Published on August 20, 2019

  • Share:
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • Email Article

The Long Road to Freedom: African-Americans in the Shenandoah Valley – The Centuries-Long Journey from Slavery through Civil War to Civil Rights

Saturday, November 2, 2019
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, Virginia


Depiction of August 1619 arrival of first Africans to Point Comfort, Virginia (present day Fort Monroe). Colonial Williamsburg Foundation image.

In 2018, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior established the 400 Years of African-American History Commission to coordinate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies in August 1619.  Administered by the National Park Service, the commission’s purpose is “plan, develop, and carry out programs and activities throughout the United States to recognize and highlight 400 years of African-American contributions.”

As one of the National Park Service’s National Battlefield Sites, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District is offering a special conference to support the commission’s efforts to implement its goals.

This conference, “The Long Road to Freedom,” will look at the African-American experience in the Shenandoah Valley during various time periods, including the Colonial, Antebellum, Civil War, Jim Crow Era, and Civil Rights Era periods.  Speakers will include Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin, Phoebe Kilby, Kristen Laise, Jonathan A. Noyalas, Dr. Michael Rackett, Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, and Dr. William B. Wiggins.

The cost will be $27 for members; $30 for non-members.



Schedule for the Day:

8am:  Check-In Desk Opens
9am:  Welcome by Keven Walker
9:10:  Dr. William B. Wiggins – Commemorating 400 years from Africa to the Virginia Colony and Beyond
10:05am:  Kristen Laise – Freedom Denied but the Journey Begins: Enslavement at Belle Grove Plantation (1780-1850s)
11:00am:  Dr. Michael Rackett – More of Aunt Betty’s Story: New Discoveries about People, Places, and Events Related to the Slave Narrative of Bethany Veney
11:55am:  Jonathan A. Noyalas – “Believe No Such Nonsense as that ‘the Slaves are Contented'”: The Civil War Era
12:45pm:  Lunch (on your own)
2:00 pm:  Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown – Montgomery Hall Park and the Jim Crow Era
2:55 pm: Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin – “Soldiers Without Uniforms”: Desegregation in Warren County
3:50 pm:  Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby – A Common Grace
4:30pm:  Roundtable Discussion
5:00 pm:  Event closes

Summary of Talks

“Commemorating 400 years from Africa to the Virginia Colony and Beyond” – Dr. William B. Wiggins
This presentation will cover the landing of African Angolans at Point Comfort, VA in 1619; their experiences and the experiences of other Africans brought to England’s North American Colonies and the United States of America.

“Freedom Denied but the Journey Begins: Enslavement at Belle Grove Plantation” – Kristen Laise
The Hite family at Belle Grove Plantation (Middletown, Virginia) enslaved 276 men, women, and children from the 1780s to the 1850s. Little was recorded about these individuals, but archival, archeological, and contextual research is uncovering their stories and the systems of enslavement operated in the Shenandoah Valley.

“More of Aunt Betty’s Story: New Discoveries about People, Places, and Events Related to the Slave Narrative of Bethany Veney” – Dr. Michael Rackett
Bethany Veney was born a slave in Luray in the early nineteenth century and later wrote a post-bellum narrative recounting some of her experiences both as a slave in the Shenandoah Valley and as a free woman in New England. This presentation highlights historical documents and images that provide interesting details about people, places, and events related to Veney’s life.

“Believe No Such Nonsense as that ‘the Slaves are Contented'” – Jonathan A. Noyalas
This presentation, based on more than a decade of research for Noyalas’ forthcoming book “To Be Free Some Day” (University Press of Florida), will examine how the Shenandoah Valley’s enslaved populations navigated the complexities of life in the oft-contested Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, the myriad ways they resisted their enslavement, and their various efforts to support the Union war effort.

“Negotiating the ‘color line’ in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley:  Black Activism and Montgomery Hall Park” – Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown
The “color line” that W. E. B. Du Bois noted would be the problem of the twentieth century effectively separated Blacks from Whites in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  Blacks, however, worked within the constraints of Jim Crow to resist oppression and build their communities.  The story of Montgomery Hall Park in Staunton, Virginia, is one of many examples of Black activism in the Valley that this talk will discuss.

“Soldiers without Uniforms” – Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin
Civil Rights pioneer Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin brings history to life as a 13-year-old in rural Warren County, Virginia.  In the 1950s, Kilby was a plaintiff in the case of Betty Ann Kilby v. Warren County Board of Education, one of many desegregation cases that followed the landmark Brown case. Despite the Brown ruling, many states protested the controversial ruling and kept their schools segregated in the 1950s.  Betty tells why her father was willing to risk so much to educate his children, what the children endured and how they overcame.

“A Common Grace” – Dr. Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby
Betty Kilby Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby did not know of each other until 2007, when Phoebe learned that her family enslaved people in Rappahannock County, Virginia, and that Betty was likely descended from those enslaved people.  Phoebe sent Betty an email on Martin Luther King Day of that year, thus beginning their journey of discovery and racial reconciliation.

Speaker Biographies

For biographies of our speakers, click here

Host Site

The conference will be hosted at the Festival Conference and Student Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.


Lunch will be on your own.  For information on some of the many excellent lunch options, click here.

Visitor Information

For information about historic sites, attractions, lodging, and dining opportunities in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area, see the Visit Harrisonburg website here.  For more information, call 540-542-1326.  And while you’re in town, visit the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitors Center (212 S. Main St), which also hosts the Civil War Orientation Center for the area.

Questions or Need More Information?

Call the SVBF at 540-740-4545 or email