By Claire Hamlet 

Abby Brooks remembers leaving her African American studies class and needing a moment to process research she and her classmates had collected about enslaved people who once lived in Rockbridge County.  

“It was very emotionally heavy,” she said. “Whenever I walked to my next class, I’d kind of had to take a minute just to think about what I learned and how it still impacts me today, living in an area like Rockbridge.” 

The students had learned about the lynching of Jesse Edwards, a Black man who had been accused of raping and murdering a young white woman in the county in 1869 during Reconstruction.  

A group of four masked men had entered the Lexington jail where he was being held. They came in the middle of the night and forced Edwards to go with them. They took him to the northern part of the county, about six miles away from Lexington, where they shot and lynched him. 

The students learned that some evidence suggests that Edwards may have been targeted because he was urging African Americans to vote.  

Brooks was one of 17 students who took teacher Valerie Clay’s Introduction to African American Studies class at Rockbridge County High School last year.   

The students’ work is now part of an exhibit, “Interwoven: Unearthed Stories of Slavery,” on display at the Brownsburg Museum. The exhibit relies on living descendants to interpret the lives of Brownsburg’s enslaved people. 

“Interwoven: Unearthed Stories of Slavery” is the name of the exhibit.

“I don’t just stand on their shoulders. I stand on their strength,” a descendant is quoted in the exhibit as saying. 

The exhibit opened on March 23 and will remain on display for three years.  

Fifth-grade teacher Coleen Cosgriff’s students at Central Elementary School proposed basic questions that the older students used to start their research, Clay said.  

Dee Papit, the exhibit’s designer, coordinated the contributions from the area students and work done by 10 graduate students at the University of Virginia.  

Papit said she reached out to Stanley Land, a former UVA football player, because he is a descendant of enslaved people who she wanted to focus on in the exhibit.  

The exhibit follows the life of Scylla Jane and William Haliburton, an emancipated couple from Brownsburg. Scylla Jane was freed from slavery when her owner, Hugh Adams, died in 1857 and directed in his will that she should be emancipated. He also left her $1,325.74. 

She then spent $1,500 to buy freedom for William Haliburton, according to the exhibit. That’s equivalent to about $55,000 today. 

In 1860, the couple left Brownsburg for Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society project. The society was founded in 1816 to encourage free and emancipated Black people to leave America and move to Africa.  

Clay’s high school students used census data, court records, newspaper archives, and county birth, death and marriage documents in their research.  

Brooks, now a first-year student at Randolph College in Lynchburg, said she and her classmates set out to answer the fifth graders’ questions. The high school students toured former slave quarters that were uncovered and preserved in Brownsburg.  

“We helped find detailed answers,” she said.  

Brooks said she and her classmates focused on people who history had forgotten. 

“We were able to find property records from the business owners of Brownsburg about enslaved people that Brownsburg didn’t have on file,” she said.  

Saara Basuchoudhary, now a first-year student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said the experience gave her a better understanding of American history. 

“My general education had left out quite a bit of American history, some of the darker parts of American history, and also the joyful parts of Black history and indigenous history,” she said.  

Clay said her students were shocked by the volume of publicly available information. 

“I think the thing that us historians try to remember is that the stories are there. They have always been there. The question is: Has anybody been looking for them?” Clay said. 

The UVA graduate students also collaborated with the museum to organize the exhibit and the high school students’ research. 

The exhibit’s crown jewel is an April 1, 1866, letter William Haliburton wrote to his father, asking for clothing or cloth to make pants, and needles and pins, because life in Liberia had proven difficult.  

“I am as hearty as ever I was,” he wrote, “but Priscilla is sickly and is dissatisfied with the place and have been wanting to come back to America ever since she has been here.” 

No one knows if the letters were received by the family in America. It’s also unclear what happened to Scylla Jane and William Haliburton. 

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