More than 1,100 enslaved people toiled in Warren County at the beginning of the Civil War, according to historic records.
Now two area groups plan to put a display at the courthouse to honor those slaves and also provide information to visitors about the slave trade and its practice in the county.
The local chapter of Coming to the Table and Northern Shenandoah Valley Unites are co-sponsoring a display that includes small marker flags to represent each enslaved man, woman and child in the county. The display will set up Saturday and run through Oct. 9 on the lawn at the Warren County Courthouse, 1 E. Main St., Front Royal. The more than 300 flags represent the number of families enslaved in the county at the beginning of the Civil War. The display also includes pamphlets with information about slavery in the county.
Coming to the Table, a nationwide organization, focuses on dialogue and healing, in the spirit of reconciliation, from the wounds that started with slavery, said Warren County resident Julie Chickery, a member of the local chapter.
“Well, one thing that we hope is that it will bring some people together with us in a dialogue with Coming to the Table,” Chickery said.
Coming to the Table’s chapter meets in Front Royal monthly, lately through Zoom, but members hope to return to in-person meetings.
“It’s not about judgment,” Chickery said. “It’s all about just coming together to heal the wounds of the past and, you know, reflect on how it might affect our lives.
The organizers plan to include information about Coming to the Table’s next meeting on Thursday, with Shenandoah University professor Jonathan Noyalas as guest speaker. Noyalas serves as the director of the university’s McCormick Civil War Institute. Brochures include information from Noyalas’ book on slavery and freedom in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, Chickery said.
“The hope is really just to, you know, get away from the blame and the pointing fingers and the arguments and people feeling defensive,” Chickery said. “Sometimes it comes from a place of just not enough education.
“But sometimes it also comes from a place of feeling like you’re being attacked for who your ancestors are, and so we’re not about that in Coming to the Table,” Chickery said. “We’re coming together to figure out how we can move ahead, but you can’t really move forward if you can’t acknowledge your past and your shared history.”
Activists in Warren County pushed for a ballot referendum in last year’s election asking voters if the Board of Supervisors should relocate the monument of an unnamed Confederate soldier from the courthouse to another location. The county put the referendum on the ballot amid a nationwide movement to remove statues and monuments memorializing figures who fought for the south in the civil war. The local referendum failed.
Referendum opponents often claimed in public meetings and in letters to the editor published by local media outlets that slavery was not as pervasive in Warren County, Chickery said. Historic records prove the claim untrue, she said. About one in four people in the county were slaves, Chickery said.
The brochure provided at the display includes a list of 1,149 names from the Warren Register of Colored People dated Feb. 27, 1866, of formerly enslaved people. Organizers plan to place about 350 flags to represent each of the families listed in the register, Chickery said.
Historical records show that many households in the Northern Shenandoah Valley owned one or two slaves before the Civil War, Chickery said. More households rented slaves, she noted.
“So there’s actually quite a few in Warren County and in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that were more on a small scale, and I think that’s one of the reasons for that kind of myth that slavery wasn’t a thing here because they think about, like, in Tidewater portion of Virginia where you had the massive plantations and the large amounts of slaves and it wasn’t that way here,” Chickery said. “But that doesn’t mean slavery didn’t exist here.”
The brochures dispel other myths, she noted.
“You know, another thing that people don’t realize is even if individuals didn’t own slaves or if they weren’t even the ones who rented slaves, they still benefited economically from the system of slavery that existed,” Chickery said.