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1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech

1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech was a 3-day celebration that brought to life how the past shapes the present and leads the university into the future. 

Over the course of the weekend, the Council on Virginia Tech History, in conjunction with the More Than a Fraction Foundation (affiliated with the African American descendants of Solitude and Smithfield), provided several days of programming to recognize 150 years of Virginia Tech’s history. The event centered around the Native Americans who call the land home, descendants of the African peoples who were once enslaved on the land, descendants of the European Americans who once owned the land, as well as Virginia Tech which calls the area home today.

Throughout the weekend's programming the Council was able to facilitate an opportunity for free and open dialogue about race, history, equality, and about ourselves as an institution and community with a continually growing knowledge of what it means to be a land-grant university and the historical context that comes with it. Participants shared in stories and histories about experiences that may have not been widely known, may have been hidden, denied, or misunderstood, as well as the more commonly heard tales of the university’s growth since 1872.

The event opened up a deepening conversation within the university community and beyond:

  • Chief Kenneth Branham of Monacan Nation and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands engaged in conversation about the financial burden of tribal members in relation to higher education. The university created a new Virginia Tech Tribal Match Scholarship in response. 
  • A documentary was made during the weekend and it has been accepted and shown at several film festivals, including the Newark International Film Festival and the Richmond International Film Festival.
  • The work of the Council in conjunction with the More Than a Fraction Foundation has also opened doors with other universities who have similar histories, and the organizations are in the planning stages of how to guide and collaborate with those universities as they look for ways to recognize and honor their marginalized histories as well.
  • And many other continuing conversations and works are taking place within the university, the community, and the descedant families.


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Noon  Book Launch: In the True Blue's Wake: Slavery and Freedom Among the Families of Smithfield Plantation - Professor Dan Thorp  Owens Ballroom
Book cover for  Dan Thorp's book titled In the True Blue's Wake

Between 1774 and 1865, more than 200 men, women, and children were enslaved at Smithfield, the Preston family plantation in southwestern Virginia. Dr. Dan Thorp spoke about his book which tells the stories of those enslaved individuals: who they were, how they lived under slavery, and what they and their descendants did after slavery ended. 

Conversation moderated by: Laura Belmonte -  Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. 

Lunch provided. 

4 p.m.  Honoring the Native American Land: Marker Unveiling  Owens Ballroom

Virginia Tech joined with the Town of Blacksburg and members of Native American communities to recognize the land-grant history of the university. New historical markers that share the history of the founding of the university were unveiled. Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham, and Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith honored and recognized the contested land, the peoples who have lived here, and the peoples who live here now.

Conversation moderated by: Emily Satterwhite, Associate Professor in Religion and Culture, and Director of Appalachian Studies program.  Liza Morris, Assistant Vice President for Planning and University Architect, will join Dr. Satterwhite to recount the Historic Markers project.

Noon  BOOK LAUNCH: Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872–1997: History of a School, a State, a Nation, 2nd Edition -  Professor Peter Wallenstein Owens Ballroom
Image of a group of people forming the number one hundred twenty five on the drill field at Virginia Tech.

This second edition of a book that originally appeared in 1997 has been upgraded throughout, with substantial new text and various new images. A chapter-length new preface highlights some central themes and a variety of the changes since the first edition.

Peter Potter, Director of Publishing Services in the University Libraries will join with Professor Peter Wallenstein in presenting the book.

Conversation moderated by: Sylvester Johnson – Professor in CLAHS and Director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities

Lunch provided.

3 p.m.  Official Dedication of Hoge Hall and Whitehurst Hall  Owens Ballroom

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands formally dedicated  Hoge Hall and Whitehurst Hall* which were renamed in 2020 in recognition of prominent members of the African American community during the 1950–60s. In addition, he honored members of the local and campus communities who have played such important roles in the university's progress from its originis to the present day. 

*Janie and William Hoge welcomed the eight pioneering Black male students at VPI into their home. James Leslie Whitehurst, Jr. became the first Black student allowed to live and eat on campus and the first African American on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.  

Conversation moderated by Michael Herndon, Director of University Summer and Winter Sessions, with Peter Wallenstein, Professor of History and author of Virginia Tech, Land-Grant University, 1872–1997: History of a School, a State, a Nation.

8 p.m.  1872 Forward: A Cultural Arts Celebration Moss Arts Center

Virginia Tech, the Council on Virginia Tech History, Moss Arts Center, and the More Than a Fraction Foundation celebrated the diversity of the university’s history through poetry, storytelling, song, and dance. The evening highlighted and celebrated the cultures and traditions of Native Americans, African Americans, and European Americans. 

The evening included Dr. Menah Pratt with an original Virginia Tech Sesquicentennial poetry reading. Bintou Kouyate and Amadou Kouyate provided an introduction to the people who were enslaved here and to the historical culture of the Oyo, Igbo, and modern day Nigeria.  Musical performance by the Virginia State Gospel Chorale, dance from Virginia Tech’s Wahala, and poetry written by the late Dr. Karenne Wood from Monacan Nation were presented. 

9 a.m.  Tour of Historic Smithfield Smithfield

Smithfield* is part of the story of American history, sitting at the intersection of colonial America, westward expansion, African slavery, and conflicts between Indigenous peoples and European settlers. A tour of the historic building and land provided an opportunity to gain perspective from the past, insight into the present, and inspiration for the future. 

* The Smithfield-Preston Foundation acknowledges and laments the role slavery played in William Preston's Smithfield and the ongoing racial injustice that stemmed from that institution across the United States. Enslaved African Americans and their achievements in the face of slavery’s oppression belong at the center of the Smithfield story. We pledge to redouble our efforts to tell these stories as we strive to foster a more honest reckoning with our racial history. The Foundation, along with all those associated with Smithfield, decries all forms of racism and intolerance, and fully supports the rights of all humans regardless of race, skin color, creed, gender, orientation, or ability. 

11 a.m.  Sacred Ceremony at the Merry Tree Merry Tree - Smithfield

The Merry Tree, a well-known landmark in Blacksburg, has a long history. Many moments, celebrations, and ceremonies have been held under the branches of this oak as the Indigenous people hunted and gathered here before the Europeans displaced them in order to settle, eventually the enslaved people of Smithfield would gather to celebrate, mourn, hold religious services, and more. The Merry Tree was an especially significant part of the culture and tradition during that time for the enslaved Africans. Though the tree was recently destroyed in a storm, a sacred ceremony and celebration will honor its role in the life of the community.  

2 p.m.  Contested Spaces: A Tri-Racial Conversation Hahn Hall North - 130

This afternoon of programming centered around the complex history of the space that Virginia Tech occupies. From the Native Americans who first called this place home, was a presentation about the history and traditions of the Monacan Nation. Through the descendants of the Preston family, who once lived at Smithfield and Solitude, the audience heard about the European history of the area. Fraction family members explored their ancestral story including arrival, enslavement, and exile.  Residents from nearby Wake Forest presented a history of how their ancestors established a freed African American community following the Civil War. 

4 p.m.  1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech Reception Hahn Hall Atrium


The Council on Virginia Tech History hosted a culminating reception in celebration of the weekend. The revitalized Solitude House and Fraction Family House provide a tri-racial space that recognizes the African American, Native American, and European American communities and their significance in the history of the Appalachian region, giving everyone a place to gather. This reception allowed for continue dialogue following the afternoon presenations. 

3 p.m.  A Conversation with Ms. Opal Lee: The Grandmother of Juneteenth Burruss Hall 
Image of Ms. Opal Lee

Ms. Opal Lee, often described as the "grandmother of Juneteenth," is an American retired teacher, counselor, and activist in the movement to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Senate Bill S. 475, making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday and in 2022 she was nominated to receive the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. 

** This event is free and open to the public. **

This program is sponsored by Elizabeth A. "Betsy" Flanagan Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Endowed Lecture Fund, Virginia Tech Student Affairs, I WILL Council, and VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact April Goode at 540-231-3703 or email during regular business hours at least 2 business days prior to the event.

This program has been funded in part by grants from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation as well as Virginia Humanities.