Blurred Lines: African American Community, Memory, and Preservation in the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District

Bates, Niya, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Harold, Claudrena, Department of History, University of Virginia
Nelson, Louis, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

The Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District lies approximately nine miles northeast of the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. This part of Albemarle County, Virginia was settled in the mid to late eighteenth century when wealthy white men from the Tidewater region sought to expand their holdings into the Piedmont. These men sent enslaved people and tenants to live on their property and construct houses and outbuildings to prepare for the arrival of the planter and his family. Descendants of those first settlers, including the enslaved people, still live in the Cismont area today. The area has become renowned for its plantations, churches, wineries, and unmatched natural scenery, but the story of its Native and African American populations remains untold. This thesis explores the historically black neighborhoods in Cismont and their relationship to the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District. While the bulk of this research focuses on one neighborhood in particular, called Scuffletown, it makes a compelling case for a reevaluation of the historic district boundaries on the east side of the historic district to include all five of the historic black neighborhoods.

Scuffletown is one of several black communities that lie just outside of the boundaries of the historic district that was formed in the late 1980s. It is a rich repository of material culture and oral history containing a handful of extant slave quarters, two historic black churches dating to just after the Civil War, two Rosenwald schools, and an abundance of late nineteenth and early twentieth century vernacular architecture. While most historical narratives about rural Blacks would have us believe that they all lived in unkempt shacks and disorganized villages, Scuffletown and its environs prove this to be untrue. Many of the residents of Scuffletown were from working and middle class families and lived in large, well-built houses. The houses, along with most other things in Cismont, were built by highly skilled Black carpenters and masons.

The voids in the crenellated eastern border of the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District roughly align with five historic black neighborhoods that have been unceremoniously excised from its boundaries and historic narrative. For those neighborhoods, neglect, unclear deeds, an aging population, migration to urban areas, and lack of attention to preservation present major threats to the historic resources. Presently, there are very few viable options for preserving rural neighborhoods like these. The black communities not represented by this historic district are an integral part of the history of the Cismont area. This thesis calls for extending the boundaries of the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District to include these places, more documentation and recognition of its African American history, and adjustments to the way preservationists treat rural cultural landscapes.

This thesis is organized into three chapters based on chronology. Chapter one provides the history of the first African Americans in the Southwest Mountain Rural Historic District prior to 1865 and explores plantation life, free black settlements, the Liberian Colonization Movement and its connection to one local plantation, and the Civil War. Chapter two provides analysis of the African American communities in the postwar Reconstruction period up until the mid to late 1960s, which covers the formative years and height of rural Black activity in the Cismont community. The third chapter is a statement about the current Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District, its formation, threats to the architectural and cultural heritage of the Black neighborhoods and current preservation policies. It concludes with recommended changes to rural preservation and the National Register criteria.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Criterion E, Grace Episcopal Church, National Register, architecture, southern landscape, Maxfield Road, Keswick, American architecture, cultural landscape, Cismont Training School, Liberian Colonization Society, St. John's School, post-emancipation, black neighborhoods, traditional cultural property, Jefferson country, rural villages, Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District, black history, Liberian Colonization Movement, vernacular architecture, historic district, Southwest Mountains, Cobham, Charlottesville, rural, reconstruction era, National Register Criteria, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Cismont, historic preservation, Rosenwald Schools, Virginia, civil rights movement, St. John's Baptist Church, preservation planning, Music Hall Estate, rural historic districts, vernacular, Boyden, rural preservation, Scuffletown, University of Virginia, slavery, cultural landscapes, African American, Albemarle County, Bunker Hill, black settlements, Clarks Tract
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