Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center
In 1856, Lucy F. Simms was born into slavery at the Hilltop plantation in eastern Harrisonburg. At about 17 years of age, she began what would be a long career of impactful teaching. After graduating from Virginia’s Hampton Institute in 1877, Miss Simms made her way back to Harrisonburg to teach at Zenda, a black community north of Harrisonburg. She then moved to Harrisonburg city schools, first teaching in a church room and then the new Effinger School. She taught for 56 years until she passed away in 1934. Miss Simms taught three generations and approximately 1,800 boys and girls in the Valley. She was ultimately known for her “strong moral convictions” and “motherlike care” that helped shape the early lives of her students.
The Lucy F. Simms School was built soon after her death and served African-American students from all over Rockingham County and beyond between 1938 and 1965. The building is now called the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, and features a celebratory exhibition of Miss Simms’ life and impact in the Harrisonburg community.
NENA Community Garden
In the 1950s and 60s, the federal government offered large grants to redevelop downtown areas in a process known as “urban renewal.” Sites that were once homes became sites for businesses and a community turned to parking lots. “Urban renewal” in Harrisonburg focused primarily on the northeast section, which is now filled with businesses like Roses and 7-Eleven. Homes of both whites and African-Americans were demolished or burned, but more than 60 percent of the destruction impacted the African-American community.
Many neighborhoods faced the devastating loss of property including homes, farms, local businesses, and a greater sense of community. Suddenly, people who had lived in the same place for multiple generations could no longer recognize their neighborhoods. Families in the northeast neighborhood, many of whom had a history in agriculture, no longer had a means to fulfill such trades and livelihoods.
Recognizing the need for their own form of renewal, the Northeast Neighborhood Association (NENA) dedicated their resources to creating a community garden for local individuals and families. Local city residents can sign up for planting lessons and grow their own plants or produce in the plot of land. A humble place of pride and joy, the NENA garden represents new hope and sustainability for the restoration of the African-American community in Harrisonburg.
Additional Resources: Urban Renewal in Harrisonburg
Located at the intersection of Sterling, Kelley, and Hill Streets, Newtown Cemetery was purchased by five trustees in 1869 and was the only cemetery open to all "persons of color" in Harrisonburg. It is situated in the historic section of Harrisonburg known as Newtown or the Northeast Neighborhood. The cemetery has nearly 1000 burials, some unmarked. It also includes the burials of some of the area's most influential African-Americans like Lucy Simms, Elon Rhodes, and Roberta Webb.
Dallard Newman House
Constructed c. 1895 at 192 Kelley Street, the historic Dallard-Newman House is one of the city’s oldest and most enduring monuments to African American culture and heritage. The building, constructed by freed slaves, Ambrose and Reuben Dallard in 1885, is a fascinating record of urban life in this community. Its history begins with efforts at economic recovery in the post-Civil War era (1865-1877), the founding of the first educational institutions for persons of color, the development of the thriving community of Newtown around the house, and the near hundred and fifty years that followed up, up until today.
The Dallard/Newman house is one of the few middle-class African American homes to survive in Harrisonburg, since most of the African-American neighborhoods were targeted for demolition during the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960’s. Its endurance, coupled with the prominence of the Newman family and the vital role it played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Harrisonburg, makes it a unique and important structure, one worthy of preservation in the Northeast Community.
NENA Community Center - Broad Street Mennonite Church
Built in 1945, the historic Broad Street Mennonite Church has served a variety of purposes for Harrisonburg residents. Originally, members of the Mennonite church would congregate in the sanctuary. Eastern Mennonite University students also hosted vacation Bible school there. Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed recalls attending that vacation Bible school when she was a young girl and acknowledges its impact on many local youth. According to Mayor Reed, “It’s part of our history. Everybody, all of the kids, came here for VBS.” (Pete Delea, Daily News-Record).
In 2018, the Mennonite congregation moved from having services in the church to having them in members’ homes. The trustees of the Broad Street Mennonite Church voted to donate the building to the Northeast Neighborhood Association in recognition of and respect for those who have worked in the community. In addition, the house next door to the church was once owned by Roberta Webb. In the early 1900s, Webb served as a childhood and preschool teacher. She is also responsible for creating the first child care center in the Northeast neighborhood.
According to Steven Thomas, NENA plans “to make this a safe space for community activities and meetings of various types. The Northeast Neighborhood Association Community Center will be an attractive and sustainable institution in the Harrisonburg community for years to come.”
Lynching, Mass Racial Terror and Community Remembrance
About a dozen persons with blackened faces hanged Charlotte Harris, a black woman, on March 6th, 1878 near Harrisonburg, in Rockingham County, Virginia. Harris was accused of instigating the burning of a barn.
On Thursday, February 28th, 1878, the barn of Henry Sipe in Rockingham County burned down, and a young black boy, Jim Ergenbright (or Arbegast), was arrested with the accusation of having set the barn on fire (Evening Star). Charlotte Harris was later accused of being the instigator of the burning of the barn, and, on March 6th, she was arrested and taken into the custody of the Rockingham County Jail in Harrisonburg (Alexandria Gazette). At about 11 PM, two men appeared in front of the building with cocked revolvers, demanding Harris from her jail cell. According to The Daily Dispatch, the two armed men “informed the guard that if they surrendered her peaceably it would be well for them; if not, they must take the consequences. But at this moment a rush of armed men (in appearance black) made an entrance and seized Charlotte”. The disguised party took Charlotte Harris about 400 yards from the jail and hanged her to a tree.
On March 16th, 1878, the Governor of Virginia offered a $100 reward for the capture of the lynchers of Charlotte Harris; about ten days later, a grand jury in Rockingham County was unable to identify any parties responsible for the lynching (Alexandria Gazette). Jim Ergenbright, the young boy accused of having burned Mr. Sipe’s barn, was acquitted from all charges on April 16th, 1878 (Alexandria Gazette).
Credit: Racial Terror and Lynching in Virginia, a research project led by Gianluca De Fazio, assistant professor in the Department of Justice Studies at JMU.
House Formerly Believed to Belong to Harrisonburg's Namesake Thomas Harrison
An historic downtown Harrisonburg structure was thought for generations to be the home of the town’s founder, Thomas Harrison. The City of Harrisonburg bought the property with matching funds from the Margaret Grattan Weaver Foundation with plans to restore it. Weaver, a prominent local philanthropist who died in 2001, served as president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in her lifetime. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts United Daughters of the Confederacy among the leading proponents of the “cult of the lost cause.”
During research prior to beginning restoration efforts, Dr. Carole Nash, Associate Professor of GS, ISAT at JMU, along with other researchers found that the construction of the building fell between the spring of 1789 and 1790. Their findings meant that the house could not have been built by Thomas Harrison because he died in 1785. Dr. Nash and her team also uncovered artifacts in the basement of the home that suggested enslaved people lived in the basement, and that the building might have served as an inn.
According to Steven Thomas of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, the research findings are “an invaluable opportunity and tool for truth-telling and racial reconciliation should city officials demonstrate the bold leadership this moment calls for…The enslaved inhabitants of the cellar at the building formerly known as the ‘Thomas-Harrison House’ would have sought refuge in historic Newtown in the years following the Civil War. Exploring a broader collaboration between all parties involved in the downtown restoration effort and those conducting similar work in northeast Harrisonburg is the starting point for a city government and community devoted to transforming the historical harms of white supremacy.”