Preservation Virginia is grateful to Carla Whitfield, Superintendent of the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County, for writing the following blog post. The Booker T. Washington National Monument was listed on Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Sites List in 2006 due to a proposed residential and commercial development that would occur on land adjacent to the park. For more information about the Booker T. Washington National Monument please see this link.
Booker T. Washington National Monument/ Preservation VA Endangered Sites List
The nationally significant Booker T. Washington National Monument (BTWNM) was established on April 2, 1956 on the occasion of the 100th birthday of the renowned educator. The Monument was administratively added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The Monument comprises 239 acres located in the Westlake vicinity (Gills Creek District) of Franklin County and is administered by the National Park Service (NPS).
The Monument contains a visitor center, administrative offices and maintenance support and storage headquartered within the former Booker T. Washington Elementary School building, (a segregated school for African American children from 1954 – 1966). Cultural resources include a 1890s tobacco barn, marked archeological sites and historic features, cemeteries, the Plantation Trail which allows visitor access to the park’s Historic Area, and the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail which loops through old field meadows and forests and introduces visitors to the rich diversity of natural resources located within the park. Twentieth-century replicas include the kitchen cabin, smoke house, horse barn, corn crib, blacksmith shop, hog pen, split rail fences, duck lot, and chicken house. While most farmscape structures are conjectural, the kitchen cabin location is accurately based on a 1959 archeology study.
The plantation house, known as the “big house” during Washington’s tenure on the farm, burned in 1950. Its location is currently identified by an outline of stones that illustrate the dimension and size of the house. A second slave cabin structure believed to be the location of Washington’s birth, once existed to the east and behind the plantation house and is marked with a similar outline of stones. Both former structures have been located and identified through a 1999 Archeology Assessment. Heritage breed farm animals are kept at the park. Heirloom vegetables, dark-fired tobacco, corn, flax, and other 19th-century era demonstration crops are cultivated and harvested for interpretive setting and visitor education.
MissionBooker T. Washington National Monument preserves and protects the birth, childhood home, and emancipation site of Booker T. Washington while interpreting his life experiences and significance in American history as the most influential African American between 1895 and 1915. The park provides a resource for public education and a focal point for continuing discussions about the legacy of Booker T. Washington, slavery, and the evolving context of race in American society.
ManagementBooker T. Washington National Monument is managed as an engaging educational center where Washington’s life and work and the complexity of American civil rights and race relations from the antebellum period to the present can be examined. This concept expands the mission of the site beyond its original legislative purpose as a memorial to Mr. Washington, noted “educator and apostle of good will.” The goal is to create a dynamic, challenging environment in which visitors contribute their views on the issues presented through on-site interpretation of life on a small, slave-holding Virginia tobacco plantation. Living history presentations of life during Washington’s developmental years as an enslaved child, supplemented by ranger programs, special events, an orientation film, and interactive exhibits, provide visitors with a sensory immersion experience that lends understanding of the meaning and significance of Washington’s life and the Monument.
Resources are managed in a way to visually tell a compelling story. Existing historic and reconstructed structures, including buildings and fences, remain in situ to be preserved through regular maintenance. Some reconstruction of cultural landscape features may be undertaken from time to time if sufficient documentation is found. Natural resources have been baseline inventoried and are continuously monitored by park staff with assistance from the NPS Mid - Atlantic Inventory & Monitoring Program. The park is supported by a large and enthusiastic Volunteers-In-Parks Program and advocated for by the Friends of Booker T. Washington National Monument.
Benefits of National Monument Designation
• Raises profile of the site and brings new visitors. Hotels, restaurants, tour guide agencies and local businesses all reap the economic advantages of national monument designation.
• Provides a unique opportunity to stimulate rural economies. According to the NPS, every dollar invested in national parks generates $10 in return to local communities.
• National monuments protect America’s most treasured lands, helping to guarantee they remain intact and unadulterated, while ensuring a lasting legacy for future generations.
• In order to achieve its mission, the BTWNM must ensure that stream flows, both quantity and quality, are sustained in healthy condition. Therefore, the success of the Monument is dependent on all actions within the watershed that affect flows in Gills Creek and Jack-O-Lantern Branch streams.
• Visitors to BTWNM bring with them the expectation of an experience that portrays the mid-nineteenth century environment into which Mr. Washington was born and spent his early childhood years in slavery. An integral component of that experience is the visual experience. In order to deliver the opportunity for such visitor experience, it is important that uses outside the Monument but visible from within the historical core be designed with sensitivity to the Monument mission. The viewshed from within the park must be considered to protect the historical integrity of the site and quality of the visitor experience.
Planning and Development ContextFor most of the Monument’s existence, the land surrounding the park has remained rural and in agricultural use with very little development. The park was able to purchase an adjoining 15 acres along VA Route 122 road frontage and along the park’s east border in 2003 to serve as a buffer for town center development that was beginning approximately 1/8 mile from the park border.
During the summer of 2005, Franklin County rezoned the land immediately east of the monument from Agriculture to Planned Commercial Development. A 57 acre parcel abutting the east boundary of the monument is proposed for high density development. Although the downturn in the economy has slowed development, a sewage pumping station has been installed along with line that runs the entire length of the park’s eastern boundary to a developed leach field just north of park property for future development needs. A new beer brewery is also near completion on the adjacent property and electric transmission infrastructure has been installed. Development of the entire parcel will schedule as the economy and development stabilizes in the Westlake town center area.
The original development of Westlake that started in early 2000 has expanded to include many independent-living community homes, a medical center, and an emergency response helipad which maintains an emergency evacuation helicopter that flies response flights over the perimeter of the park several times a day.
At the northwest corner of the park boundary, in 2010, a two acre parcel was clear cut of trees and since has been established as a two-trailer rental property. The park currently shares an entrance to its headquarters with residents who rent the trailers and the property owner who maintains the property. The trailers have impacted the viewshed from within the park and the formality of the park’s main entrance. The trailers are in clear view of visitors as they approach and enter the park main entrance from either direction on VA Route 122.
A large tract of farmland along the park’s south border that has been in agricultural and forest use for generations was surveyed in 2012 and the current landowner is in negotiation with developers. The outcome of the future use of the property is unknown by the park at this time but changes to its current land use could dramatically impact viewshed and visitor experience since the park’s scenic Jack-O-Lantern Branch Trail is located along the length of the same boundary. The Jack-O-Lantern Branch stream is the dividing boundary between the park and property and any future development that would take place if the land is sold and developed would impact the ecosystem health of the stream and its aesthetic contribution to the visitor experience.
Booker T. Washington National Monument is working with community members, its Friends Group, and County planners to create awareness and hopefully mitigate impacts to park resources as a result of changes in surrounding land use. This cooperation will encourage developers and land users within the viewshed of the BTWNM to consider, at the design stage, how their potential development and uses might affect the Monument mission.
Purchase of adjoining land by the National Park Service or implementing landowner conservation easements to preserve the surrounding agricultural setting is still a park-preferred alternative.