Published May 3, 2016

By David Bearinger

Renewing Community in Danville Through the Humanities

With major funding from the Danville Regional Foundation, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has launched a three-year project using local history to create a stronger future for the Danville region.

For decades, the Dan River Region has struggled to cope with changes in its local economy and with the legacies of its racially divided past.   The decline of traditional industries—tobacco, textiles, furniture—that sustained the Danville area for generations has led to steady population loss, especially among the region’s young.  At the same time, deep divisions within the community have made it difficult for local residents and their leaders to create a unified vision of the future and a cohesive strategy for moving forward.

The former Dan River Fabrics building in Danville. Installation of the “Home” sign was a community event sponsored by the History United Project and the Danville Historical Society in 2016. Photo courtesy of Mark Aron and the Danville Regional Foundation.
Aerial view of the former Dan River Fabrics sign in downtown Danville. Installation of the “Home” portion of the sign was a community event sponsored by the History United project and the Danville Historical Society in 2016. Photo by Mark Aron, courtesy of the photographer.

The “History United” project was born in Danville three years ago, assisted by the Danville Regional Foundation, with the goal of transforming the region’s divisive history into an impulse for positive change.  Over the next three years, using models created in other areas of our work, VFH will serve as the institutional home for “History United,” working with local residents and community leaders to help build a new and stronger sense of identity for this region which includes the City of Danville; Pittsylvania County, Virginia; and Caswell County, North Carolina.

This will be a proactive partnership and a joint effort to expand and enhance programs and networks that support a more inclusive historical narrative of the Danville region. – Rob Vaughan, President Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Pemberton & Penn Tobacco Co. warehouse and office building, which was built in Danville, Virginia, from 1885–1890. - Image courtesy Library of Congress
Pemberton & Penn Tobacco Co. warehouse and office building, which was built in Danville, Virginia, from 1885–1890. – Image courtesy Library of Congress

The intent of the project is to use local history as a gateway to investment in the region’s future, and to help build a strong collaborative network of organizations and individuals committed to the process of change.  To do this, VFH staff will work closely with a local Steering Committee and an on-site project coordinator to establish closer ties between cultural organizations in the region; conduct in-depth research leading to an online resource providing access to information on African American historic sites; produce a series of community conversations and other programs exploring local history; develop local history-oriented programs for teachers in the region; engage younger residents in these efforts whenever possible; and work with local organizations to build institutional capacity and a sense of shared purpose.

Part of the inspiration for this work comes from the strong foundation created by the “History United” project in its first three years.  Another part comes from successful programs developed and supported by VFH in communities throughout Virginia.  These include:

  • A series of history-oriented “Content Academies” for teachers, developed in partnership with Arlington County Public Schools
  • A two-year community development initiative focusing on African American history in Martinsville and Henry County, in partnership with The Harvest Foundation
  • The Eastern Shore Museums Network, a collaborative effort facilitated by VFH involving fifteen museums and historical societies and reaching across state boundaries
  • The African American Historic Sites Database, which was launched in 2001 and is now being re-developed to include additional media and stories exploring African American life and achievement in Virginia
  • The “Mapping Local Knowledge” project focusing on the history and complex legacy of the “Bloody Monday” incident which occurred in Danville during the height of the Civil Rights Movement (supported by multiple VFH grants and fellowships)
  • A recent VFH grant to support a community discussion series on Civil Rights in Danville, sponsored by the Pittsylvania County Public Library

Our work over the past 42 years has shown, repeatedly, that divisive history can be explored and presented honestly, in a way that unifies communities.  We also know that a community’s understanding of its history has a powerful effect on the way it imagines—and re-imagines—its future.  We believe this new partnership with “History United” can have a transformative effect in the Dan River Region and also create a model that can be adapted for use in other communities, statewide.

DRF made this investment to help our region move forward.  To move forward, we must see our history as a shared asset, rather than a dividing liability.  We believe History United will fulfill its name in the Dan River Region. – Karl Stauber, President and CEO Danville Regional Foundation

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