Uncovering African American History

African American Heritage  •  News


The African American Historic Sites Database was developed in partnership with the Cleveland Historic Society using Omeka and Curratescape.

By Trey Mitchell

One of VFH’s first digital projects has been reinvented as a modern, mobile friendly, archive of African American history.

In 2002, VFH’s African American Program partnered with the Virginia Tourism Corporation to create a Heritage Trail highlighting 101 historically significant African American sites in Virginia. While conducting the research for the Heritage Trail brochure, VFH compiled a database of hundreds of sites all around the Commonwealth. In what was one of our first digital initiatives, VFH made this database available to the public online.

Over the years that database grew, changed, and was reimagined several times. VFH’s current director of African American Programs — Leondra Burchall — has reimagined it again.

The African American Historic Sites Database is an interactive guide to hundreds of sites across Virginia. The website works equally well on a desktop computer or smart phone, and there are even apps available for iPhone and Android devices. Install the app and you’ve got instant access to a treasure trove of Virginia’s African American history in your pocket wherever you go.

Courtesy University of Virginia
Site of the Foster home and cemetery. Image courtesy University of Virginia.

Using the app I discovered a site – The Kitty Foster Homestead and Cemetery – near the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities office that I was unfamiliar with. Here’s an excerpt of what I found in the database.

Catherine “Kitty” Foster’s home was located across from the University of Virginia in a community of free blacks called Canada. The community existed from the early 19th century until the 1920s, when the increasingly valuable land [including a community cemetery] was purchased by white speculators. The graves were eventually covered over and forgotten until their rediscovery in 1993 during the construction of a new parking lot.

Kitty’s home and the cemetery have been lost but the site is marked with an outdoor metal sculpture called “Shadow Catcher” and with a point on the map in our African American Historic Sites Database.

The database contains more than 300 such sites. Some have been lost to history and others are thriving communities, museums, or historic homes that you can visit.

This summer a group of teachers, librarians, and social studies supervisors will be visiting many of these sites and using the database in an initiative we’re calling “Think Historically, Act Locally” (THAL). THAL seeks to renew interest in local and state history by encouraging educatorsto use nearby history in their classrooms and museums.

But you don’t have to participate in THAL to uncover stories like the Kitty Foster Homestead in your own part of the Commonwealth. Visit AAHistoricSitesVA.org or download the iPhone or Android app for your phone to discover surprising pieces of African American history all around you.

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