Professor, UVA Library Team Up to Explore Black Roots of Local Farm

July 28, 2023
River View Barn from an angle

Conly Greer built this barn in 1937-38 to demonstrate to Black farmers the newest, most efficient and sanitary methods in farming. (Photo by Molly Minturn)

With gentle hills, thriving wildlife and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s possible to mistake Ivy Creek Natural Area and Historic River View Farm, located off Earlysville Road in Albemarle County, for simply a nice place to take a hike.

Lisa Shutt, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, had taken several walks in the area before she took an interest in a towering white barn near the trailhead.

“I didn’t know the history of the barn; I didn’t know the history of the lands that Ivy Creek Natural Area is on,” she said.

Once she found out that history, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Her curiosity about the place led to a partnership with UVA Library, which, for the past year, has been working in various ways to help resurface and preserve information about the area, originally known as just River View Farm. 

A photo strip of portraits
Texie Mae Hawkins, Hugh Carr, Mary Carr Greer and Conly Greer. (Photos courtesy UVA Special Collections and the Ivy Creek Foundation)

It began in 1870, when Hugh Carr, a recently emancipated Black farmer, paid $100 for 58 acres of land near the intersection of Ivy Creek and the Rivanna River. Carr continued to accumulate land, growing the property to nearly 125 acres. He built a farmhouse  and multiple outbuildings and raised seven children with his wife, Texie Mae Hawkins.

Their eldest daughter, Mary, inherited the farm and served as a prominent educator in the African American community, eventually becoming principal of Albemarle Training School – one of the only schools in the area where Black children could continue their education beyond seventh grade.

She, too, added to the farm over the years by buying adjacent pieces of land. Her husband, Conly Greer, was the first Black agricultural extension agent in Albemarle County. He traveled the county by horseback to train other Black farmers in cutting-edge agricultural methods. From 1937 to ’38, he built the large frame demonstration barn that caught Lisa Shutt’s attention so many years later.

“I became fascinated by this place and wanted to preserve and share the legacy of this incredible family, especially with UVA students,” Shutt said. “Most of the people I come across who are deeply invested in the preservation of non-UVA local histories tend to be community members. I want our students to be just as invested in local histories.”

While the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County own the land and maintain the buildings, the Ivy Creek Foundation helped get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the past few years, Susie Farmer, the director of education for the Ivy Creek Foundation, has worked with UVA’s Special Collections Library, where many documents relating to the family and farm are held.

Older overview of the farm

An undated aerial photo of River View Farm found in the Hugh Carr Family and Ivy Creek Natural Area papers in Special Collections Library.

Shutt reached out to Farmer and local historian Alice Cannon to further research the work and teachings of the Carr and Greer families. This past spring, with the permission and support of the Ivy Creek Foundation, including its Descendants’ Committee, Shutt taught a UVA African American Studies seminar, “Engaging Local Histories: River View Farm.”

The class brought undergraduate students to the land, as well as to Special Collections.

“I wanted students to think about what Black communities and Black individuals had to do in order to be successful in time periods where that was made extremely difficult by white power structures,” Shutt said.

“Successful research and preservation are a wildly collaborative effort that calls upon a variety of specialized skills for advancement: genealogy, 3D scanning, archival maintenance, navigation, cataloging, and even re-cataloging,” said Katrina Spencer, librarian for African American and African studies, who helped Shutt’s students with their research. “The work on River View Farm with local community members is a great example of that.”

History Made Real

Students in Shutt’s class hiked the land, learning which areas were used for farming, and explored the barn’s interior. They visited local food scholar Leni Sorensen on her farmstead in Crozet, where, in the tradition of Mary Carr Greer’s food preservation classes, Sorensen taught them how to make and preserve strawberry jam.

The students were trained to be barn docents, giving them the ability to lead tours of the entire farm. And Shutt reached out to Spencer, who is also the Library’s subject liaison to the Woodson Institute, to help guide her students through the Carr family papers in Special Collections.

Spencer prepared an instructional session for Shutt’s students and enlisted Jean Cooper, the library’s principal cataloger and genealogical resources specialist, to assist. The two tailored the session, held in Clemons Library, to the topics on which students were focusing: Black education and Black land ownership.

The librarians gave an overview of how to identify primary sources, how to search databases and access Special Collections, and how to interpret census data, with a deep dive into genealogy, a specialty of Cooper’s.

People working in classes at the library
In the tradition of Mary Carr Greer’s food preservation classes, Lisa Shutt’s students learned how to make and preserve strawberry jam with local food scholar Leni Sorensen. Right: Shutt’s students visited Special Collections numerous times to research the Carr/Greer papers held there. (Photos by Lisa Shutt)

“Charlottesville is the kind of place that grabs you and won’t let you go; it’s a fascinating place,” Cooper said about conducting genealogical research. “African American genealogy is especially fascinating because it’s so hard. There’s not a whole lot of written evidence … and so you have to figure out how to get there.”

With their training, the students visited Special Collections a week later to explore three boxes of Carr/Greer papers.

The primary documents students analyzed became source material for research papers each student wrote at the end of the semester. “I think sometimes when students are examining history, it can seem like a fairy tale to them, like they’re watching a movie or reading a novel; it’s so removed from them,” Shutt said. “But when they either go to River View Farm or to Special Collections, history is made real.”

Taylor Whirley, a rising third-year student who took Shutt’s class, agreed. “I became engrossed within the history of a family that I had never met and am not a part of, but I quickly developed a desire to ensure that their stories were told within the UVA community,” she said. “Through this class, I learned more about Charlottesville and Albemarle County history than ever before, which was an incredibly eye-opening experience in general.”

Reparative Work at the Library

When Shutt reached out to Spencer for help, the request led not only to a successful instruction session, but also to some necessary updates in the library’s records.

“I saw the term ‘River View Farm’ for the first time when Lisa got in touch with me,” Spencer said. “I didn’t know what it was. And I knew that if I was going to teach about it, I had to start doing some digging.”

Side by side images of students inside and outside the barn library
Jody Lahendro stands with students inside and outside the farmhouse at River View Farm. (Photos by Will Rourk)

She was surprised to find scant information about the family members in the library’s catalog when she began searching for it.

“Our River View Farm entries didn’t reference Hugh Carr, or Mary Carr Greer, or that family. And I thought, ‘Well, shouldn’t these go together, if these were the people who owned this property and developed it?’”

Spencer approached Ellen Welch, a library manuscripts and archives processor, for help.

“The description for the Ivy Creek Natural Area papers was so minimal that the history of the Carr family was invisible to anyone searching our collections,” Welch said. “With Katrina’s suggestion, I was able to bring the Carr family history into the description so that patrons can know more about this important family in Albemarle County during the 19th century.”

In March, Welch published a deeply researched post on the Special Collections blog, “Notes from Under Grounds,” exploring the Carr/Greer family and the Library’s Papers of the Ivy Creek Foundation collections.

“As a longtime local resident, I had known about the Ivy Creek Natural Area, but had no knowledge of Hugh Carr,” she wrote. “This is what makes reparative work so essential in libraries and historical repositories. It is exciting to shine a light on their remarkable lives, making them well known to our patrons today and in the future.”

3D Cultural Heritage Data

While Welch was illuminating River View Farm history in the Library catalog, Will Rourk, a 3D technologies specialist with the Library’s Scholars’ Lab, was creating new primary source data about the site for historic preservation purposes, using high-tech equipment.

Rourk teaches architectural history students to collect, process, preserve and distribute 3D data of historic objects, buildings, and sites, including the Rotunda Dome, archaeological artifacts at Monticello, and the Pine Grove School in Cumberland.

During the fall 2022 semester, Rourk’s students used laser scanning equipment to collect data on the barn, farmhouse and landscape at River View Farm. His students produced a thorough storymap website on their work. Late last month, Rourk uploaded all of the data about the barn and farmhouse to LibraData, UVA’s data repository, hosted by the library.

The data is used for historic structure reports for architecture firms, 3D printing of artifact replicas, or even for the immersive virtual reality spaces in the library’s Robertson Media Center.

Rourk is planning on loading the River View Farm data onto the VR stations in Clemons for virtual explorations this summer. The data is also being used to help preservation efforts of River View Farm.

A scanner set up on a tripod in an upper level of the barn
A 3D scanner inside the demonstration barn at River View Farm. (Photo by Will Rourk)

Rourk is working closely with Jody Lahendro, who was a preservation architect at UVA for 16 years and now, in retirement, serves as a board member of the Ivy Creek Foundation. The 3D data from Rourk and his students will be crucial to Lahendro’s current volunteer work assisting Albemarle County Parks & Recreation in developing a historic structure report for River View Farm.

“All these people in the historic preservation community that I work with are just doing amazing, interesting work. And I am propelled by their eagerness to do good,” Rourk said. “I feel like the library does good because we help people who do good. And this is one small way that I can do that.”

Media Contact

Molly Minturn

Content Specialist University of Virginia Library