Towles Hall, Rappahannock Industrial Academy.

Towles Hall, Rappahannock Industrial Academy.

On Thursday, June 17, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved three new highway markers that will be erected in Essex County. These three markers, all of which document a facet of African-American history, are among 17 markers approved for placement around the state of Virginia. In existence since 1927 and the oldest such state program in the country, the Virginia historical highway marker program documents facts, persons, events, and places prominently identified with the history of the nation, state, or region. The new Essex markers will shed light on previously little known African-American history of the county, and will bring the total of African-American focused markers in the county to five.

Virginia historical markers in Essex County include one in Tappahannock for blues musician William Moore and one in Tappahannock that acknowledges the role played by African Americans in the War of 1812.

Angel Visit Baptist Church

A marker for Angel Visit Baptist Church will be placed adjacent to the church at Dunnsville. Established in 1866, Angel Visit was one of the first black churches in Essex County and is the oldest black church in existence in the county. Angel Visit’s early members, most of whom had been enslaved, lived from Tappahannock all the way to Montague in the southern part of the county.

The marker text:

Angel Visit Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in Essex County, was formed in 1866 when African American members withdrew from white-led Ephesus Baptist Church after Emancipation. The congregation purchased land here in 1867 and erected a sanctuary, which they replaced with a larger building after acquiring an adjoining lot in 1893. Ozeana School, one of the county’s first public schools for African Americans, stood just south of the church for decades. The church burned in 1917, and the present 350-seat sanctuary opened in 1919. In the early 20th century, students and faculty from Rappahannock Industrial Academy, a nearby Baptist-run boarding school, worshiped here.

Angel Visit Baptist Church sponsored the marker. According to Angel Visit pastor, the Reverend Dr. Carla E. Lightfoot, “The marker is a great testament to the bravery and tenacity of our church’s founders. We stand upon the shoulders of those founders and all persons who have labored over the church’s 155-year history. Accordingly, we are pleased that a highway marker will acknowledge our church’s rich history in such a public way.”

Thomas Washington Lynching

A marker to be placed on Route 17 near Center Cross will memorialize the March 1896 lynching of an African-American man, Thomas Washington, the only documented lynching in Essex County. This marker will be one of a very few state historical markers that recall the lynching of a specific African American in Virginia.

The marker text:

Thomas Washington, an African American man, was lynched on 23 March 1896 for allegedly attempting to assault the young daughter of a prominent white citizen. A boy found Washington’s body hanging from a tree about 1/8 mile southwest of here. A coroner’s jury did not identify the killers. The body, buried near the tree, was later given a proper burial by relatives. This was the only documented lynching in Essex County. The case attracted publicity across the state, but no one was ever brought to justice. More than 4,000 lynchings took place in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950; more than 100 people, primarily African American men, were lynched in Virginia.

The Washington marker was sponsored by activist Reginald Carter and funded by private citizens of Essex County. The marker effort is a part of a much larger contextualization project that includes the renaming of the county’s intermediate school and the contextualization and partial removal of the 115-year-old Confederate monument in Tappahannock. Mr. Carter says that “The vast majority of Essex citizens do not know about Mr. Washington’s sad fate. The Washington highway marker will be used to educate citizens and visitors not only about Mr. Washington, but about the history of violence against African Americans that is sadly a part of our past. One hundred twenty-five years after this heinous crime, the marker will help to show us how far we have progressed to become the diverse, unified, and involved community that we are.”

Efforts have been made to locate surviving family members of Thomas Washington. Although Mr. Washington apparently had connections to both Richmond and Essex Counties, researchers have not been able to identify his family. Anyone who may have information in this regard is asked to call 804-651-8753 or email mpaaghs.va@gmail.com.

Rappahannock Industrial Academy

The former site of the Rappahannock Industrial Academy at Ozeana, now Dunnsville, will receive a highway marker. The RI Academy, as it was called, was established by African Americans to fulfill the need for high school education for African Americans in the area. It was in existence from 1902 to 1948 and primarily served students from Middlesex, Essex, and King and Queen Counties. The two large three-story buildings and other structures on the nearly 300-acre campus are no longer standing. However, there is a solar farm on a portion of the property, all of which is still owned by the Southside Rappahannock Baptist Association.

The marker text:

The Southside Rappahannock Baptist Association opened the Rappahannock Industrial Academy here in 1902 to provide secondary education for African Americans at a time when no public high schools were available to them in the area. Supported by churches, individuals, and the sale of timber and produce, the school served boarding and day students primarily from this region but also from other parts of Virginia and beyond. It offered a range of academic courses and extracurricular activities and was accredited by the state in 1934. Its nearly 300-acre campus included a working farm. Enrollment declined after public high schools were established, and the school closed in 1948.

The Rappahannock Industrial Academy marker was sponsored by the Rappahannock Industrial Academy Alumni Association, a group that seeks to document and preserve the history of the RI Academy and to extend the school’s legacy through a scholarship program for African-American high school seniors. Alumni Association president Bessida Cauthorne White said that “There were very few public high schools in Virginia for African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The RI Academy was one of a number of academies that were established by black communities across Virginia to fill this void. The approval of a highway marker for the RI Academy is an important step in our organization’s quest to make sure that the Herculean efforts of our forefathers and foremothers to educate their communities are never forgotten.”

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources will take steps to have the approved markers manufactured and installed. Once that has happened the sponsors of each of the markers will schedule and publicize public dedication ceremonies.

Three new State Historical Highway Markers approved for Essex County