(Above) A descendant of potter Abraham Spencer (abt. 1806–1873) pauses in front of a display case during the Members First Look opening. MSV photo by Ginger Perry.
Nick Powers, Curator of Collections at The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, describes the museum’s newest exhibition — Contributions: African Americans in the Shenandoah Valley — as a living exhibition. “We’re hoping people will reach out with stories and objects that can help us tell this story. We think of African American history as Shenandoah Valley history and both as American history. We’ve been collecting these objects, but this is the first time we’ve had a space dedicated to telling these stories.”
The Meaning of Everyday Objects
Powers hopes that visitors come away “with an understanding that the settlement of the Shenandoah Valley was an Euro-African settlement, that Black people were an integral part of the expansion and development in the Valley [before and after the Civil War].” He continued, “we hope that visitors learn how to look at objects in new ways, to understand who was involved in their creation, how they were used in daily life.” In context, the meaning of something as simple as a writing box can tell a story of struggle and resistance at a time when teaching enslaved people to read or write was a capital offence. “Many of these objects represent a resiliency and creativity that is part of the Shenandoah Valley story,” continued Powers. “When you look closely at the photo of the students at the Storer College women’s dormitory (image next page), you can see several students who are displaying books in front of themselves. I see that as a message of defiance — the books represent not just knowledge, but the power of having that knowledge.”
“The pottery by Abraham Spencer (image above) tells another hidden story,” Powers remarked. “Robin Carter III was a well-established Virginia landowner and enslaver of hundreds. After the American Revolution, he had a religious conversion and ultimately freed all of these enslaved individuals. Abraham Spencer was one of the individuals manumitted by Carter. He found work as a potter, but as a free man of color, he lived under punitive conditions and often moved. The pottery in our display bears his mark, used to make sure he was properly paid for the pieces which survived the kiln firing process. It’s humbling to find objects that tell the story of people who flew in the face of this incredible effort to dehumanize them.”
Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, 901 Amherst St, Winchester, VA. Open Tue-Sun, 11 am – 4 pm (winter hours through March). Admission: Adults $15, Senior/Youth $10, Under 12 free. See website (TheMSV.org) for parking directions, holidays, and membership options.
A Peek Inside the Connections exhibition at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley
The Contributions exhibition examines the lives of over 40 individuals who have contributed to the history of the northern Shenandoah Valley through personal objects, portraits, narratives, and video.
The exhibition runs through January 2023 along with a regular schedule of virtual and in-person programs (visit the events calendar at the MSV’s website for details). The museum’s permanent galleries showcase a rotating selection of its 23,000 objects related to the history of the Valley. There are also miles of trails on the 90 acre grounds of the museum – the park is open 7 am to dusk (free to visitors, dogs on leash welcome).
Storer College — The Hill of Hope
Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia played a large role in the Valley after the Civil War. The College received its first charter from the WV State legislature in 1869 as a normal school — a teachers college. In 1881, the Free-Will Baptists, the organization which supported the school’s founding, reported that the school had prepared over 200 teachers. A later history of the College reports that in 1895, all 20 of the “free schools [for Black students]” in Jefferson County were run by Storer Graduates.
(Above, upper left) Storer College students and teachers posing on Jefferson Rock, about 1890. (Right) Storer College students posing at Myrtle (later Moser) Hall, abt. 1879-1890. Photographer unknown. (Above, lower left) Drawing of Storer College Seal, 1913, attributed to Louise Wood Brackett (1842–1936). All from MSV Collection, Gifts of Mrs. Anne Dungan, Mr. John C. Newcomer, Mr. Thomas W. Newcomer, and Mrs. Elizabeth Snyder.
The Journey of the Moss Family
The Journey of the Mosses of Winchester demonstrates how one Valley family pursued the promise of freedom. Mary Johnson Ligans (1840-1926) was enslaved by the Miller family of Winchester and trained as a cook. Emancipated in the 1860s, she married Thomas Winifred Moss, sought wages for her skills, and pursued education for her children.
Mary’s daughter Henrietta (1861-1938) followed in her mother’s footsteps; Henrietta and her husband Alexander W. Davis built a business and invested in property.
For Mary’s son, Charles Franklin Moss, freedom meant leaving the Shenandoah Valley. Charles trained as a photographer in Rhode Island, studied at Cooper Union in New York City, and eventually settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania working as both a portrait painter and photographer. Moss used his photography skills to empower Black families and organizations, promote self image, and counter racist stereotypes. In recognition of his skills, Moss became the first African American admitted to the National Association of Professional Photographers in 1914.
(Left) Portrait of Charles Franklin Moss (1878-1961). Courtesy of Stuart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library, Henry Moss Brooks Collection. (Right) Photograph of Mary E. Johnson Ligans Moss (1839/1840–1926) and Thomas Winifred Moss (1831–1904), courtesy of Alexander and Bonnie Finley. Family narrative above adapted from the exhibit catalog.By Steve Pearson