The past, not the future will reshape Christiansburg’s town square over the next few years.
Not only is the Montgomery Museum of Art and History planning to move into the old Wells Fargo building there in 2022, the museum has partnered with Christiansburg Institute Inc., and the town to install a new outdoor history exhibit that some call a truth-telling opportunity and others worry will sow divisions.
The $12,000-$14,000 exhibit and walkway project was approved by town council last month on a 5-0 vote. It will reconfigure the northeast quadrant of the public square for pedestrians and highlight African-American history in the county, including slavery.
“Learning about and understanding history is one of the most important things we can do as an individual, a family, a community and as a nation if we ever want our tomorrow to be better than our today,” Councilman Brad Stipes wrote in an email. “If the town square of the county seat is not the best place to tell the story of our community, then where is?”
Bob Poff, who helped found the Montgomery Museum in the 1980s has over the past two years served on a joint musuem-CI committee that conceived of the project. CI is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of a storied school for Black people that operated in town from 1867-1966.
Together the members of the two organizations devised a plan to educate residents and visitors about the contributions of black people to the county. The “African-American Memory and History Project” will include a new walkway and benches and a set of three outdoor storyboards that give an overview of slavery, as well as African American education and community life in the county.
In comments to council, Poff said “the town square has long served many functions, and as the historic culture center for the county seat, it seems that is the best location for building equality.”
Virginia Tech historian Dan Thorp said he’s excited to see the project, although he was not involved in its conception. Thorp literally wrote the book on Montgomery County’s African American history, titled “Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.”
“People forget that African Americans were here in large numbers and built most of the infrastructure of the county,” Thorp said.
Stories of black life and contributions “have been neglected,” he said, “in large part because the population declined so precipitously that people just forgot — or chose to forget — they were here.”
The boards of directors of both organizations approved the proposal, and an overwhelming majority of emails to council obtained by The Roanoke Times, as well as comments made at a July 13 public meeting have backed the project.
But it has not been without controversy. A handful of emails to town officials and a small number of commenters at the July meeting took issue with some aspects of it.
“With all the space on that square available, it was laid out to completely encircle that Confederate Monument, and place a story board regarding slavery right beside it,” wrote Cindy Akers. “With the controversy all over the country about both these subjects, is this really a good idea? Do we really need to pit those two things against each other in the Town Square?”
“I am shocked and deeply saddened that the town would even consider placing sign boards and derisive narration in the town square,” wrote Montgomery County resident Sharla Conner in a May email. “They want to display that information next to the Confederate memorial. Does that not sound ill-willed to you?
“While slavery did exist and [its] history should be recognized and discussed, why are these sign boards and other things not being placed at CI?” Conner wrote.
In response, Poff argued to council that African American history should not be relegated only to certain spaces.
“When I was growing up in this town, it seemed that the Blacks was relegated to Depot Street and Cambria, and unfortunately, it appears to me 60-plus years later that some still feel that at least the African American history should be segregated and kept from public view,” he said.
“Slavery was very real and robust in Montgomery County,” CI Executive Director Chris Sanchez said. “Part of what we’re wanting to do is tell that truth because actually not many folks seem to know that. If we say we want to build trust, I think we have to be very honest.”
Other concerns had more to do with the present.
County resident David Pearce told the council that “none of us in this room were involved in slavery directly. A lot of things in the news make us feel guilty about what our ancestors did. You’re talking about history here. We need to be careful we don’t make individuals feel guilty for what our ancestors have done.”
And Councilwoman Joanna Hicks, who voted in favor of the project asked if the names of slaveholders — such as the Lattimer family, who owned a large plantation in town — could be removed from the storyboards.
“I was obviously not a slave, but I went through a lot growing up, too,” said Hicks, who is a native of Columbia, South America. “And I felt like a slave because of the cartels and things like that in my country.
“I want this to be a unity thing,” Hicks added. “I don’t want someone to be talked about because their last name is on a board, and they had nothing to do with being a slave owner.”
Sanchez told Hicks that the joint committee would be willing to talk over her concerns.
The storyboard project will also put African American history alongside a Confederate monument and a tree dubbed “Constitution Oak” that was planted there to celebrate the state’s destruction of voting rights for black Virginians.
The oak was one of 45 saplings given to the delegates of Virginia’s 1901-02 Constitutional Convention, which replaced the Reconstruction-era constitution of 1870 and severely limited the political and social influence of blacks, Thorp said.
That and other forms of discrimination, Thorp said, “is what drove so many African Americans out of Montgomery County.”
Thorp said he hopes that the new historical display will include a plaque that tells the story of the tree, which also shades a 15-foot granite Confederate memorial obelisk.
The monument was erected in 1883 by the Montgomery County Ladies’ Memorial Association to honor local Confederate soldiers, according to the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. It is dedicated “to the memory of Montgomery’s sons who fell in the Lost Cause and to all the Confederate dead who lie beneath her soil.”
Katie Mills of Pulaski wrote to council saying she felt the storyboard project endangered Confederate history in the square.
“It makes me feel as if CI wants to obliterate the current monument, so that everyone forgets that there were soldiers of ALL races involved in the War Between The States to push their own agenda,” Mills wrote.
But Sanchez assured council that project supporters were not asking that Confederate monuments be removed.
“For the record, we’re here to celebrate and promote Black history,” he said. “We’re not interested in any of the Confederate monuments. We’re here to erect the signs and monuments that ... didn’t get erected.”
Staff writer Yann Ranaivo contributed to this report.