Scruggs makes historical films on the Black experience in Fluvanna

By Page H. Gifford

One of the original concepts of the Fluvanna County Arts Council, when it began in the early 90s, was to promote and foster the love of film in all its forms. Musician and former choir teacher at FHS Horace Scruggs is now turning to film and documentaries about the black experience through historical reference and how it has evolved. Last year, Scruggs made a documentary on the black churches in the area, interviewing noted black leaders in the community, including Joe Creasey and Mozelle Booker.

This film deals with the broader issue of reconstruction after the Civil War.

“The focus of this documentary is how after Emancipation and the Civil War African-Americans began to reconstruct their lives after being torn apart by American slavery. So within a few short years, these newly freed enslaved Americans built churches, businesses, and schools,” said Scruggs.  The areas he identified in Fluvanna are West Bottom, Shores, Cloverdale, and Thessalonia.

 “There are many others that have been lost to time. Many of these areas are anchored by a church, in most cases independent Baptist. Some of them are just a few miles from the plantations where their founders were enslaved.” He added that some of these areas have not changed very much beyond common modernization. “The schools, mostly Rosenwald, have been abandoned or repurposed and the churches, though still active, don’t have the same attendance as before. In most cases, younger generations have moved to economic centers which is why it’s so important to tell these stories.”

Scruggs takes a hard look at how these Black communities shaped their inhabitants and the reason why they are still so close-knit today.

“Enslaved Americans came away from enslavement will very little. Their families were torn apart and the life they knew since birth was suddenly and violently changed. So, forming these communities was very important to their survival. Religious beliefs, education, and economic independence were all established in these rural spaces.”

Scruggs is working with the Fluvanna County Historical Society and other area historians. This project is sponsored by the Virginia Humanities and locally supported by the Fluvanna Arts Council.

“Three projects in Fluvanna County recently received endorsements from Virginia Humanities, the state humanities council. All three projects help tell a more complete story of the history of African Americans in Fluvanna and their contributions to the county,” said Trey Mitchell of the Virginia Humanities.

On Nov.  3, Virginia Humanities announced nearly $1 million in grants to 83 cultural nonprofits across Virginia as part of the American Rescue Plan which was passed by Congress earlier this year. This included an $11,900 grant to the Fluvanna County Historical Society for Scruggs’ documentaries of the historic Black communities in Fluvanna and the African American cemeteries found there.

“Oak Hill in West Bottom likely began as a cemetery for the enslaved at the Glen Arvon and Cleveland plantations. In Columbia—a historic community of free Black craftspeople and watermen—will focus on Free Hill,” said Mitchell. “The grant also supports work with the descendants of those enslaved at Bremo Plantation to include the stories of their families in the exhibit at the Old Stone Jail in Palmyra.”

In September, the Fluvanna County Arts Council received a $5,000 grant to produce a documentary film exploring the role that African American churches and other religious organizations in the county played in creating and sustaining local Rosenwald Schools.

“Rosenwald Schools were part of an initiative to narrow racial schooling gaps in the South by constructing better, more-accessible schools for African Americans. Between 1912 and 1932, the program helped produce 5,357 new educational facilities for African Americans across fifteen southern states including 382 schools in 79 Virginia counties,” Mitchell said.

Earlier this year, Scruggs was named as a master artist in Virginia Humanities’ Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Since 2002 more than 150 master and apprentice teams, in art forms as wide ranging as decoy carving, fiddle making, boat building,  African American gospel singing, and Mexican folk dancing, have helped ensure that the cherished cultural traditions found in Virginia are passed along to future generations. Scruggs will be apprenticing Niya Bates and his daughter Hannah Scruggs in the history and navigation techniques of the waterways of Fluvanna County. As part of the apprenticeship, they will explore their family history and that of the other African Americans whose labor built the plantations along the river and present the results in a documentary film.

“The investment in the county adds up to a little less than $20,000. But the lasting legacy for Fluvanna County is more than financial. These three projects help amplify the stories of African American history in Fluvanna to ensure the history, culture, and stories of Fluvanna are told, preserved, and passed on to future generations.

“I want this documentary to feature those who have lived in these communities, who attend these churches, learned in these schools, and who found some level of economic independence. If there are people who were educated in the Rosenwald Schools or know the stories and history of their church, I would love for them to contact me,” said Scruggs. “We are in the moment where we are losing the people who spent most of their lives in these communities. And once they are gone their stories are lost forever.”

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