On Friday, area residents will commemorate a different set of Virginians than has been recognized for more than a century on Virginia’s Lee-Jackson Day.
For the first time, they will hold ceremonies throughout the day in Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun and Rappahannock counties to honor people who were enslaved on the region’s antebellum plantations.
Dubbed “A Day of Remembrance for the Enslaved,” the events will take place at 9 a.m. on the Aldie Mill pedestrian bridge over the Little River in Loudoun, at noon on the Thornton River pedestrian bridge near Headmaster’s Pub in Sperryville, and at 3 p.m. on the Kelly’s Ford Bridge across the Rappahannock River between Culpeper and Fauquier.
The public is invited to take part. Participants will toss yellow roses into the rivers to honor once-enslaved people—named and unnamed—and vow never to forget them.
Participants will call out slaves’ names “where we have them” and tell their stories “where we know them,” said Fauquier resident Mary Haak, one of the organizers.
On the eve of the Civil War, 1.2 million people lived in Virginia in 1860. Some 490,000 were enslaved men, women, and children, about 40 percent of the population.
“Virginia had almost triple the number of enslaved people than any other state, and while the controversy sometimes mentions slavery, it largely ignores those people who were enslaved,” Haak said via email.
“These are the people who built the magnificent plantation mansions, the U.S. Capitol, and other impressive buildings from that era that are still standing, who provided the labor that created the incredible wealth of our nation, but didn’t get to share that wealth, who suffered under the cruel institution of slavery, but are never acknowledged,” she wrote. “In most cases, we don’t even know their names, much less their stories.
“We want to change that.”
The idea sprouted from a personal ceremony that Haak has held for years—sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone—to honor the people her family enslaved in Loudoun County.
She would visit land her grandfathers owned near Nixson’s Mill on Harmony Church Road, off U.S. 15 south of Leesburg. It was part of Woodburn, George and John Nixsons’ thousand-plus-acre plantation; their mill and manor house still stand. The surrounding community is still known as Woodburn.
Along Sycolin Creek near the mill, Haak would say a prayer, silent or spoken, or place flowers in the stream, and vow to never forget the people her ancestors enslaved.
“I could never find the graveyard for them, so this seemed to be the next best option,” she said.
This past year, she and her friends Taryn and Ellworth L.B. Weaver of Bealeton got to discussing the state’s Lee-Jackson Day celebrations and the 40 percent of Virginia’s wartime population that the holiday ignores. They decided to do something about it.
“We just want to start a conversation,” Haak said.
They pitched their idea and sought sponsorships from organizations working on racial equality.
The Piedmont Race Amity Project, which has been meeting at Culpeper Baptist Church, the Culpeper and Fauquier chapters of the NAACP, and the Virginia Museum of Veiled History in Winchester will be among the sponsors.
The Race Amity network, devoted to race equity and friendship, provides a forum for discussions, education, information sharing, collaboration, and action by community groups and individuals.
“Somehow, in all the conversations and controversy about Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, flags, and holidays, the talk tends to focus on the character, valor and virtues of the leaders and soldiers of the rebellion,” Haak said.
A flyer for the Day of Remembrance notes Jan. 17 is Lee-Jackson Day, and describes Lee and Jackson as the generals “who fought to maintain the institution of slavery throughout the southern United States.”
“There are many who will proudly wave their Confederate flags and march in the streets of cities and towns throughout Virginia. They will claim that it’s about heritage and culture and honoring their ancestors,” the notice continues. “We will use this day as a time to remember the heritage and to honor those largely ignored by history: the ancestors held in bondage, who labored in the homes and toiled in the fields, with no legacy to pass on to the children but lives of enslavement.”
As the Virginia General Assembly meets in Richmond, Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, proposes to scrap the Lee–Jackson holiday and to make Election Day a holiday to encourage more voting.
For a while, Virginia’s Lee–Jackson Day was merged with one celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But in 2000, the legislature ended that practice, creating a separate holiday for the slain civil-rights leader.
Critics of the Lee–Jackson holiday view it as a celebration of Virginia’s slave-holding history that offends African Americans. Many cities and counties do not observe it.
Haak, 64, is a retired computer programmer, administrative troubleshooter and program manager for the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Postal Service. A white woman who is a self-described “Navy brat,” she grew up in Vienna and attended mostly segregated schools in Fairfax County.
“Racial tensions ran so high that the county brought in its only black principal after several racially motivated incidents, before anyone got seriously injured,” she recalled of her schooling in the early 1970s.
Her friend Taryn Weaver, a small business owner who worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Warrenton, also grew up in Vienna, Haak said. Taryn has portrayed Harriet Tubman at Juneteenth celebrations at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County and at schools, churches and other local venues. She and her husband, Dr. Ellsworth Weaver, helped the Clifton Institute bring the national Slave Dwelling Project to Fauquier County in 2018.
Dr. Weaver attended segregated schools and graduated from Taylor High School in Warrenton in 1956. He was an adjunct professor at Reynolds Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Lord Fairfax Community College and Germanna Community College, and taught technology at Liberty and Fauquier high schools.
The music director at St. James Baptist Church in Bealeton, Ellsworth Weaver has led choirs in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for a play about U.S. Colored Troops from Fauquier, and at a 2012 re-enactment of enslaved refugees’ crossing of the Rappahannock at Cow’s Ford during the Civil War.
In the 1700s, Haak’s ancestors on both sides of the family lived in Loudoun County.
She said she had long known one of her ancestors rented an enslaved woman shortly before the Civil War.
“It was a surprise when I first discovered it, but nothing compared to the shock of finding out about the rest of my ancestors once I had my DNA tested,” Haak said. “In Loudoun County alone, my ancestors enslaved at least 187 people. I’ve lost track of how many others as their children and grandchildren migrated south and west.”
She has black cousins, verified through DNA, that descend from a common ancestor.
“I cringe when I think about that,” she said.
One cousin, she recalled, had no idea of his family roots beyond his great-grandfather. Within minutes of consulting shared DNA links, Haak determined he was descended from one of three relatives. A little more research pinpointed a single ancestor.
Similarly, Taryn Weaver knows of one ancestor who was enslaved in Louisa County, Haak said. Ellsworth Weaver traces his roots to people enslaved in Fauquier County.
“But where those people came from is a mystery, as are the rest of their ancestors,” Haak said.
At Kelly’s Ford and the other venues, Haak said everyone is welcome to join in the Day of Remembrance ceremonies.
The Culpeper-Fauquier event, at 3 p.m., will have parking on both sides of the Kelly’s Ford bridge. To reach the site, from U.S. 29, turn south (a right from Culpeper, or a left from Bealeton) on State Route 674, drive 4.9 miles, then turn left onto State Route 620.
For details, or if you have the names of enslaved people you would like to have honored, please email Mary Haak at firstname.lastname@example.org.