A Social Justice History of the Northern Shenandoah Valley
Author: Larry Yates
The Northern Shenandoah Valley (hereafter NSV) has a long history of pre-Columbian occupation, but was never a major settlement area for any large cultural group. By British colonial times, the area was largely a hunting ground for various nations, including the Shawnee and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).
European-led settlement came from two directions – from the north, from Pennsylvania (mainly German immigrants, many of them Mennonite), and to a lesser degree from the coastal colonial areas in the East (mainly English people, as well as enslaved Africans).
German immigrants dominated the area. Even into the early 20th century, there were German-speaking enclaves. There were also Scotch-Irish settlers, though less than farther into the Appalachian region.
However, though the NSV was isolated from and distinct from more populated areas of Virginia, and much more like Pennsylvania culturally, it was still under the British Royal Governor of Virginia, and its history has been included in that of Virginia. The practice of life-long hereditary African slavery was first consolidated in colonial Virginia. Colonial Virginia also had strict laws requiring worship in the Church of England, unlike more tolerant Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The visionary and even utopian beliefs of groups like the Friends, Moravians, Mennonites, etc. had little, if any, impact on social mores in Northern Shenandoah Valley, beyond their own communities. (The exception is, especially during the Civil War, the refusal of many German sectarians to fight and their use of the conscientious objector laws of the Confederacy and US.) On the contrary, during the early 19th century, many Friends and Mennonites left NSV and Virginia rather than remain in a slave state.
Virginia has historically been an undemocratic society, a society in which a small elite dominates a relatively passive population. It seems likely that the NSV in some exemplified this, in that the majority population was not only culturally somewhat isolated, but one of small farm families with an internal focus on their small congregations, which were not part of the major denominations.
Before the Civil War, African-Americans lived in NSV mainly as slaves, primarily in the eastern sections, especially Clarke and Fauquier County, which were organized more as large farms in the manner of Tidewater Virginia. There were never large slave populations in NSV.
Other groups – Catholics, Jews, immigrants from places other than Germany, Switzerland, or Britain, etc. – were rare in NSV.
From the 1850s through to the 1970s, NSV followed – or even led – the pattern of conservative-controlled Virginia. In 1861, the area stuck with secessionist Virginia rather than going with neighboring counties to form West Virginia. During the Civil War, NSV was a major battleground, because of its agricultural wealth, its proximity to Washington, and its railroads. Winchester in particular changed hands between the federal troops and the Confederates about 70 times.
Since the NSV was devastated by Union armies, and many of its leaders fought for the Confederacy, Lost Cause sentiment was powerful in the area, and dominated politics, along with the process of rebuilding. Together, these led to a business-oriented conservative approach. However, the intense struggle over racial privilege that occurred in Richmond, Norfolk, and other parts of Virginia did not occur in NSV, since organized African-Americans were not a threat.
One of the first Governors of Virginia after it was restored to the union, Winchester native Frederick Holliday (1878-1881), supported paying bondholders, and cutting social services. He told the General Assembly “Our fathers did not need free schools to make them what they were.” Soon, conservatives of his ilk took control of the state Democratic Party.
In 1894, a state senator representing Page and Shenandoah Counties introduced legislation to use “complicated ballots to disfranchise those too illiterate to read and understand the ballots.” In 1901-2, a convention rewrote the Virginia constitution; one of the leaders of the Convention stated that he wanted “a new emancipation, not now of the black man, but of the white man, whom the black man has enslaved in turn.”
The 1902 Constitution’s system of limiting votes and enforcing racial disparity, and the Democratic Party that it supported, was taken over in the 1920s by Harry Flood Byrd of Winchester, the most powerful Virginia politician for most of the 20th century. Byrd’s father had been Speaker of the House of Delegates, and he had family connections on both sides to the existing Democratic leadership. He served as Governor and then as US Senator, but mainly as the state’s political boss, so his Berryville home near Winchester was the political center of the state.
Byrd pushed a program of fiscal limits, roads and public improvements, and other economic development. He did get an anti-lynching law passed in the 1920s. (NSV was the site of very few of Virginia’s lynchings between 1880-1930 – 1 in Frederick, 1 in Page, and 4 in nearby Loudoun and Fauquier.)
Byrd opposed most provisions of the New Deal and the Great Society. Apparently, though, he supported, or at least did not oppose one FDR initiative that had a powerful impact, the creation of Skyline Drive and Geo Washington National Park. This process relocated hundreds of people settled in that area, and is still remembered and resented, especially in Page County, though of course it created a national treasure of scenic preservation.
However, Byrd’s most visible national effort was Massive Resistance, a national campaign to stop school integration. As part of the effort, Virginia closed any schools that were integrated by court order. This included the school system of Warren County in the Shenandoah Valley.
A combination of Byrd’s influence and the general conservatism of the area ensured that, even after Byrd’s death in 1966, federal anti-poverty programs were kept out of the NSV. It was, until very recently, one of the few areas in Virginia (or nationally) that did not have a Community Action Agency, as well as having little nonprofit housing activity. In addition, Winchester’s daily newspaper is still owned by the Byrd family, and is a strong supporter of the Republican party, which carries on the Byrd agenda in Virginia.
Religious organizations that cooperate on some justice issues include a synagogue, the Islamic Society, a Friends meeting, and a number of mainline Protestant churches in downtown Winchester and a Baha’i group. Many of these groups also participate in the Valley Interfaith Council, which has brought a number of speakers, including a UU environmental leader, to the NSV. There are a large number of congregations that serve the longstanding African-American community as well as the recently emerged Latino immigrant community, which is mainly Mexican-American.
Environmental activities in the area include a number of river-related groups, as well as groups responding local threats related to quarrying and similar exploitative development. The beauty of the area is always a rallying cry for these groups. The town of Front Royal, in Warren County, has a large Superfund site that is in the late stages of remediation; the facility that formerly occupied the site, Avtex, was the major employer in Front Royal, and was closed fairly suddenly in 1989.
NSV has been a center of light industry, and still is, but has lost substantial industry, like most parts of the nation, including a number of the few unionized jobs here.
Latino immigration led to a significant change in the population of the area in the 1990s. Some local politicians running for state office have made anti-immigrant policies central to their platforms.
In recent years, Winchester has given recognition to Winchester natives and nationally known musicians John Kirby and Patsy Cline, who received little home town love in their lifetimes. Front Royal has helped to get a historical marker for the African-American leaders, families and students that integrated the schools there. Another nationally notable figure from Winchester, Joe Bageant, just died recently, after having become known for his book Deer Hunting with Jesus and other critical works based on his Winchester experiences. He spoke at UUCSV in recent years.
New influences, of course, are always coming up in every community. NSV is in some ways a Washington DC bedroom community and in other ways deeply influenced by Interstate Highway 81; Winchester is in some respects a college town for the small but expanding Shenandoah University; and relatively wealthy retirees are changing all NSV communities. But there is still an underlying reality – an upper crust that can trace its ancestry back to English colonists, African-American communities that have been here as long as that upper crust, a working population of German descent that has a rich congregational and charity network, but little political awareness or tradition. It is an area that always has been a reliable source of votes and acquiescence for Virginia’s political elite, but never a hotbed of fanatic ideology or extremist activity or conflict.
Change is, of course, certain. What that change will be depends on who takes action.