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Students To Dig Into Past

Posted on September 23rd, 2005

professor Mark Sawin talks to his class
American history professor Mark Sawin talks to his class after an exercise Tuesday at the Royals’ Den snack shop on the upper level of EMU’s University Commons. The students were practicing observational techniques that they will use to gather information regarding black history in Harrisonburg and the surrounding area.
Photo by Michael Reilly

By Melvin Mason, Daily New-Record

Students in a history class at Eastern Mennonite University this semester will unearth some of the area’s past.

Mark Meltzer Sawin, an American history teacher at the university, will guide students in his "methods of history" course to learn and record information about black people who live in Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley.

The students, he says, likely will find themselves sifting through papers and talking with families to uncover more about black history.

Overwhelming Quest Awaits

The students will have different areas of focus, Sawin said. It will involve looking for documents and artifacts about neighborhoods and talking with descendants of black communities.

One group will research Zenda, a community north of Harrisonburg where former slaves settled after the Civil War. Sawin says students will try to talk to descendants of former Zenda residents to find out more about the life and times of that community.

The class traveled to Long’s Chapel Brethren Church, an old wooden church building considered the center of the Zenda community. Al Jenkins, who lives in South Carolina, bought Long’s Chapel last year and plans to restore the building and turn it into a historical center for black history.

Sawin says his students will also look into an urban development project in the 1960s that removed several black-owned homes. Students also will examine the life of Lucy Simms, a former slave born in 1855 who taught in Harrisonburg and the surrounding area from 1877 to 1934.

Sawin expects his students may find out more about blacks in Harrisonburg and the Valley, so the topics will not be limited.

The teacher sees a lot more interest in local history and hopes the project will spur others into uncovering more about black life in the Valley.

"We don’t want the information to sit in an office," he said.

Students Looking For Answers

For Sawin, the project to find information about the people living in Zenda and elsewhere is "overwhelming to all of us."

"The students are excited," said Sawin, a teacher at EMU for five years. "It’s taking what they’ve learned abstractly in the books, and it makes it real. It’s making history more complex."

Jonathan Alley, 20, a junior in Sawin’s class, looks forward to gathering more information so it can be used for study of black history. He already has gathered information from the gravestones in the Long’s Chapel cemetery, he says.

Alley says he has plenty of questions, including what the freed blacks did after emancipation and how many Zenda residents were slaves.

The project "drew me in right away," said Alley, who lives outside of Harrisonburg. "There’s mystery behind it, the thought that these people were all here and played an important role" in shaping the Valley.

Melanie Pritchard, a 20-year-old junior studying communications, wants to know more about why Zenda was all but evacuated in the 1920s.

"From what I understand, it’s going to be a lot of research," Pritchard said. "I like it and love getting into local history. I can’t wait to find out what’s happened here and finding out about local history."

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