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6 African American history museums and sites in Virginia

The Freedom House Museum in Alexandria is located in what was once the headquarters of one of the largest slave-trading companies in the country. A key exhibit includes a model of the complex where slaves were held and then forced into slave markets. Photo courtesy Anna Frame for OHA Freedom House

Virginia is rich with landmarks and museums that showcase the determination, talent, and strength of its African American residents, whose history in the state spans more than 4 centuries. Immerse yourself in this heritage by admiring art collections, visiting experiential museums, and getting to know trailblazing Virginians on a deeper level. Here are 6 places where you can learn more about the history of African Americans in Virginia.

1. Hampton University Museum, Hampton

Museum Visit, an art piece by Benny Andrews

Hampton University Museum has a collection representing the history of African American art from the earliest practitioners to contemporary artists, including Museum Visit (2002) by Benny Andrews, shown here. Photo courtesy Collection of the Hampton University Museum; Hampton, VA

Hampton University Museum became the first museum to have an African American fine art collection when it acquired Henry O. Tanner’s paintings The Banjo Lesson and The Lion’s Head in 1894. General Samuel Chapman Armstrong started the museum in 1868 with a collection of Polynesian items from his mother, a missionary in Hawai‘i. The first African artifacts appeared soon after.

Today, the museum has more than 10,000 works of art and cultural objects by African, Native American, Asian, Pacific, and African American artists, and it has one of the best Harlem Renaissance collections in the United States. Free; closed Saturdays and Sundays.

2. Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum, Portsmouth

The outside of the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum

The Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy City of Portsmouth Virginia 

During the 1920s, pastor M.B. Birchette led an effort to establish a library for Portsmouth’s African American populace, who were excluded from the main town library. The library started as a reading room in the St. James Episcopal Church in 1937 but closed in 1941 when funding ran out.

The Portsmouth Library Association raised funds and worked with the city government to create a standalone building on South Street. The 900-square-foot library opened in 1945 and became a hub for education and community events like clothing drives and cultural programs. The library closed in 1963 after desegregation. The staff and most of the catalog were integrated into the main library, removing the need for the smaller building.

The 1945 library building moved again in 1967 and finally landed in its present-day spot on Elm Street in 2007. After renovations, the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum debuted in 2013. The former library is now on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Admission is by donation; open noon–4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

3. Princess Anne County Training School/Union Kempsville High School Museum, Virginia Beach

Visitors viewing an exhibit with images of former students at the Princess Anne County Training School/Union Kempsville High School Museum

Visitors explore the classroom artifacts exhibit at the Princess Anne County Training School/Union Kempsville High School Museum. Photo courtesy City of Virginia Beach

In the 1930s, the African American community in Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach) raised money to build a school for their children. The first and only high school for African Americans in the area started out as a temporary school at Union Baptist Church.

In 1938, it opened as a 4-room schoolhouse on Cleveland Street and Witchduck Road. The school expanded several times before finally closing in 1969 after desegregation.

Today, the site of the former school is a museum within Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ Renaissance Academy. Videos of former students, digital yearbooks, textbooks, band uniforms, and other artifacts bring visitors on a journey that spans the school’s 31-year history, as well as presenting a time line of African American history in Virginia and the United States. Free; open 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturdays.

4. Freedom House Museum, Alexandria

Erik Blome’s bronze statue of the Edmonson sisters

The Freedom House Museum features Erik Blome’s bronze statue of the Edmonson sisters, slaves who became prominent in the abolitionist movement after gaining their freedom. Photo courtesy Anna Frame for OHA Freedom House

Using archaeological finds and firsthand accounts, Freedom House Museum honors the thousands of slaves who were trafficked through Alexandria between 1828 and 1861. After some renovations, it reopened in May 2022 with 3 floors of exhibits.

The first floor explains the building’s role in the domestic slave trade, as it served as the headquarters for slave-trading firms such as Franklin and Armfield, at one point the largest slave traders in the country.

On the second floor, the traveling exhibition Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality traces African American history across Virginia. The exhibit highlights extraordinary stories of people who fought for equality and shaped society over 4 centuries. A companion exhibit, Determined in Alexandria, focuses on historic contributions from community members.

The third floor showcases impressive art, including Erik Blome’s bronze statue of the Edmonson sisters. These enslaved women became prominent in the abolitionist movement after gaining freedom. Another highlight is “Before the Spirits Are Swept Away,” a collection of paintings by Sherry Zvares Sanabria. Adults, $5 (free for Alexandria residents); closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Read more: Virginia: Out and About

5. Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Richmond

An old photo of Maggie Walker

Maggie Walker was the first African American woman in Virginia to run for statewide office, and the first African American woman to found a bank and serve as bank president. Photo courtesy NPS

Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to ending racism, sexism, and financial oppression in the Jim Crow era. In addition to being a leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke—which she ran until her passing in 1934—she was the founder and managing editor of the St. Luke Herald newspaper and ran on an all-Black ticket for state superintendent. She was the first African American woman in Virginia to run for a statewide office.

Walker chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, becoming the first African American woman to found a bank and serve as bank president. The bank financed hundreds of home and business loans for African American residents.

A sign outside Maggie Lena Walker's townhouse marks it as a National Historic Site

Maggie Lena Walker's townhouse in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond doubled as a community hub for African American professionals. Photo by NPS Photo/Maggie L. Walker NHS

From 1904 to 1934, her beautiful Italianate townhouse in Richmond’s elite Jackson Ward neighborhood doubled as a community hub for African American professionals. Friends like W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Langston Hughes visited the property.

At one point, 12 people lived in the expansive home, which stayed in the family until the 1970s. This gave historians plenty of firsthand accounts and items to include in the museum’s collection.

Today, visitors can gain insight into Walker's personal and professional life through her writings, her impressively preserved home, and her elegant belongings. Free; closed Sundays and Mondays.

6. Appalachian African American Cultural Center, Pennington Gap

From 1940 through 1965, Pennington Gap had 1 schoolhouse for African American children in primary school. The building is now the Appalachian African American Cultural Center, which documents the often-overlooked history of African Americans in rural southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, and northeast Tennessee.

The center’s mission is to gather and preserve as much of the region’s African American culture as possible before it’s lost. Photos, documents, and original furniture tell the story of 20th-century life in this 1-room schoolhouse.

Of particular interest, says founder Ron Carson, are the audio and video recordings captured in the 1980s. “We still had people born in the 1880s who spoke of their [ancestors] being born into slavery,” he says. Another prized possession is the desk of author Alex Haley, who has ties to the region.

Carson’s great-great-grandmother Rachel Scott donated the land and led a fundraising campaign to build the schoolhouse in 1939. His mother was one of the first children to attend school there, and he was one of the last before integration. Jill Carson, Ron’s wife and co-founder of the center, is the first African American vice mayor of Pennington Gap, and was recently elected as president of the Virginia Municipal League. Visits are by appointment only.

Read more: Take a history road trip in Virginia to explore U.S. heritage

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