Documenting Black History in Harrisonburg

Posted on: February 9, 2022

group photo of African-American adults in a home in party attire; scanned handwritten pages on old paper

Personal correspondence, informal notes, and candid photographs contain some of the richest descriptions of local history. These treasured mementos serve many purposes. A snapshot of neighborhood children taken sixty years ago may contain an image of a long-gone house; a handwritten note may include the missing piece to a puzzle about a church choir; a receipt might provide a glimpse into a local business. Over time, collections of personal papers can document the history of our cities and towns.

Author of two books on Harrisonburg’s African American community, Ruth Toliver had such a collection of her own family’s papers. After working closely with JMU faculty on the Celebrating Simms project, she decided to make her family and community’s history more widely available to researchers.

old photo of five African American girls standing in front of a house
“The Newman Ladies, circa 1925”

In February 2021, Ruth and Lowell Toliver donated their family papers to JMU Libraries Special Collections. Some relate to George Ambrose Newman, Ruth’s grandfather, who served for 33 years as a teacher and administrator in Harrisonburg’s early African American schools and is remembered as a trailblazing member of Harrisonburg’s Black community. Additional materials relate to the Woman’s Society of Christian Service as well as to Gerald Harris, designer of the Route 11 turkey statues in Rockingham County. The gift also includes records (1943-1976) from the John Wesley M.E. Church in Harrisonburg, correspondence and drawings, twelve large tri-fold displays with photographs of residents of the Newtown area of Harrisonburg, and an unpublished manuscript titled A Miserable Revenge: A Story of Life in Virginia, written by Newman.

Our Special Collections staff recently completed processing the Ruth and Lowell Toliver Collection of Newman Family Papers. The collection offers researchers and students an invaluable resource—documenting and illustrating a vibrant Black community in Harrisonburg, along with its church, as well as the families, friendships, and active social lives of community members.

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