New Exhibit Now Open

By Evelyn Riley, Graduate Student Assistant, and Natalie Hoak, Student Intern

Our newest Special Collections exhibit is now on display and open to the public! Please stop by for our Gallery Talk on Friday, April 18 at 3 pm.  This will be outside the Special Collections Reading Room, Carrier 205.  Hope to see you there!poster jpg

The exhibit, “A Chance to Live”: African-American Experiences in Rockingham County, Virginia from Slavery to the 21st Century, highlights the multifaceted transformation that occurred over the past 200 years by approaching African-American history with a local lens. Significantly, the exhibit demonstrates how our society as a whole has benefited from these changes. While not ignoring the hardships that took place, “A Chance to Live” shows the struggles, as well as the individuals who overcame them. Examining the city of Harrisonburg, its surrounding county of Rockingham, as well as the community of James Madison University, the exhibit recognizes those who worked hard to further the goals of equality.staf04 JPG   Let There Be Music, ca. 1980s.  JMU Historic Photographs

The title, “A Chance to Live,” was inspired by the poem of an unknown African American slave, in which they lamented: “If I was white, as some folks are, I’d have a chance to live: But I is black, all over black.” Housed in our collections, this poem provided invaluable insight into the mentality of local slave. The exhibit celebrates how this “chance to live” is fulfilled through the hard work of individuals, businesses, organizations, and communities, which ensure that Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley are filled with equal opportunities to have fuller and happier lives.

SlavePoem JPG



This item is a 19th century poem about slavery, written by an unknown author, presumably a slave.  The writer recounts the life of a slave in Tenth Legion (an area in northern Rockingham County) which is described as “a braggy place, where none’s to be a king.”  Included in the poem are the evocative stanzas that demonstrate the hardships seen by slaves in the Rockingham County area. 


(Left) Slave Poem, ca. 1800s.  Henkel Family Papers, SC 2065






The exhibit highlights African Americans in local business, the evolution of black public education, the black experience here at James Madison University, and the daily lives of American Americans in our communities over the years. Illuminating examples of area African American experiences demonstrate that regardless of obstacles, African Americans created a strong and enduring presence that is entwined into the very fabric of our society.WMRA04 JPGTunes and Tones, ca. 1970s.  JMU Historic Photographs, WMRA #04    Two students working on the school radio station, WMRA. WMRA is the National Public Radio station for the Shenandoah Valley and northwestern Virginia. Owned and operated by JMU, WMRA headquarters was located in the basement of Burruss Hall in the late 1970s.

In particular, this exhibit also displays the journeys that African American students have experienced while attending James Madison University. The college’s evolution through African American integration–not only academic, but social as well through sports, clubs, music, etc.–is highlighted. Visitors will get to explore historic photographs, letters, diaries, memorabilia, and much more. Stop by Special Collections and discover our newest exhibit before it’s gone!

IMG_1698edit2 copy Martin Luther King, Jr. Way Road Sigh, 2014.  This sign replaced and renamed the road that was once Cantrell Avenue in downtown Harrisonburg. Passing on August 13, 2013, the City Council voted to rename the street. The renaming of the street, an action pushed forward with much local support and urging from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Way Coalition, saw a unity march up the newly christened road on its first day of opening.


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