Black History Month in SCRC

Black History Month, which occurs each February, was created to recognize and celebrate the lives and achievements of Black Americans, as well as to acknowledge African American history and culture. While this recognition should not be limited to just one month out of the year, we here in SCRC would like to highlight some of our collections that demonstrate the nuanced and important history of Black Americans in the United States.

Cordelia Jones free papers issued by the Loudoun County, Virginia court

Free papers for Cordelia Jones, a free Black woman, in Loudoun County, Virginia. The paper declares that she is “free born” and the daughter of Mary Jones, register no. 548. The paper gives a detailed physical description of Cordelia, including her height and scars. The papers are signed and sealed by Charles Binns, the Clerk of the Court. Before the emancipation of enslaved people in the 1860s, Loudoun County, Virginia (like many parts of the United States, particularly states where slavery was legal) forced free Black residents to prove that they were not enslaved with documents provided by the county court. As noted by Bronwen Souders of the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, “Each individual was required to carry a ‘freedom paper’ as legal proof of his or her status at any time they were away from home”…Without these papers, white slavecatchers or government officials could have abducted Cordelia Jones and enslaved her…In 1830, the year after the Loudoun County Court issued Cordelia Jones these free papers, there were 1079 free Black residents in Loudoun County, 5% of the population.

Train employees in front of large building, 1893, Southwestern United States photograph collection, C0201, Box 1, Folder 36, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Round Hill, Virginia school correspondence

This collection contains 10 letters, plus associated letters of recommendation, regarding applications for teaching and principal positions available at the Round Hill and Wood Grove schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, between 1897 and 1900. The recipient of the letters was Dr. J.E. Copeland. Three of the letters specifically reference the Round Hill “colored” school…The small town of Round Hill in Loudoun County, Virginia, was incorporated in 1900, though it had been settled in the 18th century; typically for a southern town of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was racially segregated…This segregation extended to the schools; the Round Hill “colored” school served the African American community until 1943, when the building burned down.

St. Emma’s Military Academy catalog and postcard

Program catalog and postcard sent by a student from St. Emma Military Academy, also known as St. Emma’s Military Academy, a high school for Black boys in Powhatan, VA. The catalog, probably created in the 1930s or 1940s, contains details about the course of study and life at the school. The postcard, from 1943, is written by Ernest Noble to his mother Sadie Noble in New York City. St. Emma Military Academy was founded in 1895 as the St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural Institute. The school’s founders, Edward de Vaux Morrell and his wife Louise, were from Philadelphia. The school was located at Belmead, which had been a plantation where Philip St. George Cocke enslaved hundreds of Black men, women, and children. As noted by Greg McQuade in a news story for WTVR Richmond, “Ten thousand young men graduated in nearly 80 years. A stark contrast to the dark beginnings of Belmead,” (“Former cadets push to save old African-American military academy”). Robert Walker, a graduate of the school, said, “You would leave here with a military diploma. A trade diploma and an academic diploma,”(quoted in McQuade, “Former cadets push to save old African-American military academy”). St. Emma’s Military Academy closed in 1972.

African American woman with baby in railroad yard, 1893, Southwestern United States photograph collection, C0201, Box 1, Folder 20, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Arena Stage records, 1990 “Fences” production materials

“Fences” is a 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, and is one of the most widely known and important plays in American theatrical history. Set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “Fences” focuses on a working class Black family, led by the larger-then-life father Troy Maxson. The play deals with themes of class, racism, family dynamics, and masculinity. It has been staged many times, with numerous notable Black actors playing Troy, his wife Rose, and their son Cory, such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington, Mary Alice and Viola Davis, and Courtney B. Vance and Chris Chalk, respectively. Arena Stage staged a production of “Fences” in 1990, which received positive reviews.

George Mason University Oral History Project collection

The Special Collections Research Center’s Oral History Program records and preserves oral histories primarily of members of the GMU community, which include faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of the university. These interviews capture unique personal perspectives about the creation, development, and growth of the university..[this collection consists] of approximately 200 interviews focused mainly on George Mason history.

From past university presidents to former students, the collection comprises a wide range of voices and perspectives, including Black employees, administrators, and professors. Interviewees include Andrew “Andy” Evans, Joseph “Joe” Heastie, Dr. Spencer Crew, and Dr. Darius “Lee” Swann, among others.

African American men, 1893, Southwestern United States photograph collection, C0201, Box 1, Folder 17, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Southwestern United States photograph collection

This collection documents 1893 rail travel and the urbanization of the Southwestern United States. This collection includes images of railroad passengers and employees of differing race and social class. Also included are images of New Orleans and Southwestern towns and cities, as well as the people who inhabited them. The photographs also document leisure travel during the 19th century and feature tourists at the seashore and several hotels.

A number of the photographs feature Black men and women in various locales and professions, providing a snapshot into Black lives during late 19th century America.

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