April 7, 2021
You could make an argument that Virginia was the birthplace of early America.
The first settlement here rose up in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Virginia is also known as the “Mother of Presidents” since eight U.S. presidents were born here, the most of any state.
It’s also been called the “Mother of States” due to the swaths of land the original Virginia Territory eventually gave up to help form the states of Kentucky and West Virginia as well as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and even a small piece of Minnesota.
At least a dozen Native American tribes lived in this region for centuries before Europeans showed up.
The colonization got its start in 1584 when Sir Walter Raleigh of England explored this part of the Atlantic coastline.
Queen Elizabeth I dubbed this coastal land as “Virginia” and in 1607 granted a charter to start a colony. Jamestown was established as the first permanent English settlement in North America when 104 men and boys arrived via ship and named their new community after King James I.
A fort was quickly built to protect the pioneers against the local Powhatan tribe. However, disease and starvation set in. By early 1610, at least 80 percent of the original settlers had died.
In May 1610, a ship with new settlers and supplies arrived. In 1612, John Rolfe, one of the new settlers, introduced tobacco farming, providing Jamestown with a cash crop. That led to the importation of African slaves in 1619. That same year, 90 women arrived by ship to join the 100 women already in Jamestown help the settlers start families.
The relationship between Jamestown residents and the local tribe members was volatile over the decades despite the marriage in 1614 of Rolfe to Pocahontas, the Powhatan chief’s daughter who had reportedly saved Jamestown settler John Smith from execution in 1607, although the details of that event are disputed by some historians.
Eventually, Jamestown faded as a settlement near the end of the 1600s.
In the 1700s, Virginia played an important role in colonial America as well as in the Revolutionary War, as we shall see on our travels.
It was also front and center during the Civil War with more than half of that conflict’s battles fought in the state.
In fact, the surrenders that led to the end of the Revolutionary War (Yorktown) as well as the Civil War (Appomattox) happened in Virginia.
Virginia had the largest slave population in the country before the Civil War. In 1830, there were an estimated 450,000 slaves in Virginia. The state also transported nearly 1 million slaves to the Deep South between 1820 and 1860.
After the Civil War, Virginia had to retool its economy since it could no longer rely on slavery.
Today, Virginia is the 12th most populous state with 8.6 million people despite being only 35th in land area. The population is 61 percent white, 19 percent Black, 9 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
Its median annual household income is more than $80,000, the 10th best among states.
The economy here is diverse.
Federal agencies in northern Virginia include the Pentagon and the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Due to these large government departments, Virginia has the highest per capita defense spending of any state. It also has the second highest concentration of technology workers, behind only Massachusetts, and the fifth fastest average Internet speed, behind Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
Agriculture is the number one private industry in the state. The state has about 44,000 farms on nearly 8 million acres of land. Tomatoes, soybeans, peanuts and hay are among the top crops. Virginia is also third in leaf tobacco production.
Perhaps its most interesting product is the meat known as Virginia ham. Officially, it’s called Smithfield ham because under state law this particular ham can only be produced in the town of Smithfield, a community of slightly more than 8,000 people in southeastern Virginia. The ham is processed by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processing company as well as the largest producer of hogs in the United States.
Smithfield Foods was founded in 1936 and is headquartered in the Virginia town bearing its name. It was purchased in 2013 by Chinese investors. The company employs more than 40,000 workers in 50 facilities across the country.
The company was in the news in 2020 due to COVID-19 outbreaks at several of its meat processing plants, an issue we will discuss when we reach South Dakota.
Despite this enterprise, Virginia is not even in the top 5 of pork producing states.
After you enter Virginia from North Carolina on Interstate 85, you drive past a series of small towns.
An hour deep into the state, you motor up to Petersburg and the lessons on U.S. history begin.
Petersburg is the site of the first and oldest free Black settlement.
Free Blacks were African-Americans who were either born free or had earned their freedom. They were required to carry certification to prove they weren’t slaves. Even though they were free, they still couldn’t vote, hold office or testify against a white person in a court of law
The Black settlement, located on a place called Pocahontas Island, was first laid out in 1750. It began as a neighborhood for slaves who worked at a nearby tobacco factory. The community officially became part of Petersburg in 1784.
In the 1800s, Petersburg became an important stop on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves.
At the start of the Civil War, about 3,200 free Blacks lived in Petersburg, the largest concentration of any city in Virginia.
Petersburg was also a strategic goal of Union forces during the Civil War because of its value as a transportation hub and supply line to the Confederate capital of Richmond, just 20 miles to the north.
The Battle of Petersburg, which began in June 1864, involved 10 months of warfare. Confederate soldiers won the initial battles, but General Ulysses Grant and his forces eventually advanced on the city. Rather than invade, they dug trenches around the city to contain the army commanded by General Robert E. Lee as well as to cut off the railroad lines.
Eventually, Grant’s forces did attack and Lee recommended that the Confederate government evacuate Richmond. Lee retreated but eventually was cornered near Appomattox, where he surrendered. President Abraham Lincoln met with Grant at a home in Petersburg on April 3, 1865, just 12 days before he was assassinated.
There were as many as 20 tobacco processing facilities operating in town before 1860. In 1879, the second largest tobacco factory in the world was here.
In 1917, Petersburg’s tobacco facilities produced 2 billion cigarettes, 13 million cigars and 600,000 pounds of smoking tobacco. The industry employed 4,000 people.
The final tobacco plant in town closed in 2010.
During the past three decades, Petersburg has slowly declined, partly because of its proximity to Richmond, which makes luring new businesses a difficult task.
The median annual household income is below $40,000 and the poverty rate sits at 24 percent.
The town’s declining fortunes have led to higher unemployment and a lower tax base that has resulted in budget deficits.
There are some well-known figures who called Petersburg home.
A Rich History on Display
It only takes 20 minutes to drive up Interstate 95 from Petersburg to Richmond, but the two towns are worlds apart.
The Virginia capital is a bustling city along the James River with more than 232,000 people, the fifth most populous community in the state.
Its economy, once manufacturing based, is now driven by law, finance and government. There are a number of state and federal courts in the city as well as the State Capitol itself.
Printing, publishing and education are also contributors to the local economy.
From a historical standpoint, there are so many monuments and other sites dedicated to the nation’s past, it’s difficult to know which way to look first.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
The Powhatan tribe of Pocahontas fame lived in this region for centuries. It was first explored by Europeans in 1607 when Captain John Smith and 120 other men floated up the James River to check things out.
In 1781, British troops under the command of Benedict Arnold burned Richmond to the ground, forcing Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson to flee.
In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was approved, setting the standard for separation of church and state.
The James River and the Kanawha Canal as well as hydroelectric power from waterfalls in the nearby mountains powered Richmond as an industrial economy in the late 1700s. Iron works and flour mills were among the thriving businesses. After the railroads arrived beginning in the 1830s, Richmond became a center for transportation, industry and iron manufacturing.
Richmond was also a primary center for the slave trade. Between 1800 and 1865, more than 300,000 slaves were processed through the Shockoe Bottom auction blocks. It was also the place where the slaves who didn’t survive the journey from Africa were buried.
During the Civil War, Richmond was the Confederate capital as well as home to the South’s largest iron foundry and arms factory. The Tredegar Iron Works, which opened in 1837, produced 2,200 cannons as well as 700 tons of ironclad for ships.
The city was evacuated after the Battle of Petersburg. Fires set by fleeing Confederate soldiers burned 25 percent of the city.
Richmond rebuilt itself again as an industrial center, mainly on the strength of its tobacco industry.
The railroads became a dominant force in town. In 1901, the nation’s first and only triple railroad crossing was built. It’s still in operation and is the focus of many a photographer who try to snap photos of three trains coming through at different levels at the same time.
The tobacco industry continued to prosper during the first half of the 1900s with the city reaching its record production of 110 billion cigarettes in 1952.
A local writer recently listed some of the reasons Richmond’s reputation in food circles is growing. Among the factors are its proximity to fresh seafood, the nearby farmlands in the region, the local farmers markets and the chefs the city has lured.
One of the many favorite locales is Croaker’s Spot, an African-American “soul of seafood” restaurant in Jackson Ward, a section of the city known as “Little Africa” and the “Harlem of the South.” The restaurant is temporarily closed for repairs after a fire last month.
The restaurant’s creator, known as Mr. Croaker due to his deep voice, was born in Jackson Ward, a district just north of downtown that was first built by European immigrants and then populated by former slaves after the Civil War.
The ward was a place where Blacks who migrated from plantations as well as farmland in Virginia and North Carolina could find a new life. Mr. Croaker was inspired by the Black professionals and business owners he saw while growing up in this section of town.
Over the decades, the 40-block neighborhood has been visited by such musical legends as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday and Nat King Cole. A statue dedicated to Bojangles sits in this neighborhood at a corner where in 1933 he paid to have a traffic light installed after watching children try to cross the busy intersection.
Richmond’s deep history can be seen along many of the city’s streets.
There’s St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his “give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775 during the Second Virginia Convention. St. John’s was the first church in Richmond when it was established in 1611. The current facility and burial grounds were built in 1741.
There’s the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed in 1785 by Thomas Jefferson. The Capitol is home to the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest continuously operating legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
There’s the John Marshall House, home of the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who served from 1801 to 1835. The house built in 1790. It remained in the Marshall family until 1907 when the justice’s granddaughters sold the home to the city. The organization Preservation Virginia took over operation of the home in 1911. The historic building contains furnishings owned by the Marshall family.
There’s the Poe Museum, a complex dedicated to the writer Edgar Allan Poe. It includes the Old Stone House, which was built in the mid-1700s and is the oldest standing home in Richmond. The property also has a garden that was inspired by several of Poe’s poems. There are also displays at the museum that include the poet’s bed, walking stick and a lock of his hair.
Virginia Union University still stands. The African-American college was established in 1865 in the days immediately after the Civil War ended. The mission of the school was to provide education and skills to newly freed slaves. The 100-acre campus has an enrollment today of about 1,100 undergraduate students.
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site includes the home of this African-American community leader who fought for equal rights and opportunity during the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s. Walker ran a department store, started a newspaper and chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, which is now known as the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company.
Three of the largest historic sites in town are centered around the Civil War.
The American Civil War Museum has two separate sites in Richmond.
It is reflective of some of the changing of the guard in this city.
The museum’s roots go back to 1896 when the Confederate Museum was opened. The facility’s name was changed to the Museum of the Confederacy in 1970.
Critics said the museum was part of the “Lost Cause” movement’s attempt to present a more sympathetic view of the slave-holding South and the “real” reasons for fighting the Civil War.
That changed in 2013 when the Museum of the Confederacy merged with the American Civil War Center to form the American Civil War Museum.
The goal of the new facility was to present a more accurate view of the war as well as the issues before the conflict as well as after it.
The museum also offers educators a three-week course on techniques that can be used to instruct students on the topic of emancipation.
The other site is the White House of the Confederacy, the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The house, built in 1818, is now an historic landmark that contains memorabilia from the Confederacy.
The change in attitudes has also been seen the past few years in the Monument Avenue Historic District, a 14-block avenue that until recently included six statues of prominent Confederate leaders, including General Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis and General Stonewall Jackson.
The avenue, which was built in 1887, remains a symbol of the deep feelings some Southerners still have for the Land of Dixie.
As evidence, there was considerable debate on both sides in 1996 when a statue of African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe was placed here. The Richmond-born Ashe had died three years earlier and there were both white and Black activists who felt a memorial to Ashe wasn’t appropriate among a row of Confederate statues. In the end, the City Council voted to put Ashe’s statue along the avenue.
In recent years, there have been calls to remove the Confederate statues, an issue we first discussed while traveling through Mississippi and Alabama.
In 2018, the Monument Avenue Commission, after a year of study and hearings, recommended removing the statue of Davis because he wasn’t from Richmond, or even Virginia. They also suggested other memorials be built along the avenue as well as other places in town to address the issues surrounding the Civil War more fully.
In summer 2020, the statues of Jackson as well as Confederate army officer J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury were removed.
The taking down of the statues were done under the direction of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who has said the monuments were offensive to him as an African-American.
In October 2020, a group of residents who live along Monument Avenue said they will support efforts to remove the statue of Lee. The fate of that monument is still being debated in the courts.
This week, the Richmond City Council discussed what to do with some of the removed statues that are now stored at a wastewater treatment facility. No decision has been made yet.
The University of Richmond is also debating whether to rename two buildings on campus that currently are named after historical figures who critics say supported segregation and other racist policies.
In the midst of all this political debate, Richmond is facing a number of economic problems.
Its median annual household income is $51,000, well below Virginia’s average of $76,000. The poverty rate sits at 19 percent. About a quarter of the city’s Black residents, which make up 45 percent of the population here, live below the poverty line.
The business community did get some good news this week when it was announced that the city’s Friday Cheers outdoor concert series along the riverfront will return May 7. The concerts had been cancelled during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cradle of the Civil War
Day 19 of our virtual journey officially begins with our departure from Richmond.
Along the way, we’ll see more remnants from the Civil War as well as a tribute to the biggest battle of World War Two in a small town that bore more than its share of the burden.
There’ll also be a reminder of how serious the polio epidemic was before a vaccine was developed as well as a community with what some might call a split personality.
To get started, we take Interstate 64 west out of Richmond for an hour’s drive through central Virginia.
Our first stop is Charlottesville, a community of 47,000 people with two presidential homes, a major university and a long history of racial injustice that culminated in a deadly protest that was an ignition point for the 2020 presidential campaign.
The region was once inhabited by the Monacan tribe. The first European settlers arrived in the 1730s with the town being founded in 1762. The community was named after Charlotte Sophia, the queen consort of King George III of England. It grew as a tobacco trading center.
In the early days of our nation’s history, Charlottesville was home to two Virginia governors who went on to become president.
Thomas Jefferson lived in his estate of Monticello on land in the eastern edge of town that he inherited from his father in 1764. The 5,000-acre plantation sits on top of an 850-foot hill. It was designed by Jefferson and built in two major stages between 1769 and 1809. The site started out as a tobacco farm but switched to wheat and other grains in the 1790s. It’s estimated that over the course of his life Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves.
The home was sold along with 130 enslaved people in 1827 after Jefferson’s death to pay off some of his deep debts. The estate was purchased in 1923 from a private owner by an organization that would become the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The home was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
The site also contains a recreated Mulberry Row where the plantation’s slave quarters as well as a stable, a textile workshop and an iron storehouse were located.
Inside the main home there’s now a room dedicated to Sally Hemmings, the slave owned by Jefferson who reportedly had a long-term relationship with her owner that resulted in the birth of as many as six children. The 14-foot by 13-foot room was apparently next to Jefferson’s bedroom, but in 1941 it was remodeled into a restroom to cover up Jefferson’s relationship with his young slave. The room was reopened as an exhibit in 2018.
While Jefferson lived here, he founded the University of Virginia. The 1,600-acre campus, which opened in 1819, sits north of Monticello, closer to the current downtown area. It currently enrolls 17,000 undergraduate students. The university employs 30,000 people and is known for its medical institutions.
Three miles south of Monticello is the Highland estate, home to James Monroe. The future president purchased the home in 1793. Jefferson recommended the spot for Monroe because it was within view of Monticello. Monroe sold the 3,500-acre estate in 1826 after he left the White House to help pay off his debts.
Like Jefferson, Monroe was also a slave owner. Highland, like Monticello, contained living quarters for slaves. During his lifetime, Monroe owned as many as 250 slaves despite the fact he publicly advocated for the abolition of slavery. In an 1829 letter, he wrote that slavery was “one of the evils still remaining, incident to our Colonial system.”
Charlottesville was the site of only one battle during the Civil War. It was a skirmish at Rio Hill in which the mayor of Charlottesville surrendered to Union General George A. Custer, who would be killed a decade later at Little Big Horn in southern Montana. The city did provide swords, uniforms and artificial limbs to the Confederacy. It was also the site of a 500-bed military hospital.
After the war, Charlottesville began a century and a half of racial conflict.
The Jim Crow era was in full force in Virginia after the Reconstruction era ended. Schools and other public facilities were segregated. Voting restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests were adopted.
The Ku Klux Klan was active in Charlottesville in the early 1900s, complete with cross burnings near Black churches and homes. The white supremacist group even paraded down Main Street in 1924 as part of the ceremonies for the unveiling of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In the 1950s, segregation remained in Charlottesville. Black patrons sat in the balcony at theaters and job opportunities were limited. During those years, crosses were burned in Black neighborhoods on several occasions. In 1958, the governor ordered two white elementary schools in Charlottesville to close rather than enroll Black students in defiance of the Brown vs. Board of Education court decision.
In 1963, there were sit-in protests at segregated restaurants in town. In 1965, city officials leveled the Black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. More than 130 homes, businesses and churches were torn down in the name of redevelopment.
In August 2017, Charlottesville was the scene of a Unite the Right protest by white supremacist groups that opposed the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. The neo-Nazis clashed with progressive activists in front of the monument. The following day, as the exchanges heated up, one of the supremacists drove his car into the crowd of leftist protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed.
The incident led to the famous statement by President Donald Trump three days later that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of this confrontation.
The incident was also the catalyst for President Joe Biden to come out of political retirement and enter the presidential campaign. Biden said after the Charlottesville violence and the president’s comments he knew he had to enter the race to engage in “a battle for the soul of the nation.”
In June 2019, James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car that killed Heather Heyer, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 29 hate crime charges.
The Confederate statues remain controversial in Charlottesville. In May 2019, a judge ruled the monuments didn’t need to be removed because they were part of “war history.” In September 2020, a statue of a Confederate soldier was removed. There are plans to take down the Lee statue as well as a monument to General Stonewall Jackson, but the removals were delayed as the issue was debated in the courts.
On April 1, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the city can go ahead with the removal of the two statues.
This week, the city manager named a new deputy city manager for racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
Charlottesville is also known as the gateway to the Shenandoah National Forest, a 200,000-acre park that stretches for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park has 75 overlooks and 500 miles of trails.
Charlottesville also has the Downtown Mall, one of the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the country with 120 shops and 30 restaurants. The idea for the mall began in the 1960s from downtown business owners who were concerned shoppers were bypassing their stores in favor of shopping centers in neighboring towns. The city approved plans for the mall in 1974 and it opened in 1976, closing off five blocks of Main Street to vehicles.
The mall struggled through the 1980s until it was modified to include entertainment-related venues, including the 3,700-seat Sprint Pavilion. The mall faced another test in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced the number of customers, forcing a number of shops to close. As the community emerge from the pandemic, restaurant owners at the mall have come out in support of a bill being considered by Virginia legislators that would allow cities to establish “open container districts” where people could be in public with alcoholic beverages.
Charlottesville is also home to the members of the Dave Matthews Band. The group was formed in 1991 when Dave Matthews hooked up with other Charlottesville musicians. The band has given back to Charlottesville, donating $5 million in 2017 to help with public housing. The group likes performing in their hometown and will return on June 11 at the PNC Music Pavilion.
In addition, John Grisham, the author of “The Pelican Brief” and other legal thrillers, owns a farm 20 miles outside of town. He built six baseball fields in a cow pasture on his land where 20 teams play in an independent league, all paid for by Grisham.
Normally, if you were heading to our final destination today from Charlottesville, you’d grab Interstate 64 west out of town until you hit Interstate 81 and then head in a southwesterly direction until you reached the Tennessee border.
On this day, however, there’s an important Civil War site to see, so we take a bit of detour.
We depart from Charlottesville due south on Highway 20, which cuts through rural Virginia before reaching Highway 24. You take that road southwest until you reach Appomattox.
It was settled by European pioneers in 1815 and became a depot on the Southside Railroad line.
Appomattox wouldn’t have much historical significance except for what happened here in April 1865.
Inside a home in this small town is where the Civil War in effect ended.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee fled Richmond after the fall of Petersburg and headed this direction. He was trying to reach the Appomattox depot where supplies awaited and he hoped his Army of North Virginia could turn south to link up the Army of Tennessee in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On April 8, Lee’s forces reached the region only to find that Union soldiers were blocking their route to the depot.
On the morning of April 9, Lee’s troops tried to break through the Union line. An initial surge was successful, but Lee discovered there were another 30,000 Northern soldiers awaiting him.
Lee decided to surrender, so he sent a note to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who told Lee to pick a spot to meet. Lee’s commanders searched Appomattox and were offered the home of Wilmer McLean.
After they chatted, Lee asked about the surrender and was told his soldiers would have to give up their weapons and agree to stop fighting. Lee asked if his soldiers could keep their horses so they could take the animals back to their farms.
Grant agreed and put the surrender terms in writing. He also gave the Confederate soldiers 25,000 Union rations.
McLean sold his home in 1869. It changed hands several times before the National Park Service took it over.
Some of the items on display are flags, Lee’s copy of Grant’s surrender terms and inkwells.
A ceremony is held on April 9 with a re-enactment of the surrender.
Religion and Remembrance
We need to work our way back to Interstate 81, so we hop on Highway 460 west out of Appomattox.
Lynchburg got its start in 1757 when 17-year-old John Lynch started a ferry boat service on his father’s riverfront property along the James River. The ferries became quite popular and helped the settlement developed into a trade center. The town was founded in 1786 and named after Lynch.
During the Revolutionary War, the community housed two foundries that provided pig iron and cannon balls. During the Civil War, it was a storage depot as well as a burial ground for Confederate soldiers.
In the early 1800s, tobacco warehouses were built around town. Eventually, tanneries, blacksmiths and druggists opened businesses.
Quakers populated much of the community in the early decades, but they left in the 1820s due to their opposition to slavery.
In the late 1800s, the city shifted toward manufacturing with cotton mills, shoe factories and steel mills being established.
In the 1950s, the economy became more diverse when Babcock & Wilcox nuclear technologies and General Electric opened facilities.
Falwell was born in Lynchburg in 1933. His father and grandfather were both atheists, but Falwell said he accepted Jesus as his savior in 1952, perhaps influenced by his devout Christian mother.
After attending religious colleges, Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg in 1956. He also began broadcasting his sermons on the “Old Time Gospel Hour” on radio. Six months later, the program was broadcasting on local television. That program eventually went into national and then international syndication, attracting an audience of 50 million.
The Moral Majority was a conservative political organization that opposed abortion, gay rights and feminism. It also supported increased military spending, a strong anti-communist foreign policy and the nation of Israel. The group also backed Ronald Reagan’s two presidential campaigns and was a major political force in the 1980s.
Membership in the Moral Majority grew to 7 million.
Falwell disbanded the group in 1989, saying it had accomplished its mission. Although it functioned for only 10 years, the Moral Majority is credited with establishing the religious right as a political force, a movement that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.
Falwell remained active in the political world in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was criticized for saying AIDS was a divine punishment for homosexual behavior. He also blamed gays, feminists, abortion rights activists and others for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a statement he later retracted.
In the midst of all his political activities, Falwell retained control of his college, which changed its name to Liberty University in 1985. After Falwell’s death in Lynchburg in 2007 at the age of 73, the college presidency was inherited by Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr.
The school now has 15,000 students on its 7,000-acre campus. It also has more than 100,000 students registered for online courses.
Liberty has 15 schools with majors that include religion, law, business and education.
The college has a Christian orientation with classes taught in a “Biblical way.”
There is also an honor code known as the “Liberty Way” to which students must adhere. The code has an academic section that prohibits plagiarism, cheating and copying other students’ work.
It also has a behavior segment that prohibits students from drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, among other things. It also restricts the type of entertainment students can listen to or watch. This includes X-rated material as well as songs with lewd or anti-Christian lyrics.
The code also prohibits students from engaging in “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”
There are also prohibitions against bullying and hazing.
These restrictions apply to students living on campus as well as off campus. It also applies on weekends, holidays and seasonal breaks. The punishments range from fines to community service work to expulsion.
Some rules were changed in 2015. These alterations included a relaxation of the type of entertainment students could watch as well as some modifications in the dress code for women.
This past year, Liberty University has been in the news on numerous fronts.
In April, a class-action lawsuit was filed by four students over Liberty’s refusal to refund fees for housing, dining and other activities after the campus was shut down during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, the university asked a judge to throw out the lawsuit. The legal action is still pending.
In January, Liberty University filed a lawsuit that accused the state of unfairly denying financial assistance to its online students. Virginia’s governor has asked the courts to dismiss the legal action.
Yet another lawsuit filed in recent weeks names Liberty and other religious universities. The class-action suit by 33 former students states that these schools discriminated against LGBTQ students. Two of the students attended Liberty.
Last August, Jerry Falwell Jr. stepped down as president of the university. The resignation came after Falwell had been criticized in recent years for statements and actions some felt were racist and anti-Muslim. In addition, reports surfaced last summer about extramarital conduct that involved Falwell, his wife and a former swimming pool attendant.
In late October, Falwell sued Liberty University, saying he had been wrongly forced out of his post. He accused the university of defaming his character and breaching his contract. In December, Falwell withdrew the lawsuit.
In recent weeks, Falwell has made appearances on campus and written on social media about some of the college’s sports teams. He also said in an interview that he has reached an agreement with Liberty on severance pay. The moves have some wondering if Falwell will attempt a return to the university. Stay tuned.
The city of Lynchburg does pay tribute in a big way to the nation’s military veterans.
In 1883, a firefighter statue was erected at the central fountain to honor five firefighters who were killed.
In the early 1920s, a memorial to 43 soldiers who died in World War One was dedicated in a different part of the terrace.
Since then, monuments have been added to remember veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Vietnam War.
There are now 141 steps and nine terraces along the pathway.
A remembrance to perhaps the most famous military operation in the 20th century can be found another half-hour west on Highway 460.
It’s located in the town of Bedford, a community of 6,500 along the Blue Ridge Mountains at an elevation of 1,017 feet with a motto of “Life Liberty Happiness.” It’s a community that 77 years ago sacrificed more than most places during a crucial battle in World War Two.
Bedford was founded as the village of Liberty in 1782. It was renamed Bedford City in 1890 and finally adopted the official title of City of Bedford in 1968.
In the late 1800s, the town developed into a textile and furniture manufacturing center.
Today, its economy is still focused on agriculture and manufacturing, but city leaders are looking to bring in specialty manufacturing such as graphics, green energy and technology.
Blue Ridge artists and musicians are also settling into town.
What brings us to Bedford today, however, is the National D-Day Memorial.
The site is in Bedford because the town lost more soldiers per capita in the June 1944 D-Day invasion than any other place in the United States.
A total of 19 soldiers from Bedford were killed during the Allied campaign that retook the French coastline from German forces and turned the tide in Europe in World War Two. Four other Bedford soldiers died in other military operations in the days that followed.
The fallen servicemen were remembered in the 2009 film, “Bedford: The Town They Left Behind.”
The 50-acre memorial includes a 44-foot-high arch emblazoned with the word “Overlord,” the code name given to the D-Day invasion. The site also includes a reflecting pool surrounding a scene that captivates the deadly trudge Allied soldiers made while taking over the blood-stained beaches of Normandy, France.
The memorial is overseen by a private, non-profit educational foundation. More than 60,000 people a year come to visit in a typical year.
In addition, the former Green’s Drug Store was converted in May 2019 into a café and tribute center for the “Bedford boys.” There are photos along one wall of the Bedford soldiers who died as well as artifacts from the D-Day invasion. The store housed a Western Union office, where telegrams came in on that June day to inform families that their loved ones had been killed in action.
Following the Blue Ridge
It’s another 40 minutes from Bedford to Interstate 81.
Native tribes were lured to the region by the river and salt marshes that attracted animals they could hunt.
Europeans also discovered the marshes, also known as salt licks, when they arrived in the 1740s.
During colonial times, Roanoke was a hub of trails and roads, among them the Great Indian Warpath that ran through the Great Appalachian Valley and the Great Wagon Road of the East that stretched for 800 miles from Philadelphia to West Virginia.
In the mid-1800s, the town became a stop on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. In 1882, it was designated as the junction of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the Norfolk and Western Railroad. The community grew so quickly that it was dubbed “Magic City.”
The opening of the nearby Pocahontas Coalfield and the expansion of railroad lines to Ohio and North Carolina accelerated the growth.
The Northern Southern Railway opened a facility called Roanoke Shops that made 447 steam locomotives between 1884 and 1953. During the 1930s, the factory employed 6,000 people in the midst of the Great Depression. These employees could be seen working on four locomotives and 20 freight cars on any given day. When the railroads converted from steam to diesel in 1960, about 2,000 employees lost their jobs.
In 1917, American Viscose opened a large rayon plant in Roanoke. It made rayon yard that customers turned into cloth. By 1928, the plant occupied 212 acres. However, demand for rayon fell in the 1950s as nylon and polyester took over the market. The factory closed in 1958, leaving 5,000 people unemployed.
Roanoke still has some manufacturing and industrial jobs that are supplemented by regional retail operations and healthcare services.
The city’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains also makes it a center for outdoor recreation, in particular mountain biking.
One of the big stories this week in Roanoke is the announcement from Police Chief Sam Roman that his officers are taking a community-based approach to policing. Roman, who took on the job last year, said the strategy comes after a year of an increasing in shootings and gang violence as well as the destabilization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we head out of town we catch a glimpse of the Roanoke Star, also known as the Mill Mountain Star. The 88-foot star sits atop Mill Mountain. It was built in 1949, originally as a Christmas decoration. It was supposed to be taken down after that holiday season, but it was so popular it stayed atop its 1,847-foot elevation perch.
It’s illuminated nightly now. The star originally shone only white. In 2001, it was changed to red, white and blue after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2007, it switched back to white only from April 22 to May 24 to honor the 32 victims in the Virginia Tech campus shooting. On April 16, 2008, the star went black on the first anniversary of the shooting. The star is now white except for Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Patriot Day and Veterans Day.
The shining symbol overlooks the downtown region. You can see it as your work your way through the city on Highway 460 before hitting Interstate 81.
From there, today’s route takes you in a southwesterly direction on that freeway.
Along the way, you get a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The range stretches 550 miles and travels through eight states from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Georgia. It’s actually part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. It gets its name from the bluish tint you see when viewing the mountains from a distance.
The range covers 34,000 square miles with a high elevation of 6,684 on Mount Mitchell at the Virginia-West Virginia border. The average elevations are between 2,000 and 4,000 feet. The range’s width varies from 13 miles to 70 miles.
The Blue Ridge range contains two major national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah Mountains. It also has eight national forests.
The Blue Ridge Mountains dominate the scenery as you head south on Interstate 81.
An hour and 15 minutes after leaving Roanoke, you hit an elevation of 2,284 feet and come up on a town of 8,000 people that 70 years ago had a viral epidemic that caused a shutdown that rivaled what we experienced during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Wytheville also has a long history of racial discrimination.
The community was founded in 1790 when two landowners donated 100 acres to form a county seat. In 1792, the settlement was named Evansham and attracted pioneers due to its abundance of water and natural resources, in particular lead.
In 1848, a wagon turnpike was completed. Several therapeutic spas also sprung up.
In the mid-1800s, a 75-foot-high “shot tower” was built. The facility used lead from local mines to manufacture ammunition for the local citizens. The bullets were made by dropping molten lead from the top of the tower down an interior shaft and into a kettle of water. The site is now the Shot Tower State Park.
During the Civil War, Wytheville was of strategic importance due to its lead mines and its location along the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. It was attacked in 1863 as part of raid by Union Colonel John T. Toland and again in 1865 during an assault by Union General George Stoneman.
After the Civil War, lead mining and a bountiful cabbage crop spurred the economy.
It was also during this Reconstruction period that the mostly white community, like much of Virginia, instituted discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Those attitudes lasted well in the 1900s.
In 1926, the last of Virginia’s 90 known public lynchings occurred in Wytheville when Raymond Byrd, a 31-year-old African-American man was killed. Byrd was in jail on charges he had sex with a white woman at the farm where he worked. That woman had given birth to a biracial child. A group of more than two dozen men pulled Byrd from his jail cell, shot him and then dragged his body behind a truck for more than 9 miles. The mob then hung Byrd’s body from a tree near the farm. Byrd was a World War One veteran who was married with three daughters.
In 1950, a polio epidemic hit Wytheville. At least 180 people in town contracted the viral disease and 17 of them died. Wytheville, in fact, had the highest number of polio cases per capita in the country that summer.
Polio has been contained in much of the developed world thanks to the vaccine developed in the mid-1950s.
However, in 1950, there was no vaccine and it was not entirely known how polio was transmitted, so the residents of Wytheville were taking no chances.
During that summer, people sequestered children inside their homes, the community pool was closed and public events were cancelled. People drove around town with their car windows rolled up and masks on their faces. Signs at the edge of town warned motorists not to stop while driving through.
There was a disparity in treatment for those who contracted polio.
White patients were driven in ambulances 80 miles to a Roanoke treatment facility. Black patients had to drive 300 miles to a hospital in Richmond.
The history of the 1950 polio epidemic is told at the Thomas J. Boyd Museum, which contains exhibits on Wytheville’s history ranging from fire trucks to farm equipment to the mining industry. An iron lung used to treat polio patients is one of the artifacts there.
There is also a museum inside an old Texaco gas station in town.
The Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum displays the history of Route 21, a highway that cuts through Wytheville. The roadway used to extend from Cleveland, Ohio, to the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina. The construction of Interstate 77 uprooted much of Route 21. Its northern terminus is now in Wytheville.
The museum exhibits include memorabilia from the gas station, which was built in 1926, as well as gas pumps from that era.
A Dual Personality with a Split Downtown
We get back on the freeway and take Interstate 81 south for another 70 miles to the southwest corner of Virginia.
It’s there we find the town of Bristol, where you might do a double take If you walk along State Street downtown.
Down the middle of that commercial roadway is the state border of Virginia and Tennessee.
You may remember a Geico insurance commercial where their mascot gecko straddles the two-state boundary.
The Bristol combo is one of only four locations in the United States where cities with the same name are adjacent to each other across a state line. The other three are Texarkana at the Texas-Arkansas border, Texhoma at the Texas-Oklahoma border and the dual Union City towns at the Ohio-Indiana line.
The two Bristols are independent cities with their own city government and elected leaders as well as separate police forces and school districts. They do share some services such as the Bristol Public Library and civic organizations that promote both towns. There’s also a Bristol Chamber of Commerce that serves both communities.
The Tennessee city is 24 square miles while its Virginia counterpart is 13 square miles.
Taxes vary between the two cities, too.
The state sales tax in Tennessee is 9 cents on the dollar. In Virginia, it’s only about 5.3 cents.
There is a state income tax in Virginia but not in Tennessee.
There’s also a 5 percent utility tax in Bristol, Virginia. Its twin city across the border doesn’t have such a surcharge.
In the past, there has been quite a Bristol vs. Bristol football rivalry between Virginia High and Tennessee High. The two schools have played each other 110 times since 1911. Tennessee High has dominated with 75 wins against 30 losses. Five games have ended in ties. The two squads didn’t play in fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They aren’t scheduled to battle each other in 2021 or 2022 because Tennessee High is now in a division for larger schools.
Randall Eads, the city manager for Bristol, Virginia, told 60 Days USA there are advantages and disadvantages to having two cities of the same bump right up against each other.
“We can harness together basically two communities as one when it comes to economic development and tourism,” said Eads.
He notes the differences in taxes tend not to be a major determining factor when businesses are deciding to locate. However, it can be a selling point if someone is thinking of buying a car or home appliance.
“It makes a big difference on those big ticket items,” Eads said.
The Cherokee were among the native tribes that populated this area centuries ago.
In the 1850s, plans were made for a railroad crossing at the Virginia/Tennessee border. In 1856, Bristol, Tennessee, and Goodson, Virginia, were established. In 1890, Goodson switched its name to Bristol because that was the name of the railroad depot.
The two towns disputed the exact location of the state border until the line was drawn down State Street in 1901.
The Bristol area was the site of some of the first commercial recordings of country music. It happened in 1927 when Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded 19 artists performing 76 songs between July 25 and August 5 in a makeshift studio in a hat company building on the Tennessee side. Among the artists was country music legend Jimmie Rodgers, known as “The Father of Country Music” and the first person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1998, both towns were recognized by Congress as the place where country music was born. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in 2014 in the Virginia Bristol. The 24,000-square-foot complex showcases the role both Bristol communities played in country music history. It has a performance theater and its own radio station.
The Tennessee Bristol hosts the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion each fall. According to Jon Luttrell, the city’s director of community relations, this year’s 20th anniversary festival will feature 100 artists on 16 stages on both sides of the downtown area.
Eads said the country music designation is a source of pride in Bristol as well as in southwestern Virginia as a whole.
Bristol, Virginia, is also known for having one of the more advanced broadband networks in the nation. The city’s fiber optic plan was introduced in the late 1990s. The system was fully operational in 2003. The operation is run by the BVU Authority, which now provides electricity, water, wastewater and telecommunication services to Bristol as well as nearby Abingdon, Virginia, and two counties.
Eads said this quicker Internet service can be a marketing tool when trying to lure businesses here. He said it’s also noticeable for homeowners.
“I have the fiber optic Internet at my house and it makes a difference,” he said.
Like communities across the nation, Bristol is slowly recovering from the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eads said the city has been inching its way back to normal since the fall, but it will probably be 6 months to 9 months before they return to pre-COVID levels.
Overall, Eads said Bristol provides residents with the amenities of a city without problems such as traffic and crime. It also has a low cost of living and plenty of outdoor activities in town and nearby.
“Living here is great,” he said.
We stay on the Virginia side of Bristol to end this day.
Tomorrow will take us across into Tennessee, starting with the other Bristol.