Stories Project Illuminates University’s Past

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Solitude on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus. Chelsey Allder for Virginia Tech

This summer, a pair of Hokies traveled to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to connect with a family who has deep, yet newly discovered, ties to Virginia Tech.

Assistant history professor Jessica Taylor and Virginia Tech senior Shawn de Lopez made the roughly 300-mile trek from Blacksburg to visit with and interview members of the Fraction family on behalf of VT Stories. Fraction family members are descendants of one of the families who, while enslaved on the Preston family plantation in the 19th century, cultivated the area on which Virginia Tech now resides. The connection between past and present was first learned about three years ago when Kerri Moseley-Hobbs reached out to the university while researching her 4x-great grandfather, Thomas Fraction.

Early this year, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors memorialized the tiny three-room outbuilding near the Solitude plantation house with a unanimous motion to name it the Fraction Family House at Solitude. The house is meant to acknowledge the three enslaved families that historical records indicate at one time resided there: the McNortons, Saunders, and Fractions.

Working alongside College of William and Mary researcher Mark Guerci, Taylor and de Lopez documented many untold stories from a community connected to Virginia Tech but for decades overlooked. Their work is a prime example of how individuals and groups can assist the Council on Virginia Tech History on their quest to dig into the university’s full histories.

“Calling for a deep inquiry into the histories of our institution, the council seeks to give voice to the untold stories of those within our community and to relate complicated histories in their full contexts,” said Bob Leonard, council chair.

It’s a mission that Virginia Tech President Tim Sands charged the council with in 2017, and the council’s findings will continue to illuminate the Beyond Boundaries vision for the future, particularly leading up to the university’s sesquicentennial in 2022.

Launched in 2016 and led by English professor Katrina Powell, VT Stories is an oral history project that often unearths such histories.

“VT Stories is an interdisciplinary and cross-campus oral history project that collects and examines stories, memories, tall tales, tragedies, and triumphs of all members of the Hokie community,” said Ren Harman, VT Stories project manager. “It helps us understand and build an inclusive and collective story of Virginia Tech.”

During the Fraction family reunion, Irving Fraction explained to Taylor the experience of discovering a fuller sense of himself.

“That’s the way I was feeling, like I was missing something, just something wasn’t put in place and I felt that,” said Fraction. “I’ve got to find out different things, so I started doing a little researching here and there. I like talking to older people, real older people, and they help me out. Like at my church, I talk to old ladies, old men. Some of those are from Virginia and I will just talk to them, but I still ain’t never knew I was from Virginia until maybe about three or four years ago. Then it really hit me.”

The Fraction family story is one among many oral histories the VT Stories team has documented and one of multiple efforts that align with the Council on Virginia Tech History’s goal of adding to the university’s story.

The council brought together a working group of faculty, staff, students, and family descendants charged with transforming Solitude, Virginia Tech’s oldest building, to be more reflective of holistic histories.

“The council has asked the group to recommend strategies and projects for Solitude to support the collective history the White, Black, and Native peoples that are inherent in the contested space of these facilities,” said Leonard.

The council has supported and encouraged other projects, including programming a virtual reality tour of campus, a public art project, and Peter Wallenstein’s upcoming book on Virginia Tech history.

Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, oversees the council’s work and is excited about its progress and its alignment with the efforts related to the sesquicentennial. In addition, the Council on Virginia Tech History encourages public involvement and collaboration in its projects. Those interested may share their own oral histories with the VT Stories group, get involved with an upcoming call for public art, assist with ongoing projects, and share feedback.