Category Archives: Virginia history

The Curious Case of Anthony Johnson

The mark of slave-turned-master Anthony Johnson. Source: Wikipedia

by James A. Bacon

The man who would come to be known by the English name of Anthony Johnson was born in the Angola region of southern Africa, enslaved by the Portuguese, and transported to Virginia for sale. There he was sold to a colonist, and then resold to a merchant planter by the name of Edward Bennet around the year 1622. None of the American colonies had yet legalized slavery — Massachusetts would be the first in 1641; Virginia would not follow until 1661 — and the only legal framework for bondage was indentured servitude. Accordingly, Johnson entered his service to Bennet as an indentured servant.

Bennet sent some 50 servants, including Johnson, to a point on the James River to clear grounds for a tobacco plantation. The following month, the party was attacked by the Powhatan Confederacy headed by Chief Opechancanough, who was bent upon exterminating and expelling the English colonists. Johnson was one of only a  handful of survivors. After that harrowing episode, he proceeded to serve out his term as a servant and was given his freedom. As was standard practice at the time, he was given tools and allotted land. He settled along the Pungoteague River on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

An enterprising man, Bennet took advantage of the so-called “headrights” system, in which anyone who imported labor to the colony was granted 50 acres per head. By acquiring a dozen or more servants — some English, some of African origin — he built an estate of more than 1,000 acres, which he named Angola. Thus, Johnson was one of the only — perhaps the only — documented instance in history of an African who became the master of White Englishmen in the American colonies. Continue reading

Virginia’s Monuments War

Charlottesville’s monument to Stonewall Jackson (1921) was removed from a park next to the Albemarle County Courthouse in July 2021. It was subsequently sold to a Los Angeles “visual art space” and is in danger of destruction. (Nickmorgan2, Wikimedia Commons, rendered in grayscale)

In Charlottesville and Richmond, the fate of historical statuary hangs in the balance.

by Catesby Leigh

Charlottesville’s public spaces suffered major degradation after George Floyd’s killing, thanks to the removal of five noteworthy statuary works erected between 1909 and 1924: a Confederate sentinel known as Johnny Reb perched on an elaborate pedestal flanked by two cannons in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse; equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; a Lewis and Clark monument that included the crouching figure of their Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea; and a monument to Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, famous for his exploits in what became the Northwest Territory. This tribute to the “Conqueror of the Northwest” included seven figures in a scenographic tableau, with Clark alone on horseback as his party encountered a group of Indians.

Except for the Johnny Reb, these monuments were the work of noted artists and individually designated on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Virginia Landmarks Register. All, again excepting the Johnny Reb, were donated by an exceptionally generous philanthropist, investment banker Paul Goodloe McIntire (1860–1952).

And all ran afoul of racial-grievance activists, whether black or Native American, and their indispensable coterie of woke white allies convinced that the monuments’ removal will somehow improve the lives of historically marginalized minorities. It won’t, and the grievance community will just move on to the next hot-button issue. Only the handsomely decorated pink-granite pedestal of the Lewis and Clark, rising from a lushly planted traffic island, remains. Evidently the pedestal is considered politically acceptable in the statuary’s absence, especially that of the unacceptably subordinate figure of Sacagawea. Continue reading

Those History and Social Studies Learning Standards: Another Perspective

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Predictably, the Youngkin administration’s proposed Standards of Learning for History and Social Studies have  created controversy.

Being able to compare the administration’s proposal with the Standards developed by the previous Board of Education that were ready for consideration and adoption, but put on hold by the Superintendent of Instruction, would add some more context to the discussion.  However, that prior document seems to have been purged from the Department of Education’s website. The only documents available seem to be those related to the “revised proposed Standards.”

The administration has created a framework that is fraught with contradictions and which threatens to put teachers in an untenable situation. On his first day in office, the Governor issued an edict intended to “end use of all inherently divisive concepts.”  In ”The Guiding Principles for Virginia’s 2022 History and Social Science Standards Revisions”, the administration declares that teachers should teach “facts” in “ways that do not ascribe guilt to any population in the classroom.” It wants teachers to “teach all of our history in an objective, fair, empathetic, nonjudgmental” manner. Finally, it directs teachers to facilitate discussions on “difficult” topics “without personal or political bias.” Continue reading

Teaching History as the Struggle for a “More Perfect Union”

The Youngkin administration has published a document, “The Guiding Principles for Virginia’s 2022 History and Social Science Standards Revisions,” which lays out the thinking behind revisions to the history and social-science Standards of Learning standards.

The document does not dictate what teachers will teach. To the contrary, it states explicitly that the goal is to teach history “in an objective, fair, empathetic, nonjudgmental and developmentally appropriate manner” and that teachers must facilitate “open and balanced discussions on difficult topics, including discrimination and racism, and present learning opportunities without personal or political bias.” Rather, it explains the rationale for determining the body of knowledge that K-12 students must acquire.

To many Virginians, the principles will seem laudable. But they are antithetical to ideological currents prevalent in the educational establishment that regard the American republic as conceived in sin and that interpret history through the lens of racial, sexual and gender oppression. Because the legacy media will never present the Youngkin administration’s thinking in depth — and because I cannot articulate those principles any better than the the authors — I republish lengthy excerpts of the document here. — JAB


Virginia’s History and Social Science standards aim to restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history. The teaching of history should illuminate insights from the past and inspire current and future generations to lead lives that are informed and inspired by those who walked this journey before them.

Expectations for Virginia’s Students

Every graduate from Virginia’s K-12 schools will posses a robust understanding of the places, people, events and ideas that comprise the history of Virginia, the United States and world civilizations. Our students will learn from the rise and fall of civilizations across time, so that we may pursue and maintain government and economic systems that have led to human achievement. The Virginia standards are grounded in the foundational principles and actions of great individuals who preceded us so that we may learn from them as we strive to maintain our political liberties and personal freedoms and thrive as a nation. Continue reading

Statue Preservationists, Find Better Ground!

Stonewall Jackson statue at Manassas Battlefield. Photo credit: Mr.TinMD

by Donald Smith

God, give me the strength to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

That’s the “Serenity Prayer,” and those of us who want to see Virginia’s Confederate heritage respected (or at least tolerated) need to say it. Often specifically, we need the wisdom to know what’s possible and what isn’t, and the serenity to accept the changes in our communities and culture that won’t be undone. If we do that, we can focus our efforts on new ways to honor our ancestors and those things they fought for that deserve to be honored (home, community, bravery, dedication to duty and your fellow soldiers, the right to self-determination, etc….)

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Confederate heritage supporters have two tremendous problems: the Confederacy sought to perpetuate slavery and disrupt the Union. For those two reasons alone, every rational American adult should be glad the Confederacy was defeated. (When I read my “Confederate Veteran” magazine from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I sometimes wonder if some of the authors and editors are actually sorry the South lost.) Continue reading

Jamestown Settlement – A Flawless Weaving of American History

Christy Coleman, Executive Director, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

by James C. Sherlock

Sunday, on a brilliant fall day in Hampton Roads, my wife and I went on an outing.

Despite having lived in Virginia for many decades, neither of us had ever been to Jamestown.

We all know the outlines of the story. Jamestown was founded in 1607 as a commercial venture by British investors, the Virginia Company. It was ill-conceived and badly executed, but survived, if barely.

We know, or think we do, about John Smith and Pocahontas. The arrival of African slaves. The beginnings of the General Assembly. Bacon’s Rebellion. The abandonment of the settlement in 1699 when the capitol was moved to Williamsburg.

It turned out that neither of us knew enough about Jamestown to avoid being constantly surprised and educated during a visit to Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum presented by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation (JYF).

What makes that museum very special is the way the JYF has woven together the stories of early Jamestown:

  • the 1607 voyage of three ships and 104 colonists under the command of Captain Christopher Newport;
  • the managers hired by the Virginia Company, then royal appointees from 1624 when the settlement became a colony, and wayward sons of the well-to-do like Nathanial Bacon;
  • the other European immigrants, mostly indentured servants;
  • the indigenous peoples; and
  • Africans, both slave (starting in 1619) and free.

The museum presents not only their history, but their humanity. Continue reading

The War on Virginia’s History

Anarchy and nihilism. Mural at the University of Virginia. Photo credit: Ann McLean

by Scott S. Powell and Ann McLean

The United States is under a cultural and ideological attack that threatens its continuity and survival more than at any previous time in the 239-year history of the nation. And since the leaders of this attack think strategically, it should come as no surprise that Virginia would be in the crosshairs of a new kind of battle to transform America.

Virginia is the key state that gave birth to the United States, and this state has more historical sites than any other — approximately 130 in all. Yorktown and Appomattox Courthouse, both in Virginia, were the sites of the final battles of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Thus, America-haters know that if the history and culture of Virginia can be denigrated and rewritten, the rest of the country will be easier to take down.

Four of the first five U.S. presidents came from Virginia. George Washington, who led the Continental Army to victory in the War of Independence, would become the first president. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, became the third president. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, drafted the Constitution. James Monroe, the fifth and last president among the Founding Fathers, was the brave 18-year-old volunteer soldier holding the American flag in Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1850 painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” sitting in the boat right behind resolute commander-in-chief Washington. Continue reading

How to Think About Monuments

Statue of George Washington at the Virginia Capitol. Will he be canceled next?

by James A. Bacon

The conservative movement in Virginia faces a huge dilemma: how to build a “big tent” political coalition that is welcoming to African Americans and other minorities while resisting the cultural cleansing of everyone associated, however remotely, with the Civil War, slaveholding or segregation — including founding fathers of the republic such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The iconoclasts are full of fury, and their logic is simple: monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals, they say, were erected as symbols of White supremacy and racism; White supremacy and racism must be expunged; therefore, these figures must be removed from the public sphere. Step by step, this syllogism has been extended to any figure tainted by racism, segregation, or slaveholding. An individual’s contributions and accomplishments count for nothing. Historical context is irrelevant. Artistic and aesthetic considerations of the statuary and pedestals as adornments to public places are of no import.

Conservatives and traditionalists have been powerless to reverse the momentum. They have mounted many lines of defense, but they have counted for naught. While many business and civic leaders lament the iconoclasm in private, they are too timid to speak publicly. No one wants to be tarred as an apologist for White supremacy. Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has been outspoken about “divisive” leftist concepts in schools, has been mute about monuments. The political parties are undergoing the greatest realignment in a half century as Blacks and Hispanics increasingly see the Democratic Party as antithetical to their values and interests. For Youngkin, there is no upside to standing up for the statues of Civil War generals.

The challenge, as I see it, is for conservatives and traditionalists to articulate a set of principles regarding monuments and memorials that does not alienate the demographic groups — Blacks in particular — that the Republican Party is courting. Indeed, the rhetoric of conservatives and traditionalists should fully acknowledge the fact that African Americans in Virginia and America endured centuries of slavery, racism, and segregation, and that their experiences should not be discounted in our re-telling of history. Insofar as they fought for liberty, we should unabashedly embrace them as our heroes, too. Continue reading

It’s a Memorial, Not a Racist Ideology

by Carol J. Bova

Accounts from lawyers, reporters, pundits and other outsiders have severely distorted the debate over the Confederate memorial in Mathews County.

To The Washington Post, the controversy is about the ”enduring power of the Civil War’s legacy.”

To the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs and Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher, LLP, writing on behalf of the local NAACP, it’s an endorsement of white supremacy. “Confederate monuments were intended to assert that white supremacy would remain a dominant force of social control.”

To Mathews families whose ancestors never came home from the war, the monument in front of the county courthouse provides an enduring connection to their ancestors – a love and commemoration of family. The monument is not a political statement. 

The controversy originated with a proposal before the Mathews Board of Supervisors to deed the land underneath the statue to a private preservation group. The County neither commissioned nor paid for the memorial. It did allow its placement on the corner of the Courthouse Green in 1912 because, at that time, there were no paved roads in the County, and many were impassable in bad weather. The business district was centered near the Courthouse Green, so when families came to shop, the location of the memorial was accessible to pay respect to the Mathews war dead. Continue reading

The Robert E. Lee of Appomattox

by Kenneth G. Everett

Adversity is the first path to truth.
Lord Byron, DON JUAN, Canto XII, Stanza 50

Few things in life reveal more clearly the true character of a man than his response to the circumstances of defeat and failure. The deepest impulses of the soul emerge when cherished hopes collapse and undertakings of much labor, sacrifice, and suffering end in ruin. All of this we see in Robert E. Lee at his surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April of 1865.

Given the severely reduced and depleted state of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia by April 1865, and short of the useless sacrifice of this remnant of faithful veterans in a defiant last stand against Grant, Lee saw no option but that of surrendering the army. This exigency of circumstances, however, did not put Lee under the necessity of making peace.

On the eve of Lee’s meeting with Grant at the McLean house near Farmville, Virginia, Gen. E. Porter Alexander, Lee’s Chief of Artillery and one of his most gifted officers, passionately implored him to order the army to “scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their way, each man to his own state, with arms, & to support his governor,” rather than to surrender, arguing to Lee that “the men that have fought under you for four years have got the right to ask you to spare us the mortification of having you ask Grant for terms. . . .” Continue reading

Some Things Never Change

I am reading a recent biography of Patrick Henry and I came across a quote that just begs to be shared on this blog. One of Henry’s neighbors and friends in 1759 was Thomas Johnson, a member of the House of Burgesses from Louisa County. In the journal of the House, Johnson is recorded as describing the General Assembly as a place of “Plots, Schemes, and Contrivances” where “one holds the Lamb while the other skins.”

Don Rippert, with his criticism of the “plantation elite,” and Thomas Johnson would have gotten along quite well together.

Of Monocans and Manumissions

The Natural Bridge, as rendered by German artist Edward Meyer in 1858.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s history is endlessly fascinating. A study of the state’s past illuminates many issues that still confound us today. Such is the case with a monograph that reader Kemp Dolliver has brought to my attention: “Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the Natural Bridge of Virginia.”

This article, written in 1997 by David W. Coffey, then a history professor at the Virginia Military Institute, touches upon two issues that are relevant today: (1) the dispossession of the lands of the Monocan Indians; and (2) Jefferson’s attitude towards race.

Monocan Indians. The Monocan Indians, as we are repeatedly reminded, inhabited the territory now known as western Virginia during the pre-colonial era, and the land where the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are located was taken from them. This history, usually told in a manner to suggest that the European settlers of Virginia were uniquely rapacious and unjust, is devoid of critical context.

Citing an earlier source, Coffey’s article notes that the Natural Bridge held a special place in the hearts of the Monocans. In their mythology, the geological wonder proved their salvation. “Long, long ago,” the Monocans were set upon by the Shawnees and the Powhatans. Many of the Monocan braves fell in battle. As they fled their pursuers, the Monocans came upon a high chasm. As they cried out for deliverance, the Great Spirit created the Great Bridge for them to cross. Then, standing against their enemies on the narrow crossing, the Monocan braves turned to face their enemies and fought victoriously. Continue reading

“Retained and Contextualized” at VMI

The Jackson Arch — pre-retention and contextualization. Photo credit: Yelp

by Donald Smith

The Stonewall-Jackson-statue-at-VMI controversy is one of many, both in Virginia and across the country, where communities and their elected/appointed representatives have grappled with tough questions: how do we honor past heroes in modern times? Do we continue to honor them at all?  When do the feelings of a minority of a community outweigh the desires of the majority?  VMI, and Virginia, are just now really starting to deal with these questions, when it comes to the state’s history, up to and including the Civil War.

After removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Main Post and his name from the Post chapel, Virginia Military Institute officials arranged for the inscription of the Confederate general’s name to be sandblasted off an arch, commonly known as “Jackson Arch,” of the Old Barracks during the 2021-22 Christmas break.

Four months later, on April 30th, the Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review Committee (CMNRC), created to review all Confederate iconography on the Lexington campus, concluded its business. “[T]he VMI Board of Visitors,” said the committee in a public announcement, “voted to retain all the remaining statues and building names. Additionally, the vast majority of the other commemorative items, artwork, and memorials that had been the subject of the committee’s scrutiny because of the item’s association, however indirectly, with the Civil War, slavery, and the Confederacy will remain.” Some of the items that remain will be “retained and contextualized.” Continue reading

The Next Memorial or the Next Boondoggle?

by Jon Baliles

The Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality organization is run by Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto and has been publishing quarterly in Richmond since 2005. This summer’s edition from last week is an eye-opener and sure to cause some needed and welcome discussion.

The Defenders published two articles about what is and is not happening in regard to the proposed Shockoe Bottom memorial that will honor and tell the story about the slave trade in Richmond, the Burial Ground, Lumpkin’s Jail, and a big part of the history of this city that has been buried and repressed for far too long.

Well, things are definitely happening, but the City, as well as the leaders of the uniquely opaque National Slavery Museum Foundation, are doing precious little to share their plans with the public.

They detail how Mayor Stoney supported the creation of a nine-acre memorial park and created and kicked off the Shockoe Alliance group that was ideally supposed to develop a plan and detail what the memorial park could become. The Smith Group, a national planning firm, was engaged to outline the possibilities and has a web site that is definitely worth a look. Continue reading

Sorry Tarheels, Virginia Invented Barbecue

by Jon Baliles

Yes, Virginia, it us true, we invented barbecue.

Last week my podcast library downloaded the latest episode of Eat It, Virginia, a podcast hosted by Wise and Martin as they welcomed Deb Freeman, a local Richmond rockstar who hosts her own podcast called Setting the Table. Her new-ish series focuses on the impact African Americans have made on American food, and even though it is only 12 episodes deep, it is a barn-burner: Setting the Table is the most listened-to food podcast on Apple podcasts and has been ranked the #1 food podcast in Canada, and charted high in France, China, Germany, Russia, and on and on.

Freeman has hosted episodes discussing black farmers, black brewers and distillers, “The Great Migration and Black Food,” “The Complicated Stories of Soul Food,” and “Yellowcake and Black Baking.”

“Virginia is so vital to so many American foods. Barbecue started here, macaroni and cheese, ice cream started here, fried chicken started here,” she said. “These are things that folks aren’t really talking about. But Virginians really need to be proud of. All of these great Southern and American dishes that everyone still eats today, 400 years later, they all came from Virginia.” Continue reading