A thriving Black commercial district lined North Main Street in downtown Lexington in the early 20th century, with offices, barber shops, social halls, a church, a butcher shop, and a restaurant or two serving the African American community. Homes, guest houses, and more churches filled the surrounding Green Hill and Diamond Hill neighborhoods, the nucleus of the city’s Black community.
These neighborhoods developed after the Civil War, when several thousand slaves were emancipated in Rockbridge County. They joined a few hundred free Blacks already living here since Lexington’s founding in 1778. During the Jim Crow era, when most businesses were segregated by race, nearly one third of the population of Lexington was African American.
Many destinations listed below were places of significance during the Jim Crow era. Others spotlight notable figures from the 18th and 19th centuries. The stops are found along a two-mile loop that begins at the Lexington Visitor Center. The digital map shares their location. Interpretive markers can be found on many of the buildings on North Main Street.
As you walk, look for Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge sidewalk pavers, or ‘Story Stones,’ managed by the Rockbridge Historical Society. These flat pavers describe noteworthy and often ‘colorful’ former residents, including numerous memorable figures from the Black community. (www.rrrockbridge.org)
For additional information, check out the resources and links provided at the end of the tour below.
Randolph Street United Methodist Church (118 S Randolph St) – After the Black and white members of the congregation separated in 1864, Black parishioners continued to worship at the frame church in this location. It was later torn down and replaced with the current brick structure. The church has been an important part of the local Black community ever since. Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated half of the costs of the church’s pipe organ in 1917.
Freedmen’s Bureau School – The parking lot now just south of the Methodist church was the site of the Freedmen’s Bureau School, also known as the Lexington Colored Graded School. Established after the Civil War with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau, it was one of Lexington’s first Black schools. It was in operation from 1865 to 1927, when the Lylburn Downing School opened in response to overcrowding
Oak Grove Cemetery, Davy Buck headstone – Buck, an African American man, served as the sexton of the nearby Lexington Presbyterian Church for 40 years. The church and its cemetery were segregated but due to his loyal service to the church, Buck was given a plot in the cemetery. The white headstone is located in the far northwest corner of the cemetery near Main St. Buck died in 1858.
John Chavis Historic Marker & Chavis Hall – Born a free Black man in 1763 in North Carolina, Chavis was one of the first college-educated men of color in the United States. After serving in the Revolutionary War, Chavis began studying at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, then moved to Virginia in 1795 to complete his studies at Washington Academy, now Washington & Lee University. The Lexington Presbytery licensed him to preach in 1800. Chavis eventually returned to North Carolina, where he taught both Black and white students for many years. The marker is on W Washington Street in front of Evans Dining Hall (W&L campus map).
Washington Hall (1824) – Colonel John Jordan supervised the original construction of the “center hall” on the Washington College Colonnade, establishing the benchmark for the Neoclassical campus. In 1842, skilled labor provided by six enslaved men and Lexington contractor James Alexander began a restoration, which was completed by Jordan.
Memorial for Enslaved Laborers – In 1826, a Rockbridge plantation owner, “Jockey” John Robinson, died and left his estate to Washington College. This memorial shares the trajectory of the 84 men, women, and children enslaved by Robinson at Hart’s Bottom. Their labor supported the college for decades. In 1834, the trustees sold the majority of the enslaved community to a slave trader who forced them to Mississippi, where profits from slave sales were higher.
Research is ongoing to tell the complete histories of these individuals. The memorial is between Chavis and Tucker Halls.
Jackson House Museum (8 E Washington St) – VMI Instructor Maj. Thomas J. Jackson and his second wife Mary Anna Morrison bought this house in 1858. Enslaved African Americans Amy, Hetty, George, Cyrus, and Emma worked and lived on the property. Jackson left Lexington in April 1861 to fight for the Confederacy. Later known as “Stonewall,” he became a Lieutenant General. The house opened as a community hospital in 1907 and became a museum in 1954.
“Stonewall Jackson’s Slaves,” by Larry Spurgeon delves into the stories of the slaves who lived and worked here.
Washington Cafe & Franklin Barber Shop (16 N Main St) – The local chapter of the Odd Fellows, a Black fraternal organization, bought this building in 1907. Charles Henry Franklin rented half of the first floor as his barber shop. Two sisters, Estelle and Edna Washington, opened a restaurant in the other half. It was featured in the Negro Motorist Green Book, which certified it as a welcoming and safe place for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. It was the only Lexington eatery to be included from 1947 to 1957. Today it is home to Sugar Maple Trading Company.
Walker and Wood Brothers Meat Market (30 N Main St) – Prominent Black businessman Harry Lee Walker bought this building, first built in 1820 and known in recent decades as the Willson-Walker House, in 1911 for use as a butcher shop, one of the most thriving businesses in the community. He provided the VMI mess hall with meat through an exclusive contract. His daughter Nannie married Clarence Wood, who joined the family business with his brother Joe. Today it houses Macado’s restaurant.
Joe Wood’s Barber Shop (21 N Main St) – The building, known today as the Jacob Ruff House, was built in 1829. Joe and Clarence Wood, who co-owned Walker and Wood Brothers Meat Market, bought this building in 1928. In the basement, Joe operated a popular Black barber shop called The Subway.
Jonathan Daniels Sidewalk Paver - Just north of the Jacob Ruff House a Righteous and Rascals sidewalk paver commemorates Jonathan Daniels, valedictorian of VMI in 1961 who would be trained as an Episcopal priest and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, while helping to register southern Black voters, he was shot and killed while trying to protect the life of his fellow activist, Ruby Sales: a Black teenage girl who was threatened when she tried to enter a store in Hayneville, Alabama in 1965.
First Baptist Church (103 N Main St) – The congregation of the Lexington African Baptist Church worshiped in a frame building next to the site of the current church for 25 years beginning in 1867, right on the heels of emancipation. The current Gothic-Revival-style church was completed in 1896, and its congregation has played an active role in the local black community. Lylburn Downing, a Lexington-born African-American minister in Roanoke, was an early financial contributor for the construction of the church.
For supplemental information, visit "Unheard Voices of Black Lexington," an online slideshow documenting 20th-century Black business owners and their contributions to Lexington's history. Click on the microphone icon for podcasts featuring voices from the Black community.
A walking tour map, available at the Lexington Visitor Center, spotlights the Diamond Hill and Green Hill Communities.
The Rockbridge Historical Society maintains a virtual archive of articles and videos about Black history across Lexington and Rockbridge County.