Described as an effort to chronicle and recognize accomplishments, sacrifices, events and personalities of historical importance to the state’s story, Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program was established in 1927 and is the first of its kind in the United States. In celebration of Black History Month, Governor Ralph Northam has invited Salem educators, students and families to participate in the Second Annual Historical Marker Contest.
A link with in-depth information, including lesson plans for educators, can be found on the contest’s web page, https://www.education.virginia.gov/bhm-marker-contest. Entries must be submitted by March 15, and all submissions will be reviewed by the Department of Historical Resources in consultation with Gov. Northam and members of his cabinet.
“Black history is American history,” said Northam. “But for too long, we have told an inaccurate and simplified version of that history that did not include everyone. This competition is one new way to help tell a more true and inclusive story of our shared past.”
Of the 2,600 markers Virginia has erected along its roadways, only about 350 of them, which equates to roughly 7.5 percent, honor African Americans. Gov. Northam has proposed a budget that includes $100,000 annually to create additional historical highway markers to promote stories that reflect the diverse nature of the citizens of the Commonwealth. The proposed budget also includes another $100,000 to digitize highway markers to aid in the creation of an African American history trail.
As an educator, Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia’s Chief Diversity Officer, believes deeply in the power of civil dialogue in the classroom and the importance of learning about history through exploration.
“Since even before the time of slavery, stories of incredible African Americans have frequently been ignored, even silenced. This contest is a great opportunity for students, teachers and families to learn about Black history more deeply, and foster a sense of critical consciousness wherein our students contribute ideas in pursuit of remedying the disparities of African American historical markers throughout Virginia,” said Dr. Underwood. “This also provides teachers a structured process that shows learners of all ages how to engage state government in meaningful ways.”
Entries will be judged on clarity of expression, creativity, structure and coherence. Markers submitted last year include Sergeant William H. Carney, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker.
“As the leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of Black history in the Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest provides students and educators alike an opportunity to celebrate the incredible contributions of Black and brown Virginians. I invite all educators and students to help us tell a more complete Virginia story through participating in this contest.”
On Juneteenth of last year, Gov. Northam announced 20 newly approved state historical highway markers addressing topics of national, state and regional significance to African American history. “I am a strong proponent of teaching history that accurately reflects the full spectrum of stories and experiences,” he said.