The Colored Woman's Hospital Auxiliary makes donations to the Red Cross: DNRjan91931redcross.pdf
Colored Auxiliary Seeks Hospital Equipment: DNRdec121935auxiliary.pdf
RMH budget $104,303.55 for 1935: DNRjan131936finances.pdf

Doc Dickerson was not allowed to perform operations at the local
hospital, so of necessity he set up an office in Washington, D. C.  in
addition to the one in Harrisonburg. Whenever he had a patient who
needed an operation, that patient had to go to Washington, D. C. where
Dr. Dickerson performed the operation at Freedman's Hospital where he
had privileges. There were very few, if any, rooms set up to
accommodate blacks at the hospital in Harrisonburg; during the
convalescent period blacks remained in the hall in the basement of
Rockingham Memorial.
p. 97 Keeping up with yesterday
Ruth M. Toliver


The space the African American community occupied was gained through resistance when necessary, even toward the most powerful institutions.

Steve Reich writes of militant, including armed, resistance to Jim Crow in Texas in the teens in countering the impression that the NAACP was ineffective and African Americans passive. In fact, they faced overwhelming force: Soldiers of Democracy.

Harrisonburg also has such history. Numerous examples of this are documented in Ruth Toliver's Keeping up with Yesterday

In the telling of Ambrose and Reuben Dallard's escape from the Yancy Riverbank Plantation during the Civil War, Toliver writes:

"[the mistress'] son tried to stop the two brothers by shooting through
the buggy; when the bullets missed, he proceeded to pursue them on
horseback. When he caught up with Ambrose and Reuben, they protected
themselves by using physical force against the assailant. They left
their attacker in the road, and continued their sojourn."
p. 16.

Excerpt from 1890's poem by G. A. Newman, of Harrisonburg VA

The Jim Crow Car of Tennessee

We know not where to take our case
To get ourselves relieved.
As Uncle Sam's not in the race
When Afric's Sons are grieved;
So we must rise in self defence.
Though humble we may be.
And show, by using common sense,
That we will still be free.

No more excursions for our race
To this place and to that,
Let us presume it a disgrace,
And sit down on them flat.
Then, when they see we have the grit
To boycott, near and far, 
They'll change the law, and let us sit
In any proper car.
From just after the 1902 disfranchisement:
It was [George A.] Newman and Ulysses G. Wilson who led the drive for
blacks to become registered voters. At this time a poll tax and
evidence of literacy was required; consequently classes were held in
local churches so that all blacks who desired, could become literate
and thus register to vote; Wilson and Newman paid the poll tax for
those who could not afford to do so. Below is a list of the registered
voters among the blacks, circa 1908: [ 75]

From 1903, Ruth Toliver describes the reaction to the Rockingham Register's obituary of Reuben Dallard (linked at race section)

When Reuben was referred to as a 'darkey,' Ambrose felt the full
reality of his status as a black man. The shackles had been removed;
he had become a land owner; he provided for his family; he was
respected in the community; regardless of all he felt he had
accomplished, he was still a 'darkey.' Seeing that term brought back
the horrors of the days when he was not a free man, when he could not
fend for his family, when he was propery subject to any name that
would be assigned to him at any given time.
She follows up with a hateful reply by the editors, that, while retracting and apologizing, at the same time rubs salt in the wound after an evident show of rage by the community. p. 28

From the prohibition era:

"Dr. Stratton did not stay for too long a period as he never felt he
could make a decent living at the profession in Harrisonburg; however,
Dr. Dickerson maintained a productive practice which included both
black and whit patients. He often laughed at the evening members of
the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan decided to meet on Red Hill.
They assembled in full regalia in order to hide their identity, but it
was Doc Dickerson who went to several, spoke to those he recognized
and even called them by name. On another occasion the Klan decided to
march up Main Street only to be told they would not get as far as the
Kavanaugh Hotel as Mr. Kavanaugh and his group had guns and were
prepared to stop the foolishness before it even got started." 
P. 97
Keeping up with Yesterday
Ruth M. Toliver