Of Virginia’s about 2,700 historical highway markers, Marion will soon be home to a rare one that features one of the most intimate stories told on the signs that started being erected in 1927.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources board recently OK’d three new markers for Marion – each denoting a piece of the community’s African-American history. Later this year, markers will be erected offering brief histories of the Crying Tree, Mount Pleasant Methodist Church and Carnegie High School.
Jennifer Loux, Highway Marker Program historian and manager, observed that the Crying Tree’s history is fascinating and will be one of the commonwealth’s only markers to tell of slavery in such personal terms.
The Historic Resources board also approved the markers’ text. For the Crying Tree, it will read: “Sarah Elizabeth ‘Sallie’ Adams (1841-1913) was about five years old when she and her family were sold at a slave auction outside the Smyth County Courthouse. Thomas Thurman, whose house stood near here, bought Sallie to be a body servant for his sickly wife. A slave owner from Lynchburg purchased Sallie’s mother, whom she never saw again, and her siblings. In later years, Sallie told her children that, when possible, she would slip out of Thurman’s house and cry next to a white oak tree in the yard. She would sometimes hug the tree and tell it about her burdens and sorrows, and it became her friend and confidant. That tree ultimately became known in the community as ‘The Crying Tree.’”
The marker will be installed at 231 West Main Street near the tree.
Not far away, at 320 South Main, the marker for Mount Pleasant, now an African American museum and community center, will read: “African Americans, exercising newfound autonomy after the Civil War, withdrew from white-led congregations and established new churches, including Mount Pleasant Methodist Church in Marion ca. 1871. After sharing a frame sanctuary with a local Baptist congregation, Mount Pleasant erected a new brick sanctuary here in 1914. Black brickmasons constructed the building in the Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival styles. The church became a cultural center for the African American community, hosting musical performances, lectures, and meetings of the local branch of the NAACP and other organizations. Mount Pleasant closed in 2002.”
At 602 South Iron Street, a marker will introduce the history of Carnegie High School, saying, “The Rev. Amos Carnegie came to Marion by 1927 as pastor of Mount Pleasant Methodist Church. Finding the town’s school for African Americans ‘hardly fit for a stable,’ he organized a campaign for a new building. When the school board delayed, Carnegie raised money from the black community and secured a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supported more than 5,000 schools for black students across the South. The four-teacher building, constructed by black craftsmen who donated their labor, opened in 1931 and closed in 1965, when local schools were desegregated. Katherine Johnson, who later made crucial contributions to the U.S. space program at NASA, taught here for several years.”
Loux noted the school’s connection to the Rosenwald Fund, a program of national significance. The fund was launched by Sears, Roebuck and Company head Julius Rosenwald in 1917 "for the well-being of mankind."
Loux also gave a nod to Katherine Johnson, whose story is told in “Hidden Figures.” She launched her professional career at the Carnegie School.
The state historical highway marker program documents facts, persons, places and events with significance to state and/or national history that occurred at least 50 years ago. Marker proposals only gain approval when the Historic Resources’ staff can authenticate the information.
A team helped gather and prepare the information for these three markers. That team included Ken Heath, Marion’s director of community and economic develop; William Fields, head of the Mount Pleasant Preservation Society and Museum; Diane Hayes, a retired librarian and also a member of the Mount Pleasant Preservation Society; and Margaret Linford, a genealogist and Smyth County Genealogical Society leader.
Heath credited conversations with Fields in which Fields talked about "history versus ‘his story’" for prompting the idea. "I was moved to actually feel the perceptions that have shaped our community through different eyes, and we began working on ways to tell more of that story," Heath said.
Earlier this year as the applications were being prepared, Heath said, “It’s time for us to step up and tell the full story of our history.” He spoke particularly of the Crying Tree and the bigger story that’s part of its legacy. “I want people to know [that story],” he said.
The markers, which carry a price tag of slightly less than $2,000 each, are being paid for by the town. Loux has already ordered them from the foundry, Sewah Studios in Ohio. The manufacture and delivery typically takes six to eight weeks.
Officials have chosen a noteworthy date for their dedication: Nov. 15, which marks the birthday of the late Evelyn Thompson Lawrence.
Lawrence was an educator, community advocate and historian for Smyth County’s African American community. Sallie, the young slave who turned to a tree for comfort, was her grandmother. Lawrence taught at Carnegie and worshipped at Mount Pleasant. It was her vision to transform the one-time church into a community center and museum of local African American history.
"Dedicating these markers on Mrs. Lawrence's birthday is perfect," said Heath. "I know she's smiling down on us, knowing her life's work continues, and is now officially commemorated for the ages."
The dedications are set to begin at Carnegie High School at noon on Friday, Nov. 15, with a procession moving to each marker for individual dedications.
The Historic Resources board approved nine other new markers during its September meeting, including two signs highlighting the soldiering exploits during the Revolutionary War of a “free person of color” from Albemarle County and a Pamunkey Indian, George Mason’s Fairfax County parish and church, and the origins of Winchester’s Shenandoah University in Rockingham County.
A marker will tell of Revolutionary War soldier Pvt. Shadrach Battles (ca. 1746-ca. 1824), who “was one of at least 5,000 black soldiers who served in the Continental Line.” Battles joined a local militia unit by June 1775, and a Virginia regiment by December 1776. He fought in the battles at Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania, and Monmouth in New Jersey, spent the winter at Valley Forge, and participated in the Southern Campaign. Battles returned to Albemarle County after the war, living as a carpenter and laborer.
Four other markers also center on African American history:
One tells of Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), who was born Peyton Cole Hedgeman near Widewater in Stafford County. Hayden served in the U.S. Army in World War I, and achieved prominence as a painter during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He lived in France for five years after earning first prize in a painting competition in 1926. His “most notable paintings are his portrayals of ordinary African Americans in everyday life and his depictions of the legendary John Henry,” the marker will read.
A privately sponsored marker coming to Lynchburg will summarize the career of Morris Stanley Alexander (1891-1977), an African American who was the first caddy master and a longtime golf professional at Oakwood Country Club, which opened in the city in 1914. For more than 50 years, Alexander taught fundamentals and golf etiquette at the club, and a tournament in his name attracted young golfers during the 1950s. Four of his “students later won Virginia amateur state championships, and two were United States and British amateur champions,” the marker concludes.
New Kent County is sponsoring a marker about Samuel Wilson Crump (1919-1995), among the first African Americans elected to public office in Virginia under the state’s Constitution of 1902, which disfranchised many black voters. In 1955, voters elected Crump to the New Kent County Board of Supervisors, making him the board’s first African American member since the 19th century. “During Crump’s 12 years of service, he often provided the lone vote against measures designed to maintain school segregation,” according to the approved text.
The Cameron Foundation in Petersburg is sponsoring a marker for the city that highlights First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest African American congregations, which traces its origins to 1756. In 1820 the congregation established itself in Petersburg and opened a sanctuary there in 1863. That building was burned in 1866 by arsonists targeting the city’s black churches. The present sanctuary was dedicated in 1872. In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church during a regional meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.