African American History in Harrisonburg, Virginia

By: Rosemarie Joswick Palmer
November 3, 2022


African Americans have been an integral part of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham community since the beginning of our history in the 1700s, as typically recorded in the 1767 will of Daniel Harrison (“My Negroes:  Hannah, Simon, Cesar, Kate, and Moses”) whose family were among the earliest settlers.  His brother Thomas Harrison, also a slave owner, was the founder of Harrisonburg.  Most African Americans were brought here as enslaved property, destined for agricultural and domestic labor.  The majority worked on small family farms, in local businesses, and in regional industries such as grist mills, tanneries, and iron foundries.  Many of the early residents of Rockingham County were Mennonite, Brethren, and Methodist farmers who were opposed to slavery; consequently, not more than eleven percent of the population at any time were slaves.  In the years prior to the Civil War, slaves were sold on the Court House grounds in downtown Harrisonburg.  When cotton-growing in the Deep South required more slave labor, coffles of slaves chained together and in wagons were seen marching down the Great Wagon Road (Valley Turnpike/Route 11) from Alexandria to Tennessee and eventually Louisiana.  This became known as the “Slave Trail of Tears”.

Wheat was the main crop in the Valley, unlike the large tobacco and cotton plantations of eastern and southern Virginia that required much more slave labor.  This was the reason that the Shenandoah Valley was called “The Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the Civil War.  By 1790, ten percent of the 7,500 population in the county were slaves.  Of the 420 slaveholders in Rockingham County in 1860, the majority were English or Scots Irish who owned an average of two to nine slaves.   Slaves were often leased from neighbors or eastern Virginia during harvest times.  The 1850 census for Harrisonburg showed a population of 713, of which 630 were white, 64 black, and 19 mulattoes.  The 1860 census for Harrisonburg numbered 1,024 whites and 390 African Americans, of which 277 were enslaved and 113 were free blacks.  Freedom for an African American slave could be attained by 1) being born of a free mother, black or white 2) being manumitted by the will of their owner 3) by buying their freedom from money earned from being rented out.  In 1849, the first mayor of Harrisonburg, Isaac Hardesty, owned three slaves in what is now the city visitors center.  In those days, on the average, most residents in Harrisonburg owned from one to three slaves.

“Free blacks” numbered 532 in the 1860 Rockingham County census, but they were very restricted in terms of jobs, education, and social life.  Occupations listed in the 1850 Harrisonburg census are saddler, waiter, blacksmith, wagon maker, well digger, cake baker, laborer, barber, and washerwoman.  Some continued to live with white families as domestic help or work as farm laborers. They were not allowed to have their own churches, schools, or fraternal organizations and were restricted in their movements at certain times.  However, free blacks could own property, which many did particularly in the “Jail Hill” area (North High Street) of Harrisonburg…on which they built homes.  In 1830 free black William Strother bought a lot on North High Street that is now the parking lot for Otterbein United Methodist Church.  By law, free blacks were required to leave the state within one year of becoming free, however this usually was not enforced and could be overturned by petition.  On becoming free, they had to register at the Court House.

However, those still enslaved could also be “rented out” if they had a skill that was in demand.  Their wages went to either their owner or to themselves.  In 1822, Cuthbert H. Spangler granted emancipation to his slave Jacob after Jacob had earned $500 in wages by being hired out.  A fieldhand slave could be hired out in the 1820s for approximately $250 a year and board.

When slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, many freedmen settled in a section of Harrisonburg called “The Zirkle’s Addition”, later named “Newtown”, which was annexed by the city around 1892.  Today, Newtown is home to most of Harrisonburg’s predominantly black churches such as First Baptist, John Wesley United Methodist, and Bethel AME; as well as historic Newtown Cemetery* (over 900 burials), Lucy Simms School & Continuing Education Center*, and Ralph Sampson Park.  In the county, some freed slaves settled in a community named Zenda*, which contained a chapel/school and a cemetery that has been preserved.  No one remains there today.  A segregated school, the Effinger Street School, was built in 1882 in Harrisonburg to provide compulsory public education for African American children.   This was followed by the Lucy Frances Simms School in 1939, which closed in 1966 when the public schools in Harrisonburg became integrated.  It was renovated and re-opened in 2005 as the Lucy Frances Simms Continuing Education Center, operated by Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department, at 620 Simms Avenue.

There are cemeteries in Rockingham County with black burials.  Many slaves were buried in unmarked graves on the property where they had served.  Gravestones mark mass graves of slaves at Linville Creek Church of the Brethren in Broadway and at Elk Run Cemetery in Elkton.


Notable Figures

Richard Earl Johnson

In 1920, Richard Earl Johnson of Harrisonburg competed in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, winning a bronze medal as a runner.  He was also given the honor of raising the United States flag.  His father, Robert Earl Johnson, had a barbershop on the corner of Water Street and Main Street in Harrisonburg.  He also competed for the United States in the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris, France in the cross-country team where he won a silver medal with his teammates.  He was one of the first African Americans to compete in the Olympics, and was the first nationally prominent black distance runner.

Peggy Webb
The first black graduate of Eastern Mennonite College was Peggy Webb who earned a degree in education in 1954.  Her mother was Roberta Webb of Harrisonburg.  Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg was one of the first colleges in the South to admit African American students during segregation, along with Berea College in Kentucky.

Elon W. Rhodes
In 1969-75, Elon W. Rhodes, a local self-employed barber, became the first African American to serve on the Harrisonburg School Board.  In 1976, he became the first African American elected to the Harrisonburg City Council, serving for 16 years.  An Early Education Center addition to Smithland Elementary School was named in his honor in 2017.

Larry Rogers
In 2004, Larry Rogers became Harrisonburg’s first African American Mayor.

Ralph Sampson
In 2011, native Ralph Sampson was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Deanna Renee Reed
In 2017, native Deanna Renee Reed becomes the first female African American Mayor of Harrisonburg.  She was reelected to a second term 2021-2024.

“Emancipation and Freedom” Monument
In September 2021, a new “Emancipation and Freedom” monument was unveiled on Brown’s Island in Richmond, Virginia, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in Confederate territory to be free in 1863.  At the base of the statue are the names of 10 Virginia African Americans who have fought for emancipation and freedom of formerly enslaved people or their descendants.  The people honored include Nat Turner who mounted a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, John Mitchell, Jr. an activist and newspaper editor who in 1921 was the first African American to run for Virginia governor, and Lucy F. Simms, an influential teacher in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area whose career spanned five decades.

JMU Renames Three Historic Buildings
In 2021, James Madison University re-named three of their buildings on the historic Quad for local African Americans.  They were Drs. Joanne and Alexander Gabbin, Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, Doris Harper Allen, and Robert Walker Lee.  A new dormitory was named after Paul Jennings, who was a former slave of President James Madison.

*On the National Register of Historic Places