February is Black History Month, a commemoration that began back in 1926 with Virginian Carter G. Woodson's Negro History Week. A week was expanded into a month in 1976. In honor of the occasion, here's a few of our best entries on the African American experience in Virginia.
Virginia's First Africans
"20. and odd Negroes" arrived at Point Comfort on the James River in 1619, perhaps the first African slaves in Virginia. But who were they? Where did the come from? And what was their legacy?
Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia
The lives of free blacks might surprise readers. Especially in Virginia's early days, they sometimes worked alongside and socialized with whites. Some, such as Anthony Johnson, of Northumberland County, even owned slaves.
Slave Ships and the Middle Passage
Nearly 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported from Africa to the Americas between 1500 and 1866. Our entry explains how the Middle Passage worked and contains links to accounts of the men who worked on the ships.
Gabriel's Conspiracy (1800) and "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1831)
African Americans resisted their enslavement in many ways, including through violent rebellion. Gabriel's Conspiracy, in 1800, was thwarted at the last minute. Nat Turner's rebellion, three decades later, resulted in great bloodshed.
Henry Box Brown, Anthony Burns, and Shadrach Minkins
Another way African Americans resisted enslavement was through escape. Brown climbed into a box and had a friend mail him to freedom in Philadelphia. Burns and Minkins made it to Boston but were tracked down by the law.
The Abolition of Slavery of Virginia
Nearly half a million African Americans were enslaved in Virginia in 1860, the largest slave population of any state. Five years later they were all free.
Readjuster Party and Disfranchisement
For a brief period after the Civil War, African Americans in Virginia regularly voted and held office. In fact, the Readjuster Party, which included many African Americans, controlled all of state government in 1881. But by the end of the century, conservative whites had largely disfranchised the black population in Virginia.
Maggie Lena Walker and Anne Spencer
The daughter of a former slave, Walker (pictured above) was the first woman—white or black—to establish and become president of a bank in the United States. Her Richmond home is now a National Historic Site. Spencer, meanwhile, was a respected poet of the Harlem Renaissance who lived not in Harlem but in Lynchburg. Her home and garden are now a museum.
Oliver W. Hill, Moton School Strike, and Massive Resistance
Hill stood at the heart of the civil rights movement in Virginia. As the NAACP's leading attorney in the state, he agreed to take on a case brought to him by students at Moton High School, in Farmville. That turned into Brown v. Board of Education, a Supreme Court decision that, in turn, led Virginia officials to close down some public schools rather than desegregate them.
L. Douglas Wilder
The encyclopedia generally does not publish entries on people who are still living, but Wilder is just too important. The grandson of slaves, he was the first African American to be elected governor of any state, North or South.
(Image of Maggie Lena Walker courtesy of the National Park Service.)