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George Rye: Hidden History

Inside the history world there is a growing trend to uncover what is known as “forgotten history.” Often this includes those people outside mainstream society such as minorities, women, political dissidents, and the poor. Until recently many of these individuals were ignored by historians who were content to talk about military heroes, notable citizens, and the wealthy. More recently though, museums, historical societies, and professional historians have realized that everyone, no matter what their economic or social status is, deserves to be studied if we are going to truly understand the past.

Recently I had the opportunity to help uncover some of Shenandoah County’s “hidden past” when I did a program on George Rye for the New Market Area Library. Rye, who lived in the 19th century, was an ardent abolitionist and one of the county’s first Republicans. He is a significant figure in Shenandoah County and the nation’s history, yet few people know he even existed. So when some new information emerged, and New Market Area Library’s program chair called asking me to do a program, I chose his life as my topic.


Yet, it appeared there was an obstacle that would have to be overcome. No one could talk about George Rye without talking about slavery in Shenandoah County. Many locals shy away from this topic. In this area, where the direct descendants of slaves and masters still live side by side and where the false image of a population historically adverse to slavery has been fashioned, mentioning how prevalent and powerful slavery was in this county is often considered taboo.

Runaway ad in the Shenandoah Herald, 12-5-1821


However, the possible issues many seem to fear never materialized. I pushed forward with the program, eventually using the time to talk as much about slavery and racism as I did about George Rye. And the great thing was that people relished the chance to learn about this forgotten history. People responded with inquisitive looks, thoughtful questions, and quite a few ah-ha moments instead of anger or irritation. Attendance was higher than most programs at the library, and the response on social media was outstanding. After the program many attendees remained to talk about the issues, to see what else they could discover, or to simply say how amazed they were that someone had actually discussed this topic.

So what does all of this mean for those of us interested in history? Perhaps it means the time has come for us to explore this forgotten history around us without any reservations. People are ready, now more than ever, to talk about the uncomfortable events they lived through and to hear the unconventional stories around us. Many of us can develop suspicions that limit our ability to do this, but the reality is that the negative reaction we fear is only all powerful in our minds. So go out and discover this hidden history; talk about it with a friend; and if you find yourself bored on the night of February 16th, visit the county library in Edinburg at 7:00PM, as I will be discussing the forgotten history of segregation and integration in Shenandoah County.