Ana Edwards is preserving Black history — and sharing it with others

The VCU alumna and chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, will receive the VCU history department’s highest honor for graduate alumni March 18.

Ana Edwards. [View Image] Ana Edwards, who earned her master's degree in history from VCU in 2020, is the first recipient of the Department of History's Graduate Alumni Achievement Award. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

For years, Ana F. Edwards has worked to protect and elevate Black history through advocacy and scholarship. A longtime historic preservation and community activist in Richmond, Edwards is a founding member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, established in 2002 for prison reform, education and social justice causes. The Virginia Commonwealth University alumna wrote her master’s thesis on a formerly enslaved man living free during slavery in 18th-century Richmond. Her work has been published in academic journals and featured in national media.

Now the 2020 VCU graduate is being recognized by the university for her contributions to public history and advocacy for social justice. Edwards has been named the inaugural recipient of the Department of History’s VCU Graduate Alumni Achievement Award, which recognizes an alum of the master’s degree program who has made distinguished contributions to their profession or chosen field of endeavor.

The award is the department's highest form of recognition bestowed exclusively on graduate alumni.

“Edwards has modeled some of the highest possibilities for our alumni — in her diligence in historical research, in her engagement with public history audiences near and far, and in her advocacy for social justice,” said Ryan Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Along with a strong coalition of allies, her work has quite literally changed the historical landscape. The VCU History Department celebrates the recognition of this work by so many national and international authorities, and we expect that she will continue building on such accomplishments for many years to come.”

In addition to her work at the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, Edwards also serves as chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which has worked to promote the reclamation and proper memorialization of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, the story of Gabriel’s rebellion, the movements of Black people in Richmond’s 18th-century urban landscape, and the neighborhood’s place as the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade from the 1830s through 1865.

In these roles, Edwards has helped lead community activism and conversations to produce an alternative vision for Shockoe Bottom in the form of a 9-acre memorial park, a vision now endorsed by the mayor and other area leaders. Edwards continues to shape the future of this site of conscience as a member of the Shockoe Alliance.

During her time at VCU, Edwards served as an interpreter at the American Civil War Museum, where she gave tours of the Jefferson Davis executive mansion. And in 2019, Edwards organized and helped host “A Shockoe Bottom Public History Symposium” at the Library of Virginia, featuring speakers from across the U.S.

“I feel honored to have been selected as the inaugural recipient of this new award,” Edwards said. “I sought out the graduate program in 2016 to professionalize my skills as a historian in order to assist the social justice-public history work I had been doing in Richmond for nearly 15 years. And I am extremely grateful for the rigors of the program along with the encouragement I experienced from everyone in the department with whom I had the pleasure to work  faculty and staff.

“Returning to school after 30 years and knowing I had the support of my professors and my two cohorts  the one I started with and the one I finished with in 2020  helped me feel part of something both nurturing and challenging. I look forward to future collaborations.”

Edward’s thesis at VCU, “Robert Cowley: Living Free During Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Richmond, Virginia,” was based on her earlier essay, “The Manumission of Robert Cowley,” which was selected for the 2019 James Tice Moore Award by the faculty of the Department of History. She served as president (2009-18) of the Virginia Friends of Mali, an organization that founded and facilitates Richmond’s ongoing sister cities project with Ségou in West Africa. She drew on her travels there and her work with accompanying students to co-edit a volume on the project, “Sister Cities: A Story of Friendship Between Virginia and Mali,” published by Brandylane Publishers in 2019.

In January 2020, Edwards and her work were featured in The New Yorker article, “The Fight to Preserve African-American History,” specifically highlighting her vision for Shockoe Bottom as a site “of reflection and remembrance but also of resistance, offering visitors an alternative to the history that Richmond has long revered.”

Since 2005, Edwards has had articles published in The Virginia Defender. And in 2016, she published an essay in “Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States” by the University of Massachusetts Press. She co-authored an article with her husband, editor Phil Wilayto, “The Significance of Shockoe Bottom,” for the African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter in 2015. And she co-authored “Bones in Stasis: The Challenging History and Uncertain Future of the Virginia State Penitentiary Collection,” with archaeologist Ellen Chapman, Ph.D., and historian Libby Cook, Ph.D., that was published in the Journal for the Anthropology of North America in 2020.

“In addition to the passion and skills Edwards brings to her work, she also exudes remarkable generosity of spirit,” said Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., director of graduate studies in the History Department. “An ethos of collaboration and optimism characterizes her approach that is truly inspiring.”

The Department of History will present Edwards with the VCU Graduate Alumni Achievement Award at the beginning of the Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity on March 18. The virtual event will be free and open to the public.

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