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The history of the Black Lucyville community lives through new historical milestones

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More than 100 people gathered Thursday morning to attend the unveiling of a state historic monument for Lucyville, a community founded by a freed slave in the late 19th century.

Rev. Reuben T. Coleman was born into slavery and freed in 1860. Lucyville is named after his daughter. Coleman owned a bank in the community, which also owned a post office, a mineral springs resort and a newspaper in the 1890s.

In addition to being postmaster of Lucyville, Coleman was also “president” of the Cumberland County Republican Party during Reconstruction. He was appointed a notary public by former Governor James Hoge Tyler and also served as a justice of the peace.

Lucyville was once located in Cumberland County, about 1.5 miles from its marker, adjacent to Bear Creek Lake State Park and Cumberland State Forest.

Coleman was founding pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church, where a speech was given Thursday before the unveiling of the plaque about 3 miles away.

Coleman's descendants were in attendance, along with family members of Shed Dungee. In the late 19th century, Dungee represented Buckingham and Cumberland counties in the state House of Representatives for two terms.

Virginia began installing highway markers in 1827, the first in the country to do so, Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told the crowd.

Only three of 700 markers made before 1930 focused on Black history. According to Langan, the number increased to nine by 1941.

The Lucyville historic road marker along Trents Mill Road in Cumberland County. Photo by Alyssa Hutton.

The marking program originally highlighted places and themes surrounding presidents, military battles and buildings with architectural value, she said.

There are now more than 2,600 historical markers throughout Virginia, 451 of which highlight Black history. The number is still low at 17%, although state officials have made pushes in recent years.

“As the marker program approaches its 100th anniversary, this undeniable imbalance exists and we are actively working to correct it,” Langan said.

Marilyn White is Dungee's great-granddaughter and Coleman's great-grandniece. She wrote her dissertation on the Lucyville community and interviewed much of her extended family.

“He was larger than life in a lot of ways,” White said of Coleman. “Often black laws and social norms were ignored or circumvented in the late 18th and early 20th centuries, particularly in a rural southern state.”

Dungee was also born into slavery in 1831 in Cumberland County. After the Civil War, he married Mary Coleman, the reverend's sister.

Dungee, a Republican, was elected to his first term in 1879. In the General Assembly he advocated for public education. The Democrats, who controlled the House of Representatives, closed schools to pay off the national debt. Dungee joined the Readjusters Party, which advocated for maintaining school funding.

The Story of Lucyville

Cumberland Middle School students worked to get the Lucyville historical marker approved. Read more about their research in these four student stories:

Part 1 deals with the creation of the community and athlete Theodore T. Coleman.

Part 2 details the lives of Shed Dungee's family, whose descendants included the first African American elected to the South Carolina state legislature in the 20th century and later the first African-American justice on that state's Supreme Court.

Part 3 answers the question of how a Confederate veteran was buried on the land of a formerly enslaved man.

Part 4 delves into the history of the Dungee and Coleman families in more detail.

“The Readjusters lost, and Virginia neglected — and even intentionally underfunded — the education of black Virginians for generations,” said Edward Ayers, president emeritus and historian of the University of Richmond.

According to Ayers, in 1900 two-thirds of African American educators in Virginia were women.

“To understand America, it is necessary to tell the story of America, Virginia, Cumberland County and Lucyville,” Ayers said. “The key is local history.”

Dungee's daughter Nannie Dungee Finney and his son-in-law Robert Finney were both educators in the Cumberland area.

Great-great-granddaughter Nikky Finney is an award-winning poet and professor at the University of South Carolina. She recited a poem about her family's history in church.

Among other things, Finney said of her relatives: “They knew that one day we would read books. They knew that one day we would pull them down and drink them, just like the water from the spiral mineral springs.”

Lewis Longenecker teaches civics at Cumberland Middle School. Lucyville is the fourth historical marker his students have helped create, and a fifth was recently approved.

Students researched and created a video about the legacy of Coleman and Dungee and the history of Lucyville. The 6-minute video was presented in the church.

His students used historical documents and created overlay maps to meet the state DHR's historical marker application requirements.

“Whether it’s research, whether it’s just figuring out information, having map knowledge, this is where real-world skills come into play,” Longenecker said.

The National Education Association Foundation funded the Lucyville marker through a grant.

Parishioners, Longenecker's students and Lucyville descendants marched to unveil the marker about 3 miles from the church.

The Cumberland Jazz Ensemble played music as the audience arrived. CMS students and a Lucyville descendant gave the first reading of the historical marker.

Coleman was an outspoken critic of the Jim Crow laws introduced after Reconstruction. Many of Lucyville's residents left during the Great Migration, but their history is now marked along Trents Mill Road.