Registration for 1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech event opens Friday
January 20, 2022
Kerri Moseley-Hobbs did not attend Virginia Tech. She wasn’t born in Southwest Virginia and never lived in the area.
But her ties to the university run very deep, and in late March, she plans to be in Blacksburg for one of the more important events held during Virginia Tech’s sesquicentennial celebration.
A descendant of the Fraction family – an enslaved family that once lived and worked on a plantation where the university currently sits – Moseley-Hobbs has been instrumental in planning and looks forward to an event called 1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech. Her More Than a Fraction Foundation has been instrumental both with her family and in her work with Virginia Tech.
Spearheaded by the work of The Council on Virginia Tech History, the three-day celebration, scheduled for March 24-26, recognizes the varied groups of people who helped shape Virginia Tech: Indigenous peoples, African Americans, and European settlers. Registration for the celebration opens Friday. All events are free to attend.
“Virginia Tech is in the midst of great growth on our Blacksburg campus and around the commonwealth, especially in our Innovation Campus in Arlington,” said Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity. “All current students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and friends of the university have the opportunity to guide this growth from the wisdom of our 150-year history.
“Virginia Tech has grown up as an institution in Blacksburg on land that holds Native American, African American, and European American history and traditions. The many people of this land, from 1872 forward have contributed to our growth. … The events of the 1872 Forward weekend will recognize and honor those who were here before us, who dreamed of what Virginia Tech might become, and whose stories can guide us into our future.”
Organizers hope that sharing stories and honoring sacrifices not only educates the community, but also serves to play a part in shaping Virginia Tech’s next 150 years. That goal probably means more to Moseley-Hobbs than most.
A small family project that she started with her grandmother led to her learning that she was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Thomas Fraction, an enslaved man who worked at Solitude Plantation on the western part of Virginia Tech’s campus and later fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. He and his brother once returned to Solitude on furlough, but were shot at by Robert Preston, the plantation’s owner. After the war, Fraction moved his family to Salem for safety reasons and worked for the railroad.
“Finding our own story really inspired me and my overall family to really dig and find other stories to educate other descendants of the enslaved,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “The stories of our ancestors are a lot more than we’ve been taught in terms of slavery. We’ve been taught that they woke up, they were abused, they worked, and they went to sleep, and that the cycle went repeatedly for the rest of their lives, but there is so much more there.
“So, it’s really about dedicating ourselves to finding those stories and using those stories to educate other people, educate other descendants, and uplift the community with that information.”
The 1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech event features a wide range of programming. A schedule and brief description of the programs can be found here.
The March 24 itinerary features a book launch by Dan Thorp, an associate professor of history within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, whose book titled “In the True Blue’s Wake: Slavery and Freedom Among the Families of Smithfield Plantation” examines the life of enslaved people while they lived under slavery and after slavery ended. Later that day, university officials will join with members of the Native American community to recognize the land-grant history of the institution.
At that time, university officials will be unveiling the design of seven two-sided historical markers. These large-scale outdoor displays emphasize lesser-known parts of Virginia Tech history.
The Council on Virginia Tech History, a 23-member group of current and former Virginia Tech faculty and staff members, has worked diligently to support upcoming programming for the university’s sesquicentennial and provided the text and photos for the historical markers. These displays will be placed at highly visible spots throughout campus.
“I think it’ll make campus more dynamic,” said Jack Rosenberger, the campus landscape architect. “What I’m hoping is that we can have a dialog with a visitor, and I think it’s exciting that the History Council is willing to and wanting to tell stories that have not been told. I think that’s the big takeaway from this exercise.”
The March 25 docket includes the launching of the second edition of “Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872-1997, History of a School, a State, a Nation.” Peter Wallenstein, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, wrote the original version in 1997 to celebrate Virginia Tech’s 125th birthday and now has updated the book to include more stories and a deeper dive into the university’s history.
Wallenstein also plans to launch another book on Virginia Tech history later this year as part of continuing sesquicentennial celebration events.
“The revised book is anything but a reprint of the original,” Wallenstein said. “There might be a page or two where I have not re-touched anything, but if I had a page that was blank in the original, it’s not blank anymore.
“I just love creating these things. The craftsman in me loves being an explorer, excavating the past and coming up with stuff that I come to think is really important that no one ever knew, or some people knew, but no one else knew about it.”
In addition, Wallenstein will be involved in the official dedication of Hoge and Whitehurst halls that Friday afternoon. He and the history council played pivotal roles in the changing of the names of two campus residence halls after their namesakes both were found not to have exhibited behavior and speech consistent with the values of the university.
A student-led initiative led to Virginia Tech changing the name of one residence hall to Hoge Hall in honor of the Hoge family that hosted several young men who had been admitted as engineering undergraduates but who, on racial grounds, were denied housing on campus. The Hoges’ care and support of these students played an essential role in facilitating the beginnings of African American enrollment at Virginia Tech.
The council followed by pushing to have the other residence hall become Whitehurst Hall in honor of James Whitehurst Jr., the first Black student to live on campus, in 1961, and the first African American person ever to serve on Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors.
“What this does is bring to the surface two key dimensions of the racial history, Black history in particular, at Virginia Tech,” Wallenstein said. “It tells us about the past in a way that people would have no reason to know. They were doing extraordinary things, each of those people. The particulars varied, of course, but they really did put their imprint on a placed that resisted them. They held on, and they forced it to accommodate a different set of priorities. That had never been the case.
“Also, they’re emblematic of all the other stories that are fascinating … There are all these stories out there, and they’re important to everybody, even if they’re more important to some people than to other people. Each of these stories, no matter how well fully developed or what the context is, has multiple dimensions that I suspect will resonate differently with different groups of people. And after all, it’s their campus. It’s their history. It’d be great for them to know more about it.”
The evening of March 25 will feature a program called “1872 Forward: A Cultural Arts Celebration,” in which the university, the Council on Virginia Tech History, the Moss Arts Center, and the More Than a Fraction Foundation celebrate the diversity of the university’s history through poetry, storytelling, song, and dance. The cultures of Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans will be highlighted and celebrated.
The program also features a musical performance by the Virginia State Gospel Chorale, dance from Virginia Tech’s Cultural Dance Crew, and poetry written by the late Karenne Wood from Monacan Nation.
On Saturday, March 26, visitors can tour the Smithfield Plantation manor and participate in a ceremony at the nearby Merry Tree, a well-known landmark on campus. The 350-year-old white oak was claimed by a storm two years ago, but its trunk remains. It once served as the location for special celebrations, ceremonies, religious services, and more by both Native Americans and enslaved people.
The ceremony will be sacred to honor both the tree and the role its life played within the community.
“When Smithfield [the Smithfield-Preston Foundation] posted that the tree had fell, the amount of feedback on their social media posts from the community, from people that had gotten married and went over to the tree for photos, people who liked to walk their dogs over there, people who liked to just go over there and think, whatever the spirit was that the enslaved community had created had been maintained after all this time because people were still drawn to that tree and that area,” Moseley-Hobbs said. “So, we thought that the tree falling was an opportunity to honor the tree and the history, but also to educate the university community and the overall Montgomery County community.”
The More Than a Fraction Foundation — Moseley-Hobbs' foundation — secured funding from grants from Virginia Humanities and The Gladys Kreible Delmas Foundation to cover the costs of much of the programming, with additional support coming from The Council of Virginia Tech History.
The celebration concludes with a reception at Solitude, a frame house near the Duck Pond that was restored in 2011, the oldest structure on campus. The revitalized house and the nearby Fraction Family House provide a tri-racial space to recognize the African American, Native American, and European American communities and their significance in the history of the Appalachian region.
Moseley-Hobbs wants to see exactly this: everyone from all walks of life gathering to remember the past and learning from it with a eye toward to the future.
“You acknowledge your history. You don’t ignore it,” she said. “You’re correcting the neglects of the past and putting that into your culture, and when you’ve really embraced it, it doesn’t have to be a one-off [event]. Things don’t have to stop if you embed it into your culture the right way, and I think the way Virginia Tech is going about it is the right way.
“I hope everyone leaves this weekend’s event thinking one word: more. I just want everyone to want more because there is so much more that can be done and can be learned. I want people to walk away hungry, and I think that will happen because of all that’s planned.”
Written by Jimmy Robertson