Lecture #9 – Revisiting Virginia’s Frontier Icon: Black Lives at Natural Bridge

Revisiting Virginia’s Frontier Icon: Black Lives at Natural Bridge, from Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, to The Green Book

Guest Speaker:
Eric Wilson
Executive Director, Rockbridge Historical Society; Director for History Museums, Virginia Association of Museums

* Content Update: “Ted DeLaney, Jr. died in December 2020

If you have questions or comments, please contact our guest speaker, Eric Wilson at: Director@RockbridgeHistory.org 


Frontiers are, ever and multiply, places, experiences, metaphors: mixing spaces and refracting lenses in the shifts of time. Square in the Valley corridor, and internationally iconic figure for the American sublime, Natural Bridge became a familiar subject for painting and poetic narrative, even in the colonial era and Early Republic. But symbolism aside, it also operated as a regional community, and center for cultivation, commerce, and social networks.

Beyond the oft-summoned fantasias of Thomas Jefferson or Frederic Edwin Church, the work of black Virginians framed the experience for other travelers here. In time, that work also opened new corridors and occasions for African-American tourism in decades to come, as their own frontiers of American experience began to expand, and to evolve over time: through enslavement and emancipation, within the new mixing grounds of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era.

Wilson’s presentation (drawing on collaborations with Natural Bridge State Park, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for their 2021 Exhibit on ‘Natural Bridge and American Art’) will first look at the resources and attractions around the Bridge through the life of Patrick Henry. This Henry was not the fabled Virginia orator, but the trusted free black caretaker Jefferson hired to manage his properties there. In 1817, he guided Jefferson’s granddaughter through the Bridge’s breathtaking vistas, and hazards; her letter credits his service, a colorfully angled lens that freshly contrasts some of the more caricatured renderings of African-American and Native American figures dotting the pre- and post-Civil War paintings and prints of other of genteel men and women visiting this accessible edge of a still-resonant American wild.

During the ‘black and white’ boundaries of Jim Crow, a growing number of ‘colored’ civic organizations and churches – local, statewide, national — would also turn to this ‘green ground,’ signaling their own social claims to as they bridged into the American experience. Here, too, emerged routes for new racial configurations, mapped through tourist guides like ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ (with listings at the Bridge, itself).

In short, as the shifting racial frontiers of Virginia and America evolve and advance, both labor and leisure are important in illuminating the pioneers whose work cultivates these liminal spaces, and stakes new rights to claim them.


Eric Wilson has been Executive Director of the Rockbridge Historical Society since 2012, and he serves as the state’s Director for History with the Virginia Association of Museums. Growing up in Charlottesville, he earned his graduate and undergraduate degrees in English and American Literature at Harvard University and Brown University, respectively, and was awarded research fellowships for advanced study at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and at Emmanuel College, (University of Cambridge, UK).

After teaching appointments at Harvard and Boston College, Eric moved to Lexington to teach in the English Department at Washington and Lee University, with courses in Shakespeare, Renaissance Literature, Women’s Studies. As a member of the History and English faculties at Norfolk Academy, he designed interdisciplinary courses ranging from African American Studies and Urban Studies, to Modern European History and Irish Literature. Since returning to Rockbridge County, he’s also taught English classes and directed interactive learning projects in the city and county’s elementary, middle and high schools.

He is a founding Board Member of the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum (Portsmouth, Virginia) and the Miller’s House Museum of transportation and industry (Lexington, Virginia).

This year’s lecture series is brought to you by a generous grant from Virginia Humanities.

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