Living Histories: Exhibit celebrates rich history of African-Americans in Chesterfield County

In 2005, volunteers with the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia (CHSV) agreed that celebrating Black History Month included more than merely recognizing national figures involved in black history and what was written in textbooks; it meant venerating the personal histories of local African-Americans, as well.

Only there was a slight problem. These personal histories remained just memories shared with families and friends by those who experienced them – they had never been recorded for historical documentation.

According to CHSV President Liess van der Linden-Brusse, a 12-year volunteer with the historical society, the African-American Committee of CHSV began a project that year to record oral histories from African-Americans who either were born or lived in Chesterfield during the early 20th century. With a mission to keep these personal histories from being lost in the next generation, the committee proceeded with a simple mindset: “…It’s our obligation to record as much as we can the African-American experience here, specifically in Chesterfield County, to get this on record so that it’s not lost forever.”

Since that time, the committee has gathered 29 separate oral histories of African-Americans from Chesterfield, recording and transcribing their personal experiences for historical documentation. However, to the committee, the stories these residents shared became much more meaningful than the project’s intended purpose.

“All their stories revealed so much,” said Cornelia Owens Goode, the chairwoman of the committee. “They thought that they really didn’t have anything to say. ... They didn’t realize how important their lives and life experiences meant to us. … The unknown became the known. … We know that from these interviews, their families held together from their faith, their religion and they have a strong family unit.”

For the committee, revealing a rich history within the African-American community of Chesterfield also means supplying people with more opportunities to learn about the culture, potentially eradicating certain kinds of ignorance that surround it.

“Some people don’t even know about the past, what happened,” said Goode. “They don’t know. If you don’t know, how can you appreciate it? And that’s when ignorance comes in, when you don’t understand another culture because you don’t know anything about them.”

The African-American Committee of CHSV views Black History Month as an ideal opportunity to share these local, oral histories with the African-American community of Chesterfield because, “Black History Month was created in order to help the African-American community realize what an incredibly rich history they have in this country,” said van der Linden-Brusse.
Last year, the committee did a similar oral history project, but the focus was directed at early black churches in Chesterfield and not people. But, to van der Linden-Brusse, it can only help uncover further bits of African-American culture in Chesterfield.

“So every time we do something like this,” she said, “it adds to [the] general knowledge of African-Americans here in Chesterfield County.”

The Rev. Herbert Townes, associate minister of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Midlothian, and a member of the committee since 2009, feels that much good will come from sharing the project with others during Black History Month, mostly African-Americans, because it will provide them with an accurate depiction of culture’s rich history – one that may not otherwise have been recorded in textbooks or other historical documents over time.

“To some degree our people have been led to believe it is not rich, and it’s a truly rich history we have in this country,” said Townes, a long-time resident of Chesterfield. “ … So we are celebrating it through this effort by celebrating people who are close to us in our communities and our neighbors. … We are celebrating their lives. … It’s a local effort to celebrate the lives of those who have a rich history that we want to share with others.”

Now, with numerous oral histories documented and preserved, the committee feels it is time to share those stories with Chesterfield County citizens.

On Saturday, Feb. 5, the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia will pay tribute to Black History Month with the opening of a new exhibit titled FourScore and More at the Chesterfield County Museum, 6813 Mims Loop in the Chesterfield government complex. The exhibit will be presented in a designated area of the museum, where binders of these  oral histories will be presented for visitors to read and videos of two recordings will be shown.

The cost of admission is $2 and museum hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; the exhibit will remain open throughout the month of February, perhaps long enough to motivate others.

“I can’t say how it will affect any individual personally,” Townes said. “But hopefully, when they hear the stories, maybe it will be an impetus for them to do some searching of their own about their own history.”

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