Opinion: Virginia must preserve places of African American valor

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Opinion: Virginia must preserve places of African American valor

Opinion by Alfonso Lopez and Lamont Bagby

March 22, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. EDT

Alfonso Lopez, a Democrat, represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties and serves as majority whip in the Virginia House of Delegates. Lamont Bagby, a Democrat, represents Charles City County and parts of Henrico County, home to the New Market Heights Battlefield, and portions of the city of Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he is chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

With integral roles in America’s founding and the Civil War, Virginia counts more historically significant battlefields than any other state. Some of these battles have been household names for generations. Others — despite their significance and compelling human stories — have languished too long in obscurity.

For example, those driving along the New Market Road or biking on the Virginia Capital Trail just east of Interstate 295 outside Richmond could easily not realize they are passing through the New Market Heights Battlefield, one of the most significant sites in African American military history.

Unlike better-known battlefields where there are guided tours and uniformed rangers answering visitor questions, others, like New Market Heights, have not been given the same level of preservation and interpretation to help share their remarkable contributions to our nation’s history.

As we mark National Medal of Honor Day on March 25, this is a story that deserves our attention:

Had you been there on the morning of Sept. 29, 1864, you would have borne witness to bloody combat as thousands of African Americans in Union blue attacked uphill against a heavily fortified Confederate position. The Battle of New Market Heights, part of a larger engagement known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, was one of several Union offensives made against the Confederate capital during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign.

After more than an hour of bloody fighting, the Southerners withdrew, and the Black troops held the field. Fourteen Black soldiers fought so valiantly that they were awarded the Medal of Honor — a remarkable number as only 25 such medals were bestowed to Black soldiers during the entirety of the Civil War.

Too few Virginians and Americans know of the bravery and sacrifice that transpired at New Market Heights, how men of color, many of them formerly enslaved people, fought to secure their own freedom while fighting for the freedom of others. In doing so, they risked more than White solders; if captured, they might be executed or enslaved rather than being taken prisoner.

It is critical that powerful stories like theirs become fundamental parts of our historical narrative. And doing so begins with preservation.

For two decades, Virginia has worked with the American Battlefield Trust to create a fitting battlefield park at New Market Heights. To date, the trust has secured 88 critical acres. Henrico County holds additional undeveloped battlefield land. It is a meaningful beginning, but much work remains — here and elsewhere.

More than 200,000 Black soldiers served in U.S. armies before the 13th Amendment granted them citizenship in the nation for which they were willing to give their lives. These troops fought important battlefields across Virginia — defending the span at Great Bridge in 1775, exploiting the Breakthrough at Petersburg in 1865 and many places in between. When we protect these places, we honor their memory and empower interpretation that tells their stories.

The commonwealth invests in places such as New Market Heights and elsewhere through the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund. Through this fund, Virginia has attracted millions of dollars in federal and private dollars to preserve historic open space in the state — land that would have otherwise would have been lost to development. Since its inception in 2006, the program has helped save 9,600 acres, even as funding levels have been routinely outpaced by worthwhile applications.

We ask Virginians to join us in a two-part pledge:

First, to remember names of the 14 Black soldiers whose exceptional service at New Market Heights was recognized with the nation’s highest award for valor: Pvt. William Barnes, 1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, 1st Sgt. James Bronson, Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood, Pvt. James Gardiner, Sgt. James H. Harris, Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, Sgt. Alfred Hilton, Sgt. Maj. Milton Holland, Cpl. Miles James, 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly, 1st Sgt. Robert Pinn, 1st Sgt. Edward Ratcliff and Pvt. Charles Veal.

And, second, to continue supporting the protection of landscapes where we can honor the diverse and important stories that make up American history.


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