After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an annual Black history tour featuring prominent places and spaces in the greater Washington area resumed, appropriately held during the Juneteenth weekend.
History buffs who joined this year’s 10th annual African American Heritage Tour, sponsored by the Washington Informer Charities, Inc., traveled about an hour away from D.C. to a historic locale in Virginia that once boasted Black achievement in an era dominated by racial segregation.
The group’s journey took them to Clarke County in Northern Virginia to an area known as Josephine City in Berryville. During the Jim Crow era, Josephine City counted as a place of security and comfort for Black residents.
“My grandfather used to talk to me about Josephine City,” Greg Holmes, a resident of Clarke County, said. “It was a place where he could live in dignity in the 1930s. He could go to a restaurant and walk down the street with no problems from white people.”
Josephine City traces its roots to 1870 when former slaves and freed Blacks received land from Ellen McCormick, the owner of then-Clermont Farm. The lots went for $100 per acre. As a result, 31 one-acre lots lined a 16-feet wide thoroughfare eventually known as Josephine Street.
Historians speculate the name Josephine came from a former slave at Clermont, Josephine Williams, who bought two lots. By 1900, Josephine City had become an independent Black community in Clarke County with a school, boarding house, gas station, grocery store, restaurant, cemetery and two churches.
Lucy Diggs Slowe, a founder of the first Black Greek-letter sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, formed on the campus of Howard University in 1908, and the first female to hold the position of dean of women at a major university (at Howard), hailed from Josephine City.
The Hub: Josephine City’s Cemetery, Town Center
The Milton Valley Cemetery serves as the primary burial site for Blacks in Josephine City. For many years, other Berryville area cemeteries remained closed to Blacks, said Deedee Liggins, a local historian and activist.
One of the more noteworthy people buried at Milton Valley Cemetery includes a slave named Thomas Laws who played an integral role in the success of the Union during the Civil War.
“Thomas Laws was a Clarke County slave who gathered and relayed information about Confederate troop movements to Union General Philip Sheridan ahead of the Third Battle of Winchester,” Liggins said. “The Third Battle of Winchester, fought on Sept. 19, 1864, was the largest in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. The Union won after Confederate General Jubal Early’s army collapsed and retreated.”
Laws, along with Rebecca Wright, a white schoolteacher and abolitionist who lived in Winchester, worked together covertly to deliver information to Sheridan. Wright learned details of the Confederate soldiers in Winchester and wrote a note that Laws carried in his mouth to Union troops. Laws and other members of his family, beginning in the 19th century through modern times, would be buried at the cemetery – some with military honors.
“We have veterans from the Civil War and the Spanish American War here,” Liggins said.
Close to the cemetery sits the Josephine School Community Museum which houses historical relics, photos literature and other information about Josephine City during the Jim Crow and civil rights era.
Liggins said Black property owners in Josephine City continue to fight developers and Berryville city leaders who want to acquire the land cheaply and disregard the historical significance of the area.
Ellis Booker, 92, toured the cemetery and the museum with the group. A native Texan, he said it brought back memories for him.
“I am from Texas and I remember schools like this,” Booker said. “I am glad to see the people in Josephine City are trying to keep the memories alive. Young people today need to know how it was years and years ago for Blacks.”
The Juneteenth Celebration
Clarke County officially celebrated Juneteenth for the first time at its fairgrounds where two green buildings remained reserved for presentations. One building featured key moments in Black history while the other served as a venue for vendors who offered books, memorabilia and other items of interest.
A local band entertained the crowd prior to a program moderated by Washington Channel 9 journalist Allison Seymore and her husband Mark Clarke. Event organizers placed 1,000 white flags close to the stage to symbolize the more than 4,000 slaves who resided in Clarke County during the Civil War.
Dorothy Davis, a civil rights activist in the county, served as the facilitator for the Juneteenth celebration.
“This is the work of the Josephine Community Museum, the Josephine Improvement Association and the CCTS-JWTS Reunion Association,” Davis said. “We should never forget the horrors of slavery and what our ancestors went through. These beautiful mansions that you see here in Clarke County were built by our ancestors for free.”
Nathan “Goosie” Doleman, a resident of Berryville, said slavery still exists in America.
“If you go further South, you still have Blacks picking cotton and not knowing what their rights are,” Doleman said. “They also don’t want to antagonize the white man.”
The celebration attracted the attention of more than just African Americans including Ariana Lipke, a student at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
“I came because I grew up in a community of all whites,” Lipke said. “I am working on my master’s degree on Black men and mental health. I am here to learn as much as I can.”