Virginia is for History Lovers

As the school year ends and families prepare for summer vacations, parents can keep their kids’ education going with a tour of central Virginia. The cities of Richmond and Roanoke offer a bounty of opportunities for children and adults alike to learn about the history of the state, the South, and the country itself.

The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is built on the site of the Tredegar Iron Works, a major factory that was active from before the Civil War to the 1950s. Two years ago, the eight-acre site was recreated as a museum that shows the many different sides of the War, offering three perspectives on every issue: the North, fighting for the Union; the South, fighting for their homeland; and the slaves, fighting for their freedom. (A good exhibit, director Christy Coleman believes, raises more questions than it answers, and the museum follows this philosophy.) To more fully tell the story of the War, the museum focuses on its causes and its legacies, including the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s and the election of President Obama. Children are especially welcome at the museum, and one wall is papered with notes from kids that express their impressions of what they’ve seen. Visitors can download an audio tour of the museum to their iPods before arrival, and a typical tour of the exhibits takes about an hour.


A segway tour heads to the Tredegar Iron Works

(Side note: Segway of Richmond offers tours of the city from the eponymous machines, giving a view of Richmond inaccessible from cars…and giving families a fun way to bond while they’re at it. It takes a few moments to relearn balance, but once you get the knack of a Segway they’re quite a lot of fun. Tour guide Tony Pitts offers a fun and very informative running commentary on the buildings and monuments as visitors glide by them.)

For a more personal perspective of African American and feminist history, the Maggie Walker House honors a local legend who overcame prejudice and sexism to become a pillar of her community. Maggie Walker was born to a former slave a few years after the Civil War, and through pure determination and hard work rose to become the first female bank president in the United States in 1903. (The bank still exists.) From Richmond’s Jackson Ward district, Walker became a leading figure in the African American community, establishing a newspaper, a department store and other businesses that provided opportunities for black professionals. Her home has been preserved as a museum that honors her many accomplishments, and registered as a National Historic Site. Tours are available throughout the day, and admission is free.


The re-creation of Maggie Walker's bank

Near the Walker museum is The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. With a series of rotating exhibits, the museum celebrates not only Richmond’s African American community, but also their heritage in Africa and beyond. Current exhibits display the fashion designs of JW Robinson Horne and study the connections between Virginia and the West African empire of Mali.

No visit to Virginia’s capital would be complete without a visit to its capitol building, of course. Designed by Thomas Jefferson in the style of a Greek or Roman temple, the capitol is a centerpiece of Virginia’s history. A combination of museum and active political hub, the building continues to blend classic and contemporary. Visitors can see the room where the state decided to secede from the Union, and then walk down the halls to the current Senate and House of Delegates.


The state capital building

Jean-Antoine Houdon's life-size statue of George Washington stands in the central hallway, surrounded by busts of every American president born in Virginia. (A bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, whose military expertise helped America win the Revolutionary War, also has a place of honor in the hall.) The statue focuses on Washington’s many careers, with a fasces (a symbol of governmental power), a sword and a ploughshare all displayed around the great leader.


The statue of George Washington inside the state capitol building

Outside of the capitol building are numerous statues of notable Virginians; tucked to the side is a recent addition to the pantheon. In 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns (niece of civil rights activist Vernon Johns) organized a student strike at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School, demanding improved learning conditions. The strike was one of the first steps that lead to the Brown v. Board of Education decision three years later, and a statue of Johns and her fellow students (as well as other figures central to the civil rights movement) recognizes their sacrifices and accomplishments. Created by sculptor Stanley Bleifeld, the artwork is a very emotional and inspiring tribute to the people at the heart of the civil rights movement.

In Farmville, visitors can see the schoolhouse where Johns organized her strike, and can sit in the very auditorium where she encouraged her fellow students to demand equality. The school is being converted into a museum that will be completed by 2011, although some rooms are ready to be toured now. Bob Hamlin, the museum’s president, was himself a student at the school until Prince Edward County’s school board decided to eliminate public education rather than integrate in 1959, and offers a wonderfully personal take on the school’s place in Virginia—and national—history.


The memorial to Barbara Johns

Roanoke was a transportation hub in western Virginia, and today remains the commercial and cultural center of the Roanoke Valley and southern West Virginia. The Virginia Museum of Transportation houses antique cars, buses and trains (outdoors on the original tracks) to celebrate this heritage, as well as an enormous diorama with working model trains and detailed explanations of how engines work. Any fans of trains or classic cars will want to see the refurbished machines and learn the details of how they work.


The Virginia Museum of Transportation