Could Fairfax County’s students, as young as elementary school, from all walks of life, from every ethnicity, from every background, one day come together and become the historians who unearthed and shed light on the underrepresented, diverse and rich stories of the county’s African-Americans and Blacks? In the embodiment of the Board of Supervisors One Fairfax policy, it happened recently.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors announced at its February 7 meeting that its inaugural Black/African American Historical Markers Project, launched on February 1, 2022, has generated six new historical markers. The Fairfax County History Commission’s historical marker review committee approved the six markers, no more than one marker per magisterial district.
“(The project) allow(s) new stories to be shared with our community,” said Supervisor Dalia Palchick (D- Providence). She was reading a resolution requested by Chairman Jeffery C. McKay (D-At Large), Supervisor Kathy Smith (D-Sully), and herself to recognize the staff, students, teachers, and community members involved in the project.
A few moments earlier, McKay had welcomed all the children and anyone who was there in the auditorium of the Fairfax County Government Center for the proclamation to come down and gather in front of the dais where he and the supervisors sat. A quick, unofficial headcount totaled slightly over one hundred students, teachers, and others.
“My goodness, how many school buses did they have to take?” Vice chair Penny Gross could be heard through her live mic quietly commenting. ‘It should be part of 4th-grade civics.”
On behalf of all residents of Fairfax County, Palchik congratulated and thanked the participants and supporters who made the inaugural Historical Marker Project a success. She called out “a special congratulations to the students whose work helped uncover these important stories from our history.”
Palchik said that the goal of the project was “to reveal narratives and oral histories of the county’s African American communities, whose history, culture and accomplishments in the county are underrepresented in its history books, lessons, and markers.” Fairfax County’s Neighborhood and Community Services collected oral histories from residents to increase the visibility of Black/African American experiences in the county.
Supervisor Rodney Lusk (D-Franconia) said that the county wants to reflect on the contributions of all community members and that “we are all woven together.” “This is information that we can share for future generations, and I think it’s just so important,” he said.
In a joint collaboration involving the Board of Supervisors, Fairfax County Public Schoos (FCPS), the History Commission, and Neighborhood and Community Services, numerous students, scout troops, and other groups submitted proposals for 53 individual and group markers.
Ramona Carroll of Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS) spoke on behalf of the group.” “These youth have given us a history lesson and unearthed some things about Fairfax County that maybe us, as adults, didn’t know,” She thanked the history commission partners who worked with NCS and gave them information the students and teachers needed to know to do the research.
According to McKay, the students’ participation in the project helped the county “authentically and deeply engage with the contributions of our Black American community in the county. "
The stories on the markers may shock some and make others think deeply about the county around them. Fairfax County Public Schools named and explained the six new markers:
These six markers are:
Louise Archer, an educator, who supported numerous students over her time.
Lillian Blackwell, who sued successfully to ban segregation of movie theaters and public schools.
Annie Harper, who challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s poll tax.
Robert Gunnell, a freedman who conveyed land for Gunnell’s Chapel, a 19th century African American Methodist Church.
Colin Powell, who was a long-time county resident, four-star general, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, founder of America’s Promise and the first African American secretary of state. There is an elementary school named after him in Centreville.
December 20, 1856: The 16, which recognizes 16 enslaved individuals named in an 1856 property inventory for the land on which West Springfield High School now stands.
A four-member Fairfax County History Commission committee chose the six marker proposals from a group of 14 finalists selected by a committee of appointees from board offices, community organizations, and student representatives. Mary Lipsey worked with the Marker project/FCPS/African American marker content and winners. Lipsey is also one of three Commissioners, along with Barbara Naef and Phyllis Walker Ford, who helped design and launch the African American History Inventory database designed in conjunction with students from George Mason University’s Capstone program in 2022.
“The idea for the project started as a way that students could learn more about Fairfax County local history. The emphasis of the project was to capture, preserve, and communicate the untold African American history and culture of our county,” said Lipsey. Project leaders were ecstatic when there were over fifty submissions from students at all age levels.
“The difficulty of the project is that there are no textbooks that include our county's African American history,” Lipsey said. “What excited me most was that I too had the opportunity to learn more about the African American History of our county. I feel any day a young person is happy to learn and share history is a great day.”
“We can’t go back and change our history,” said McKay. “But we certainly can learn from it and do better.” He praised the History Commission for doing a remarkable job of getting young people involved.
Stephanie Duffield is a 4th-grade teacher at Haycock Elementary School. The historical marker project inspired her as a teacher because of the community it created in the school and the local community. She and fifth-grade teacher Patti Gray decided to finish the historical marker project as a buddy class. Their students’ proposal on Gunnel’s Chapel, about five miles from the school, earned a spot to become one of the six markers.
Noa Herzog, a fifth grader at Haycock Elementary School, said, “I hope this will make people want to visit Gunnell's Chapel and appreciate what a role it played in black people's lives.”
“The students in both of our classes paired up to research and submit their proposals,” said Duffield. “It was powerful for the students to see how much history is right here in our community – it just needs to be uncovered. The project showed students how to become advocates for their communities, which I believe is so important.”
Anne Marie Harris is a Louise Archer ES 4th grade teacher. On behalf of the teachers who submitted at their school, Harris said, “Last year, our fourth grade team of teachers saw the contest as a fantastic opportunity for our students to build research skills while learning more about our school’s namesake as well as Virginia history. All four fourth grade classes worked to learn about Mrs. Louise Archer’s impact on her community as a dedicated educator during the time of segregation; students read about and discussed the setbacks and challenges she faced and her determination to provide the very best she could for her students. We are so honored and proud to have her name and legacy formally recognized with a historic marker and to teach others about her.“
The following individuals submitted the winning proposals
Brian Heintz, Teacher-Applied History Class, West Springfield High School; Maggie Gowan, Teacher, West Springfield Elementary School; Sean Miller, South County High School; Stephanie Duffield and Patty Gray from Haycock Elementary; Alicia Hunter, Coordinator, Social Studies K-12, Fairfax County Public Schools; and Deborah March, Culture Responsive Pedagogy Specialist, Fairfax County Public Schools.
The 14 finalists out of the 53 entries for the Historical marker Project submissions
Maura Keaney- Island Creek Elementary in Alexandria; Caroline Fox, Girl Scout Troop 3686: Camille McCarthy, Nancy Hanson, Jennie Moonis; Caroline Fox; Niyat Asefaw; Meron Fikru, Delano Telford, Maddie Haag; Carissa Christensen; Janea Kinder, Josephine Springer, Jamaria Miles; Anne Marie Harris -Louise Archer ES in Vienna; Brian Heintz; Stephanie Duffield and Patti Gray-Haycock Elementary in Falls Church; and Keira Guthrie reported the Communications Aide for the Office of Chairman McKay.
For a more detailed description of each marker, visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/providence/sites/providence/files/assets/documents/board%20matters/bm%209-13%20historical%20markers.pdf