Twenty-four formerly enslaved Blacks purchased Virginia properties in 1870. Now their descendants who inherited the homes organize against city officials’ blight removal plan.
In Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia, a confederate flag is stamped in front of the building where the Berryville Planning Commission gathers for public hearings. Blocks away, on Josephine Street, log cabin homes purchased by formerly enslaved Blacks after the Civil War remain standing.
Berryville city officials gathered last month to discuss a “blight” removal plan that may result in tearing down the historic properties on Josephine Street and billing the descendants $10,000 for each house demolition. The descendants say more time and financing is needed to preserve the homes built by their ancestors. Moreover, the homeowners distrust county officials whose ongoing actions are what homeowners describe as a “land grab attempt.”
The 16-foot-wide street, once called Josephine City, was established in the 1870’s after the Civil War ended in 1865. Twenty-four formerly enslaved Blacks purchased the 31 one-acre lots for $100 an acre, and it is believed that the road was named after former slave Josephine Williams, who purchased two of the lots.
The area was seen as an oasis for Blacks in Clarke County. It grew increasingly self-sufficient by establishing a school, grocery store, gas station, boarding house, restaurant, cemetery, two churches and a Black-owned newspaper called “The People’s Journal.”
Many trailblazers were raised in Clarke County, including Lucy Diggs Slowe, a founding member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and alumna of Howard University, which named a campus dorm in her honor, and William Taylor Burwell Williams, who served as the first Dean of Tuskegee Institute. Clarke County Training School, a high school built for Black students in 1928 while schools were still segregated, was renamed W.T.B. Williams Training School in 1944.
Over 1,000 people whose family roots are connected to Josephine City are laid to rest in a three-acre cemetery at the end of Josephine Street.
Nearly 80 spies and civil war veterans are buried there, including Thomas Laws, who was among those enslaved in Clarke County. Laws is barely recognized for his bravery as a Union spy who delivered critical information about the Confederate troops’ movement that led to the Union victory of the largest battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley – The Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864.
Josephine is now recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as a national historic district. Currently, it consists of about 40 structures, including homes, a church, and a former school building turned community museum.
Some of the descendants of Josephine City no longer live there and relocated to nearby cities. Still, many are advocating to preserve and restore the properties to prevent demolition. About 40 families still live on Josephine Street in modest bungalows. Collectively, the homeowners are organizing against County officials’ removal effort.
On February 22, the Berryville Planning Commission gathered to set a date for the “blight abatement” public hearing to discuss the six targeted properties that may face demolition. The log cabin homes — located at 12, 112, 114, 203, 225, and 229 Josephine Street — are classified as a “blight” for several reasons. A porch that appears to be structurally unsound, sill beams and other structural elements appear to be deteriorating, a gutter and downspout system is missing, and doors and windows that are boarded up were outlined in a November 5, 2021 letter sent by Keith Dalton, Berryville town manager.
The letter gave property owners until July 1, 2022 to improve the properties.
Descendants echo the same sentiments: they need more time and financing to improve the properties.
“What I’m requesting from you, and hopefully your heart will be softened, is to give us time, you know, to be fair,” said Donna Richardson during the citizen forum portion of the February hearing.
Dalton did not attend the meeting.
Richardson drove eight hours round-trip from Philadelphia, where she currently resides, to attend the 7:00 p.m. hearing. The 112 Josephine Street home has been in the Richardson family for five generations. The homestead signifies “independence and finally owning something,” she said. Her cousin, Donna Andrews, who grew up in the home, drove three hours round-trip for the hearing.
Richardson has financed fencing, grass cutting and other maintenance services while paying property taxes. She said she called the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support gutter/downspout matters but hasn’t heard back. The property is currently vacant. In 1910, her great-grandmother moved most of the family to Philadelphia for a “better life” beyond the small town. All of the family relocated in the late 1980’s.
Richardson and other homeowners feel the blight abatement effort is a land grab, particularly because Richardson sent an abatement plan that Dalton requested in the November letter. All six homeowners were required to send an abatement plan by December 2022.
But Dalton rejected Richardson’s plan because it “does not sufficiently abate the blight within a reasonable time” or layout the actions the town would take if the requirements aren’t met, per a follow-up letter sent by Dalton.
“I thought it was a land grab,” Richardson said in an email to Dalton. “He called me immediately telling me it wasn’t about a land grab, he had bosses, and they were questioning [the situation].”
“Ms. Richardson did express that concern in her email. I recall speaking with her soon after receiving the email,” Dalton told the Washington Informer. “I recall expressing to her that I would work with her as best as I could within the bounds of the law.”
The Town’s Code Section 5-3, paragraph (b) authorizes council employees or their agents to remove, repair or secure any building, wall, or other structure determined to be a health or safety risk if the owner or lienholder doesn’t after reasonable notice and reasonable time.
The six “blighted homes” may be torn down if abatement plans are not agreed upon and homes are not repaired between the timeline given – November 2021 and July 1, 2022.
Richard Jenkins, who lives in D.C. nearly a four hour drive round-trip, did not attend the February meeting because he’s a caretaker for his mom, age 86, and he has severe insomnia.
Jenkins said he has not sent an abatement plan to the Town of Berryville, explaining that, “I have not had a chance to go down there since the pandemic. I wish I could make the meetings,” he says, but said he is prevented from doing so because “I’m a caretaker.”
Pre-pandemic, he said he visited and maintained the 229 Josephine Street property four times a year because no one lives there anymore. The porch, he acknowledged, recently collapsed.
He reflects on the historical legacy of Josephine City. “Black people had the tenacity and capacity to build a house,” he said, but now he’s concerned about the town’s “sudden interest” in his family’s property.
The Berryville Town Council decided to demolish a property a few years ago.
William Woodruff purchased the home at 23 Josephine Street by way of a public auction in 2010. During a 2012 Planning Commission meeting, Woodruff said he boarded up some of the entrances but couldn’t afford to do anything more.
Dalton said the property met the town’s definition of blight because part of the roof collapsed, there was trash in the structure, and an inoperable vehicle was parked there.
Woodruff was billed $10,000 for the demolition of the property, he said. His second property at 114 Josephine Street, also purchased at an auction, is a target.
Homeowners on Josephine St. are concerned that the town of Berryville will soon send a $10,000 bill for demolition if homes are not repaired between now and July 1.
Richardson said, “One of the first questions that I had for [Dalton] was, ‘Are you even an engineer?’ and he said, ‘No.’”
“I shared my thoughts: It’s not okay for the town manager to go out and assess what’s structurally sound or what isn’t structurally sound. … It’s appropriate for an engineer from the town or building inspector to assess,” Richardson asserted.
Dalton is not an engineer and says his role as town manager, under Code Section 5-3, is to make the preliminary determination of blight.
Richardson claims Dalton added an assessment by an engineer to the abatement plan requirement after that conversation. Richardson said she wants to find an engineer of color to assist with assessing her property.
She adds that Josephine St. residents have not filed a complaint about any of the properties.
But Dalton says that one homeowner on Josephine St. filed two complaints dated September 11, 2020 and December 17, 2020.
Kenneth Liggins’ family has lived on the street since the early 1900’s.
Liggins, president of the Josephine Improvement Association, a collective established in 1960 to fund community development projects, agrees that some homes need repairs. Still, it takes time and funding, he said. He is convinced that Berryville leaders “want to bulldoze the homes because it’s a land grab attempt.”
Liggins believes that Dalton and John Michael Hobert, former chairman of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors, isolated him to have an inappropriate conversation about homes on Josephine Street in 2014.
“They said, ‘The county or town is planning on applying for a [home repair] grant in the amount of $1 million, but as long as you are the president, we will not proceed to get the grant money,’” Liggins told the Washington Informer.
“To the best of my knowledge, I was not a part of any such conversation with Kenneth Liggins,” Dalton told the Washington Informer. John Michael Hobert did not reply to the Washington Informer’s multiple requests for comment.
Liggins, who sued the Town of Berryville in 2002 (and again 2021) over matters related to Josephine Street, said he stepped down as president and was succeeded by Reverend James Page following a vote by the residents.
The grant would repair all homes on Josephine St., which extends for about two blocks, not just the six properties.
But it wasn’t a grant; it was a loan.
“‘It’s not a grant. It’s a loan, and you did not tell us about this loan in the beginning. Had you told us about it in the beginning, we would have never gone through,’” Liggins recalls saying during the homeowners sign-on meeting in 2015.
The loan agreement required property ownership to be transferred through a deed of trust. If the homeowner passes away, the loan would be renegotiated by the lender and those who inherited the home within 30 days or paid off in full. Otherwise, the descendants are evicted, passing ownership to the lender to rent or sell to new occupants. In other words, there’s no home equity or ownership until the loan is paid off.
Josephine Street homeowners are primarily older. Frances Liggins, Liggins’ aunt and former secretary of Josephine Improvement Association, is 90. The most senior resident is 110-year-old Viola Brown. Nearly 20 homeowners signed a petition afterward saying they were no longer interested in the agreement.
“They’re a bunch of thieves and liars,” says Liggins.
Jesse Russell, a resident of Clarke County and descendant of an enslaver, suggested other funding options during the public comment portion of the February Planning Commission meeting.
Russell says a potential solution is to work with Preservation Virginia or any preservation society that allows Josephine Street homeowners to still own the property. Josephine School Community Museum, once a segregated school, received a nearly $18,000 grant from the National Park Service to repair the roofing in 2018.
Russell’s family grew up near Josephine Street. His third-great-grandfather owned enslaved people in Berryville and emancipated them in his will. But after his passing, Russell’s second-great-grandfather contested the will in 1856 and auctioned the 14 freed people back into slavery. (Virginian history is deeply connected to slavery, as the first enslaved Africans were brought by colonizers to Virginia in 1619.)
“[Josephine] is one of the few, remaining, early post-Civil War, African American communities still in existence and still majority African Americans live there. They take tremendous pride in their history, and I understand it,” Russell said. “Josephine Street wants to preserve their history. And they want to have the time in order to preserve it, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The next date set by the Planning Commission is March 22. During that abatement public hearing, homeowners will share concerns, and the Commission will share recommendations with the Town Council about the land-use issues.
“It’s pretty much a log cabin. Just because we don’t like the way history looks doesn’t mean that we change it any more than you take down a confederate statue because you don’t like a confederate statue. It’s still part of our history,” said Richardson during the public comment part of the hearing.
Brian Burns III of BCE LLC is creating a documentary about the past and current happenings in Josephine and planning a Juneteenth event to inform D.C. area residents about the history of Josephine St. Brian Burns III, and Lafayette Barnes contributed to reporting.
This story is reported by the Washington Informer as part of the project “Our House: Keeping homes Black-owned in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8.”