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African American heritage tour at Old City Cemetery highlights local history

African American heritage tour at Old City Cemetery highlights local history

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Roughly a dozen people walked the grounds of the Old City Cemetery on Saturday for a tour of Black heritage featuring just a few of the prominent local figures buried there.

During the tour, called Walking With Pride: African American History at OOC, visitors learned about Sallie Frank Anderson. She was a beloved Yoder Elementary School teacher of more than 40 years and graduate of the Hampton Institute — a woman who never had children but often considered her students as her own family, according to tour guide Angelica Walker.

“She was a community pillar; she was more than a teacher, a lot of people would say,” Walker said.

They learned about Jacob Majors, a deacon and carpenter by trade. In 1844 he was hired to convert the old Court Street Theater into the African Baptist Church, the first independent Black church in the Hill City.

They learned about “Blind Billy,” a former slave who died a free man in 1855. Despite his eyesight, he was known as a “master on the fife” and a street musician, Walker said. A symbolically broken fife is depicted on his tombstone, signifying his life cut short by pneumonia. His grave straddles a border on the grounds, which at the time separated Black and white graves.

And on the last stop, they learned about Amelia Elizabeth Perry Pride and other members of the Pride family, the focal point of the history tour and namesake of the cemetery’s Pathway to Pride.

“What we’re doing is marking with an architectural feature the African American heritage of this property,” the cemetery’s executive director Denise McDonald said of the pathway. The cemetery broke ground on the new pathway in May.

According to a news release from Old City Cemetery, the small pathway will be paved with bricks from as far back as 1906 and will lead visitors into a large Black section of the cemetery before coming face-to-face with the Pride family’s gravestone. The pathway still is under construction.

Pride is the cemetery’s resident “Wonder Woman,” McDonald said.

Born and raised in Lynchburg, Pride was a graduate of the Hampton Institute and became one of the first Black teachers in Lynchburg Public Schools in 1880 teaching until 1911. She would later become principal of Polk Street Primary School and was instrumental in offering home economic courses to young girls, one of the few ways women could make a living during that time, McDonald said. She also started a care home for older women who were formerly enslaved.

Saturday morning’s tour — which is part of a summer series featuring the same six gravesites — comes at a time of civil unrest and calls for change sparked by the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and exacerbated by similar instances of police brutality. Lynchburg alone has seen multiple protests and a riot.

Given the current tension, Walker said the tour was important to not only teach history, but hone in on Lynchburg’s history and the African Americans who helped shape the Hill City into what it is today.

“I think a lot of people live here their whole lives and just never realize what kind of history they’re living with — living through — so I think the past can definitely teach us where we come from and the great strides we have to make,” Walker said.

McDonald said of the roughly 20,000 people buried on the grounds of the Old City Cemetery, about two-thirds are Black. With such a rich Black history to choose from, Walker said it was a challenge to narrow the tour down to only six individuals.

“There are so many to choose from and there are so many stories, it is a little difficult,” Walker said.

McDonald said the goal of the African American heritage tour is to not only educate Lynchburg residents, but to foster a sense of pride among the community. She noted that goal is a process, and likely won’t be achieved in just a single tour, but she said she hopes it will get people curious enough to continue asking questions on their own.

For Walker, it was important people walk the grounds and see the gravesites rather than just talk about them.

“It makes the people tangible and, two, it lets people experience the cemetery,” Walker said. “I think people walking around in the daytime, hearing these people’s stories and knowing that they were more than just gravestones, that they were people, that they had stories, that they had lives, I think that’s what’s most important about walking through the cemetery.”

Stephanie Majercak was joined by her sister and her great-grandson for the tour. While she visits Old City Cemetery often, she said it was important to learn about local history “because a lot of the young people don’t know a name like Pride or where their ancestors come from.”

The next Walking With Pride tour in Old City Cemetery’s summer series will be held in August and will feature the same individuals.

“I do think it’s important for people to recognize and know their history and appreciate the history of others in the community,” McDonald said. “I do think if you build that community pride ... that will carry people forward and engender working together, not just working against each other.”

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

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