Teaching About Black Residents’ Contributions to Lexington’s History

“The story we tell is insufficient and inadequate, especially when it comes to Black history. We must remember that Black history IS American history.”

Governor Ralph S. Northam
Old Point Comfort, August 24th, 2019


Uncovering and Teaching Lexington’s Black History

Over the past year, Professor Sascha Goluboff, Director of the Office of Community Based Learning and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Washington and Lee University, has led undergraduate students in uncovering the local history of Black citizens and entrepreneurs in Lexington. Through her course “Unheard Voices of Black Lexington,” students produced an interactive story map of Jim Crow era Black-owned businesses in Historic Lexington in partnership with the Rockbridge Historical Society and Rockbridge Regional Tourism. This map aims to increase awareness of Black residents’ contributions to Lexington’s history.

This website shares a similar goal by offering local educators access to relevant Black history documents and lesson ideas. Professor Goluboff also hopes to assist teachers in implementing the recommendations of the Virginia Commission of African American History Education in the Commonwealth by sharing these resources.

Historical Context of Lexington’s Black Population

In 1860, majority of Virginia’s Black population, predominately enslaved people, lived in the Tidewater and southern Piedmont regions of the state. The primary industry in these regions was tobacco and plantation agriculture. In the Valley and Ridge region of Virginia, where Lexington and Rockbridge County are located, the Black population was noticeably smaller. However, Black Americans west of the Blue Ridge mountains made notable contributions to their communities and to history.

Looking to Lexington and Rockbridge County, the Black population in these areas was unique in many ways. The percentage of freed Black people was higher in the city and the county than typical. During the antebellum period, the freed Black population steadily increased. This growth was the result of “birth to a white mother or free woman of color, manumission, or immigration from outside the county” (Eslinger). During the 1850s and the beginning of reconstruction, the Black population in Lexington comprised one-third of the city’s population, which was a unique statistic for a remote, small town. Black residents opened many successful businesses in the city and made important contributions to local and regional history. To learn more, explore our lessons on Harry and Eliza Walker and other local Black business owners.

Eslinger, Ellen. “‘Sable Spectres on Missions of Evil’: Free Blacks of Antebellum Rockbridge County, Virginia.” After the Backcountry: Rural Life in the Great Valley of Virginia, 1800-1900, edited by Kenneth E. Koons and Warren R. Hofstra, Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2000, pp. 194–205. 

“A critical pedagogy of place ultimately encourages teachers and students to reinhabit their places, that is, to pursue the kind of social action that improves the social and ecological life of places, near and far, now and in the future.”

David A. Gruenewald


Enriching students and the community through local learning

Place-based education, PBE for short, furthers our understanding of the places in which we live and connects us to past and present residents through the histories that define our communities. When we learn more about the places in which we live, our respect and care for these localities tends to grow. David Gruenewald, Professor and Canada Research Chair of Environmental Education at Lakehead University, writes that “Place-based pedagogies are needed so that the education of citizens might have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit” (3). PBE aims to enrich not only the community but also the students by providing engaging experiences that “foster connection, exploration, and action in socio-ecological places ‘just beyond the classroom’” (9). Place-based education reaffirms the importance of the local and encourages students to carry their education outside of the classroom and into their own communities.

Gruenewald, David A. “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.” Educational Researcher, vol. 32, no. 4, 2003, pp. 3–12. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3700002. Accessed 15 July 2021.

Contact us with any questions or if you would like to become involved in this project.

Office of Community Based Learning at Washington and Lee University


204 W. Washington St. Lexington, Va. 24450