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DN-R: Lincoln Homestead puts spotlight on enslaved African Americans during Black History Month

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This article was published Feb. 13, 2021, in the Daily News-Record. Sarah and Benjamin Bixler, co-owners of the Lincoln Homestead north of Harrisonburg, are EMU alumni and faculty. Sarah, a 2002 graduate, teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, while completing her PhD in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Benjamin ’03, MA (religion) ’13, is an adjunct instructor for EMU’s “Covenant & Community” course and is completing a PhD in Bible and cultures at Drew Theological School.

To honor the enslaved people of the Lincoln Homestead, the Bixlers are posting one name each day on the Lincoln Homestead Facebook page during February/Black History Month. The following article was written about their efforts to learn more about and to share this remembrance.



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Despite more than a hundred years of weather making most the tombstones illegible, one engraving on a stone marker can still be seen through mineral buildup.

“Uncle Ned and his wife Queen. The last of the Lincoln slaves. Erected by Mary Lee Pennybacker, a descendant of the Lincolns.”

This cemetery isn’t an ordinary cemetery.

It’s the final resting place for five generations of President Abraham Lincoln’s ancestors, and an erected marker remembering only a fraction of those enslaved by the Lincoln family.

When Benjamin and Sarah Bixler bought the Lincoln Homestead in November 2019, they were not fully aware of the history that came with the yellow building that sits along Harpine Highway just outside of Harrisonburg.

Built by Jacob Lincoln, the great-uncle of President Lincoln, in 1800, the property was home to numerous relatives who owned enslaved African Americans. Jacob was the first of the Virginia Lincolns at the homestead to become a slave owner, Sarah Bixler said.

When the Bixlers began to restore the homestead, they were introduced to Phil Stone, a Harrisonburg lawyer and Lincoln family expert who established the Lincoln Society of Virginia in 2004.

Benjamin Bixler said Stone shared records of the property’s history and its occupants — those records included tax receipts of those enslaved over the years.

“The number of enslaved adults were reported on these records. … It’s really sobering. There were dozens of these,” Sarah Bixler said. “All these human lives were taxed as property.”


These two receipts, dated 1848 and 1849, are the approximate years or very shortly after the rear section of the existing structure at the Lincoln Homestead was built. Owners Benjamin and Sarah Bixler presume this means the rear portion of the house was built with the forced labor of some of these enslaved persons over 12 years of age who are recorded in these tax records. (Courtesy of Ben and Sarah Bixler)

As more tax receipts were found and collected, a heavy significance began to weigh on the couple.

“We can tell there were at least 50 different people who would have been oppressed in slavery at this property,” Bixler said.

Feeling a responsibility to not forget what the lives of the enslaved meant, the Bixlers decided that during the month of February, recognized as Black History Month, one enslaved person would be recognized on the homestead’s Facebook page every day.

In most of the records found, only a first name is identified.

Cate was the first to be honored.

Cate, Squire and Jane were three African Americans written in a deed to Captain Jacob Lincoln, who built the home. Jane had two children, who were left to Jacob’s wife, Dorcas Lincoln.

As each day passed, the posts the Bixlers made on the homestead’s Facebook page gained more traction. But the posts also became harder to make.

Mary, a 9-year-old African American girl, was an example of how those enslaved were treated during the time, Sarah Bixler said.

In Dorcas Lincoln’s amended will from Dec. 21, 1839, she wrote “I give and bequeath unto my grand daughter Caroline Hammon one negro girl named Mary aged about nine years, to her and her heirs forever, on condition that her husband pays a debt I owe Adam Allen for leather.”

“A 9-year-old girl was imagined in the same thought as a debt for leather,” Sarah Bixler said. “It illustrates the way that African Americans were understood here in the South.”

In the same will, Dorcas Lincoln also left a girl named Margaret to Josephine Evans to be “her and her heirs forever.”

The enslaved African Americans already featured on the homestead’s Facebook page include Kate, Emily, Machael, Isaac, Lucinda, Ann, Sam and Jerry.

There are not enough days in the month to recognize all those who were enslaved at the Lincoln Homestead, but the posts during Black History Month are only the beginning.

“This is one part of the larger work we would like to do to educate people,” Sarah Bixler said.

“We know there is more work to be done,” Benjamin Bixler added.


Visitors await the chance to view the building during a February 2020 open house.

As the Bixlers finish their academic work, they will continue to uncover the homestead’s history by conducting research at local libraries, and collaborating with the Lincoln Society of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.

One element of history they wish to confirm is if Lucy Simms’ grandmother was born at the homestead.

Simms was a well-known educator in Harrisonburg who taught generations of African American children while living in the area for six decades.

Sarah Bixler said they found a research article published by a James Madison University student that dove into Simms’ history. According to JMU’s Celebrating Simms Exhibit, her grandmother was purchased by the Gray family from a nearby cousin of Abraham Lincoln.

Bixler said if they are able to confirm Simms’ grandmother was born and enslaved at the property, it would be a “really significant piece of history.”

When the month is over, the Bixlers hope people who have been following the daily posts are left better aware of what took place at the homestead.

“It’s a matter of remembering and puts into perspective, for me, what African Americans had to overcome,” Sarah Bixler said. “I hope this leads to better awareness and understanding.”

Since the couple is planning on living in the home once renovations are complete, Sarah and Benjamin Bixler said they hope to host community educational groups in the future, as well as occasional tours of the home.

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ACE Festival

ACE Festival to welcome Rabbi Niles Goldstein for keynote

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Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a former visiting scholar with the Center for Interfaith Engagement,  returns to Eastern Mennonite University as the keynote speaker for the 2021 Academic and Creative Excellence (ACE) Festival. Goldstein is a Reform rabbi and educator and award-winning author of ten books, and he leads the Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley in California. He is a sought-after speaker on spirituality, personal growth, the environment, leadership, and congregational innovation. 

The ACE Festival Keynote will take place virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. EDT. Goldstein will speak on “Dreams, Drama and Dogma: Spiritual Writing Through the Centuries,” exploring the diverse legacy of writing in the Abrahamic faith traditions, from antiquity to the present.

Members of the public can view the free livestream on Facebook Live from our EMU Facebook page. (You do not need a Facebook account or page to access Facebook Live, nor does clicking on the link obligate you in any way to Facebook.)

Goldstein has a rich resume of community work in various disciplines. He helped found the Napa Center for Thought & Culture, an organization grounded in Jewish traditions and values that organizes thought-provoking programs and events. He was the founding rabbi of The New Shul, an innovative synagogue in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He’s the national Jewish chaplain for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and a chaplain for the Napa Police Department. He’s done humanitarian work in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

As a visiting scholar with the Center for Interfaith Engagement in spring 2014, Goldstein taught courses in spiritual writing and comparative monotheistic religions. He has also served on the faculties of New York University, Loyola University, and Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion. 

The rabbi will also speak with a panel of EMU faculty and students about his newest book, Eight Questions of Faith: Biblical Challenges That Guide and Ground Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society, 2015), in a virtual event at 10:15 a.m. on April 21. 

The book uses eight questions found in the Bible – such as “why did I ever issue from the womb?” – to explore themes of mortality, responsibility, forbidden knowledge, sin, and the afterlife. Goldstein couples these meditations with reflections on his own life experiences.

Professor Marti Eads said the book’s “deep engagement with Hebrew scripture around existential questions is sure to spark rich campus conversation, not just during Goldstein’s visit but for days to come.” Copies of the book are already available for EMU students on a first-come, first-served basis in the language and literature department.

“Goldstein’s search for answers are res­o­nant with any reader’s con­sid­er­a­tions of per­son­al life and career,” wrote Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan in a review for the Jewish Book Council. “Indeed, the great val­ue of this book is in the way the read­er will take the author’s expe­ri­ences, per­son­al­ize his ques­tions, and move toward more mean­ing­ful choic­es in their own life.”

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