Uncovering Hidden Histories: African Americans in Appalachia

One of our many roles in Special Collections is to shed light upon hidden histories, uncovering communities that are traditionally marginalized or forgotten by time. The long history of African-Americans in Appalachia, for example, has traditionally been overlooked. Through the communities of New Town, Wake Forest, and Nellie’s Cave (among others), Montgomery County has a particularly rich legacy to explore. We work with historians, genealogists, community members, and other institutions to document and preserve these stories for future generations.

Newman Library currently hosts “New Town: Across the Color Line”, an exhibit documenting  a predominantly African-American community that bordered the Virginia Tech campus until the late 20th century. Developed by the Virginia Tech Public History program, the exhibit includes items from the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records (Ms1988-009) held by Special Collections. The exhibit will be open from October 5 through November 20.

Brochure for New Town Exhibit on display in Newman Library, October 5 - November 20

The Odd Fellows Records help document an important African-American civic institution in early 20th century Blacksburg. Researchers interested in the experiences of African-Americans in Montgomery County and greater Appalachia can find many other resources in Special Collections. Manuscript collections, photographs, oral history interviews, and rare books provide insight into the experiences of African-American communities from antebellum times through the present day. The Christiansburg Industrial Institute Historical Documents (Ms1991-033) represent a collaboration between the Christiansburg Industrial Institute Alumni Association and Special Collections to document the prestigious institution that educated generations of Virginia students from the 1860s through school integration.

Black and white photograph of Baily-Morris Hall, a building on the campus of Christiansburg Industrial Institute. Several African American teachers stand on a staircase in front of the building.
Baily-Morris Hall on Christiansburg Institute campus with teachers, date unknown.

Another collection, entitled “Hidden History: The Black Experience in the Roanoke Valley Cassette Tapes and Transcripts” (Ms1992-049), includes approximately forty-six interviews with African-American residents of Roanoke, Virginia about the “cultural, social, and political history” of their community. The research papers of historian and community activist Richard Dickenson (Richard B. Dickenson Papers, Ms2011-043) include a wealth of information about local African-American history, including the free communities of antebellum Montgomery County and the many civic institutions of Christiansburg. The John Nicolay Papers, (Ms1987-027) include research files and oral histories that provide insight into churches, local institutions, and the historic African-American community of Wake Forest.

These collections represent a small fraction of the primary sources and publications that document African-American history in Special Collections. More importantly, these resources point to an abundant history still waiting to be uncovered.

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Beatrice Freeman Walker Video Interview

Image of Beatrice Freeman Walker
Beatrice Freeman Walker

In a video interview on March 12, 2013, Beatrice Freeman Walker talked about growing up in Blacksburg during segregation, the changes she has observed in the town, and the historical significance of the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall. Mrs. Walker, who died on December 31, 2013, was a dynamic community member and cared deeply about the preservation of Blacksburg’s African American history.

Born in 1926, the youngest of five siblings, Mrs. Walker grew up in Blacksburg at 202 Jackson Street. Her family’s property went all the way to Progress Street where her father, Alonzo Freeman, had his dry cleaning business. Their home was on the border of the town’s original grid of 16 blocks, which was laid out by William Black in 1797 and bounded by Draper Road, Jackson Street, Wharton Street, and Clay Street. In the 1970s, the town acquired her family home though eminent domain in order to expand the fire department, and she lived the remainder of her life in Christiansburg.

In the interview she recalled that when she was growing up, the children were “unconscious of segregation.” There were blacks on one side of the street and whites lived on the other. The problem, she said, “It isn’t the children. It’s the parents.”

At various times, her family also owned a beauty salon, an ice cream parlor where they served homemade hand-cranked ice cream, and a recreation place called Paradise View on what was then Grissom Lane, but is now called Nelly’s Cave. “Daddy just owned it because we had croquet, horseshoe, badminton, bands, and sandwiches and sodas,” she said. “They would go up there for recreation. It was open on Saturdays and Sundays. People as far as Bluefield, West Virginia would come in and down there.”

Among other jobs, Bessie (Briggs) Freeman, Mrs. Walker’s mother, traveled in order to encourage membership in the St. Luke and Odd Fellows. This organization was important to the African American community because it helped people find opportunities for learning different trades and it sold insurance that people could borrow from when they wanted to send a child to college or when there was a death. The St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall, built in the early 1900s, provided a gathering place for meetings, social events, and fundraisers.

Junior class, Christiansburg Institute, 1942. Beatrice Freeman, a class officer, is second row, second from the right.
Junior class, Christiansburg Institute, 1942. Beatrice Freeman, a class officer, is second row, second from the right.

After graduating from Christiansburg Institute in 1943, Mrs. Walker did civil service work in Washington, D.C. Later, she returned to Blacksburg and worked for several local businesses including Spudnuts (later called Carol Lee Doughnut Shop) on College Avenue, Litton Poly-Scientific, and in 1975, Volvo White Motor Company in Dublin, Virginia. While at Volvo, she was active in the United Auto Workers (Local 2069) and a strong advocate for her fellow employees.

St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall
St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall

Beatrice Freeman Walker was instrumental in the renovation of the Order of St. Luke’s and Odd Fellows Museum Hall in Blacksburg. In 2004, Mrs. Walker, Walter Lewis, and Aubrey Mills were appointed as trustees.

Beatrice Freeman Walker’s video oral history interview, which was conducted at the St.Luke and Odd Fellows  Hall, may be accessed from Virginia Tech’s institutional repository, VTechWorks, managed by the University Libraries at http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/24714 Mrs. Walker’s granddaughter, Latanya Walker, was present at the interview conducted by Tamara Kennelly. Scott Pennington was the videographer.

To learn more about the St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall visit http://www.blacksburg.gov/index.aspx?page=73