Black educators, entrepreneurs, and heroes have lived and worked in Rockbridge County for several centuries. This driving tour stops at 11 destinations that played an important role in their stories and in the community from the Colonial-era through Jim Crow and desegregation.
From the Lexington Visitor Center, the tour covers 55 miles. If you spend time exploring Natural Bridge State Park, this itinerary should take a half day.
For supplemental background about each stop, visit the links provided. The Rockbridge Historical Society (RHS) maintains a virtual archive of informative Black history articles and videos. Many of them were created during the Historical Society’s Black History series, which kicked off in 2020 and continues today.
An online slideshow called “Unheard Voices of Black Lexington” documents Black entrepreneurs in downtown Lexington during the Jim Crow era. Click on the microphone icon to listen to podcasts featuring voices from the local Black community.
Original African-American Cemetery historic marker (Route 11 near junction with S Main St)
Although it does not mark the site itself, this marker commemorates the first cemetery for Lexington’s slaves and free Blacks.
In use from the early 1800s through 1880, the cemetery was located near the intersection of East Washington and Lewis Streets just east of today’s city hall (and 1.5 miles from the historic marker). The land was subsequently developed, and the remains from the cemetery were purportedly moved to Evergreen Cemetery. However, there is little documentation to support these claims.
James Alexander, also known as Jim Lewis, was a local Black man who served as General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s “body servant” during the Civil War. Lewis was likely buried at the original cemetery, as were other women and men who were enslaved, emancipated, and served as the first Black voters in the Rockbridge area.
Visit the RHS website for more information about James Alexander, aka Jim Lewis and the two cemeteries.
Natural Bridge State Park
Once considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Natural Bridge is a 215 ft-tall limestone arch in southern Rockbridge County. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge from King George III for 20 shillings.
Jefferson later hired Patrick Henry, a free Black man born into slavery in eastern Virginia, to live on the property as a caretaker. Henry built a cabin 150 yards from the arch, protected the 157-acre tract from trespassers, paid the annual property taxes, and escorted visitors to the bridge, including Jefferson and his granddaughters. He also farmed an arable section of the property. Henry lived there from 1817 until his death in 1829.
The RHS website shares more information about Patrick Henry. On the website you will also find information about Natural Bridge and its inclusion in the Green Book, a travel guidebook that listed restaurants and lodgings that welcomed Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. A video also surveys an exhibit curated by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts called “Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge and American Art,” featuring several artifacts and images held in Rockbridge County: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWq_By-fFGc&t=1403s
Frank Padget Memorial, Centennial Park, Glasgow (cnr Blue Ridge Rd and McCullough St)
A granite obelisk and a roadside marker at Centennial Park commemorate Frank Padget, a skilled, enslaved boatman. During heavy flooding in January 1854, a canal boat with 45 passengers became stranded in the wild waters of the James River at Balcony Falls. Padget led four other men in a brave rescue effort. Unable to fight the current while attempting to rescue the last passenger, Padget tragically drowned.
Story of Frank Padget: Frank Padget
James River Overlook above Balcony Falls (US 501/Hwy 130)
Balcony Falls is difficult to access unless you’re on the river. A bird’s-eye view of the falls is a five-minute drive from Centennial Park. At the T-junction of US 501/Hwy 130, turn right onto US 501 south and drive two miles to the James River Overlook. This large gravel pull-off is about a quarter mile past the Amherst County sign.
Walk to the southern edge of the pull-off and look down to see the falls far below.
Buena Vista Colored School (30th St, Buena Vista)
This small school was Buena Vista’s only school for Black children from 1892 to 1957, and students from first through seventh grade were enrolled here. From the 1940s-1965, high school students traveled to Lexington to continue their education at Lylburn Downing High School.
When it opened, the two-room building did not have electricity or plumbing. A central wood stove – fueled by wood stored in the brick outbuilding – provided heat. The school burned in 1915 but was rebuilt. Electricity, a sink, and a water fountain were later added, but the facility never had indoor bathrooms. A third room was added in 1926 due to increasing enrollment. The building is a Virginia Historic Landmark.
Article from The Herald at Southern Virginia University on Medium.
Ned Tarr, the Great Wagon Road & Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church
Edward “Black Ned” Tarr was the first free Black man to own property west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After purchasing his freedom in Philadelphia in 1752, Tarr traveled south to the village of Timber Ridge north of Lexington. He helped establish Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church in 1753, and the following year he purchased a 270-acre tract along Mill Creek. Today this tract is anchored by the white-columned Maple Hall. Built in 1855, this Greek-Revival brick building houses a private school at the junction of I-81 and Route 11.
Tarr’s blacksmith shop became a well known landmark along the Great Wagon Road, which connected Philadelphia and the Carolinas. Route 11 roughly follows the path of the road through Virginia. A Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge sidewalk paver at the Wells Fargo Plaza at the corner of Main and Nelson Streets in downtown Lexington commemorates Tarr.
Col. Turk McCleskey, a professor of history at VMI, gave a video lecture about Tarr at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in 2015.
Evergreen Cemetery (Evergreen Place, formerly New Market Place)
Funerals began at Evergreen Cemetery in 1880 after the closure of the original “Colored Cemetery” near the corner of Washington and Lewis Streets a short drive west. Traditionally considered the Black cemetery in Lexington, Evergreen Cemetery covers about 5 ½ acres and is maintained by the City of Lexington, which also maintains Oak Grove Cemetery (formerly Stonewall Jackson Cemetery) on Main Street. Its access road was renamed from New Market Place, site of a notable 1864 battle involving VMI cadets.
Those interred here include Harry Lee and Eliza Walker. Walker was noted to be “the most prosperous colored man in Lexington,” at the time of his death in 1906. ‘Ancient Jane,’ an anonymous young woman whose remains were found behind the Rockbridge Historical Society, was re-interred here.
Also buried here are Levi Miller and Jefferson “Jeff” Shields, two Black men who were forced to fight for the Confederacy. They were later lionized by Confederate heritage groups. After the war Shields became a notable mason and a leader in First Baptist Church. Veterans from both World Wars are also buried in the cemetery.
Knights of Pythias Hall (221 N Main St) – Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie’s Orchestra all performed inside this building, once dubbed the House of Fun. Completed in 1926, it was owned by a Black chapter of the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization. Marked by its rusticated concrete block exterior and a stepped parapet, it was moved a short distance south in 2014 to accommodate the new VMI Aquatic Center. It will hold aquatic center offices.
Lylburn Downing School (300 Diamond Street)
The segregated Lylburn Downing School opened in 1927, replacing the overcrowded Freedmen’s Bureau School (also known as Central School and Lexington Colored Graded School) on Randolph Street. Thanks to pressure from local Black parents and activists, Downing originally served grades one through nine, then later expanded to include a high school. The original school building closed in 1965 following desegregation. The newer building now houses Lylburn Downing Middle School.
Downing, born enslaved in 1862, would earn his undergraduate and seminary degrees at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before becoming a respected Presbyterian minister in Roanoke. A longtime civic leader, he was a passionate advocate for education for African Americans. His parents attended Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Sunday School lessons at Lexington Presbyterian Church.
The Rockbridge Historical Society website shares several informative articles and videos about Lexington’s African American school, including “The Impact of Educators of Color in our Community Then and Now.”
Blandome (101 Tucker St)
This grand house at the top of Henry St was constructed in the Federal-style in the late 1820s for Jacob Fuller, a classical scholar and librarian at Washington College. John Randolph Tucker, a founder of Washington & Lee Law School, bought the property in 1872. He remodeled it in the Italianate style and named it Blandome.
Harry Lee Walker, the co-owner of Walker and Wood Brothers Meat Market, and his wife Eliza Bannister Walker bought the house in 1917. In the summer they advertised their home as a vacation spot for Black travelers, with rooms in the house as well as cabins and cottages on the three-acre property. Closed to the public.
You’ll find an article, slideshow, and video about Eliza Bannister Walker, a civic leader, social activist, and poet, on the RHS website.
Franklin Tourist Home (9 Tucker St) – Owned by Zack and Arleana Franklin, this house near Blandome was regularly included in the Green Book. Famous musicians who played at Washington & Lee stayed here as did Black chauffeurs who dropped off their employers at the RE Lee Hotel. It served as a tourist home until 1952.
Lexington Visitor Center (106 E Washington St)
Stop by the Visitor Center for more information about Lexington’s history and numerous attractions. A self-guided walking tour takes visitors past historic buildings and homes in and around downtown, Washington & Lee University, and Virginia Military Institute. There’s also a walking tour map of nearby Diamond Hill and Green Hill, important Black communities in the city’s history. Horse-drawn carriage tours depart near the visitor center.
Rockbridge Historical Society Museum (101 E. Washington Street)
Headquarters to the area’s oldest local history organization, the Rockbridge Historical Society Museum hosts permanent exhibits on social history across four centuries, as well as rotating exhibits on distinctive themes, and events. Integrated within its onsite displays, digital resources, and ongoing research are a number of artifacts and resources engaging Local Black Histories. Many are freely accessible at RockbridgeHistory.org. RHS also provides advice on genealogical research, and the sale of books and maps. Free to the public, and open by appointment: RHS@RockbridgeHistory.org.