BLACKBURG – The names of 226 people who were once enslaved will be read aloud one by one on the plantation where Virginia Tech once stood.
Built before the Civil War and now the oldest structure on the grounds, the crowd gathered on a lonely Sunday morning to remember those who died enslaved or freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
During each person’s remembrance, participants hung paper with their names on the branches of the weeping cherry tree, known as the Tech Wishing Tree.
“Wishing trees are places where we put our hopes and prayers and wishes,” said event organizer Victoria Ferguson. “And for us today, we hope that the spirits of our ancestors who labored on this earth will rise up and not be bound to the earth.”
The memorial service was part of Juneteenth, a celebration of the liberation of the last enslaved blacks in the South.
June 19, 1865, was the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to read President Abraham Lincoln’s words to the slaves – emancipating them by executive order in the last state of the Confederacy to institutionalize slavery.
Juneteenth, also known as Independence Day and Black Independence Day, has been celebrated ever since with cookouts, parades, and other festivities.
Sunday’s tech event had a more somber tone, as according to census records and research, at least 226 men, women and children belonged to three farms – Solitude, Smithfield and Whitethorne – owned by the family of Col. William Preston.
In the year In 1759, Preston bought 16 enslaved Africans who were brought to America on the slave ship True Blue, according to Tech history professor Daniel Thorpe’s book.
Those and other slaves worked more than 500 acres over the next century, laying the groundwork for what would later become Tech’s campus.
Some of the names celebrated on Sunday have survived through time, such as Thomas Fraction, who was privately bought into slavery and later enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Once occupied by slaves, nestled in the shadow of solitude, it was named the fractional family home in 2019 by the university’s board of visitors.
Scanned records for other slaves list only first names.
So the biodegradable papers stuck to the branches of the wishing tree in Tech Duck Pond memorialized people like Hannah, Oscar, Sarah Jane, Willis, Daniel, Mary, Will and others.
“It’s important to continue to have these tough conversations and educate different perspectives,” Ferguson, program director at Solitude and Fraternity Houses, told about 30 people gathered for the service.
The Teck Wishing Tree is a place of healing, peace and hope.
The university’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity has started a tradition of inviting anyone to write their wish on a ribbon or piece of paper attached to a tree, where it is free of wind.
Anita Puckett, a professor emeritus of Appalachian studies at Tech who attended the event and has done extensive research on the topic, said it’s important to talk about something that many people choose to avoid.
“It’s our Monticello,” she said, referring to Thomas Jefferson’s historic Charlottesville estate, which has become open in recent years to the 600-some people who were enslaved.
“It’s a description of the vegetation system in this region.”
Laurence Hammock (540) 981-3239