A glimpse into African American History and Culture in Orange County
Let us honor our local treasures in the community that paved the way through many obstacles and hardships. We are grateful for your perseverance.
“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
—Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut
Enslaved African Americans are noted to have probably first come to Orange County in the 1730's and were employed mostly in the iron mines established by Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood around the Fort Germanna historical site located in Locust Grove.
Pension records show that “Forgotten Patriots” from Orange County served in the military during the American Revolution and helped build a road through the county for the Marquis de Lafayette as he traveled south towards Yorktown in 1781.
Paul Jennings was James Madison’s lifelong enslaved Black (African) American. He is credited with rescuing the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that was hanging in the White House as the British burned the nation’s fledgling capitol during the War of 1812.
The Mere Distinction of Colour; A groundbreaking exhibition on slavery at James Madison's Montpelier. The culmination of nearly two decades of historical and archaeological research, this exhibition explores how the legacy of slavery impacts today’s conversations about race, identity, and human rights. Visitors will also see Montpelier’s connection to the national story of slavery – and discover the economic, ideological, and political factors that cemented it in the newly-created American nation and Constitution.
Federal African American troops (USCT) were first employed offensively during the Civil War in the Battle of the Wilderness in eastern Orange County in early May of 1864.
Following emancipation, former Montpelier slave, George Gilmore purchased a small tract of land from his former owner and built a cabin that is the first example of a restored freedman’s residence open to the public, now noted as Gilmore Cabin. His direct descendants live in the county to this day.
Annual cultural festival to celebrate the African American community:"Juneteenth is the oldest nationally-celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Marking the date that the last enslaved people learned of their freedom, the month of June and the nineteenth day were combined to form the term "Juneteenth." From its Galveston, Texas, origin in 1865, observance of Juneteenth as African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States, and is an official holiday recognized in 45 States and the District of Columbia." James Madison's Montpelier Annual Juneteenth Celebration honors and celebrates African American history, food, music, faith, family, and freedom,June 20, 2020.
Enterprising African American women in the 1840's earned Gordonsville the title of Fried Chicken Capital of the Universe when they greeted arriving trains with baskets of fried chicken and homemade pies balanced on their heads. On June 15, 2002, a plaque honoring Gordonsville’s Legendary Chicken Vendors “Fried Chicken Capital of the World” was dedicated and recognized as an African American Memorial Site at the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel.
Orange is the hometown of Capt. Andrew Maples Jr., a Tuskegee Airman in the 301st Fighter Squadron. The son of a World War I veteran, Maples was lost over Europe during a bomber escort mission in World War II. A historical marker stands near his families home sight (which is no longer there) in downtown Orange. The marker is located near the south entrance to Taylor Park near West Church Street. Photo credits to: Pete Payette, June 24, 2017 and US Army official photo.
Edna Lewis, the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, the person most responsible for putting the “slow food” movement on the culinary map was born and raised in Freetown, a freedman’s community in Orange County that was established by her emancipated grandfather, Chester Lewis.
In the middle of the 20th century, it was the best of times for citizens of downtown Orange when bustling businesses lined Railroad Avenue between East Main and Church Streets. Neighborhood children played on skates, Sunday league baseball players got a trim and a shave in the local barbershop, women shopped for fabric at the five-and-dime store, young couples danced on hot summer nights, and pool halls filled with joy at the workweek’s end. This is the life recognized by many African-Americans whose families still live, work, worship and play in this area of historic downtown Orange.
To learn and see photos of much more history and culture of the Orange County African American community enjoy a great read by Terry L. Miller, "Images of America, African Americans in Culpeper, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock Counties."
"Orange Graded School, built in 1925 to replace the African American schoolhouse on West Main Street, stood adjacent to present day Prospect Heights School. Of the several county schools for black students, Orange Graded was the only one built using the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which was established in 1917 by the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company to construct schools for African Americans across the rural South. Of the $6,200 building cost, 40 percent was raised by the local African American community. This four-teacher standard plan school was one of the larger Rosenwalds built in Virginia. Gussie Baylor Taylor was recruited to teach in 1925 and later served as the school’s supervisor." (language taken from DHR website and marker) A portion of the foundation is still visible at the site of the Orange Graded School.
Another local educational treasure is the Carver 4-County Museum which documents, celebrates and shares the educational, social, cultural and military history of students, faculty and administrators of George Washington Carver Regional High School, the only institution of higher education in the four county region of Culpeper, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock from 1948-68.
Enjoy the exhibit and work of Darrell Rose, A New Vision 2020, at the Arts Center in Orange displayed in their Morin Gallery from February 6-March 31, 2020. Although widely known and celebrated as a musician, he has been painting for over twenty-five years, broadening his range considerably as a creative artist.
Contributions of content written by historian, Phil Audibert, Orange County Tourism and excerpts pulled from James Madison's Montpelier Foundation, The Arts Center In Orange, the Department of Historical Markers and the Carver 4-County Museum.