The African-American community at Zenda, originally called Athens, formed around 1880 in the Linville Creek District of Rockingham County. Freed slaves stayed in the area to work following the Civil War, purchasing former plantation land from Rockingham County and forming an African-American community that would continue until around 1920. The name Zenda came from a post-office with that name located near the settlement. When the post office closed, the African-American community retained the name. The area was also called "Little Africa."
In 1869, Hannah and William Carpenter deeded land for a church to trustees representing the United Brethren in Christ. The deed states that the site was meant for “the congregation of colored people” and would be “theirs and their successors forever.” The church, completed in 1871, was known as Long’s Chapel after its builder Jacob Long and was also called the Old Athens Church after the original name of the community. The church was part of the Linville Circuit of the Virginia Freedmen’s Mission District.
In 1882, a school known as the "Athens 'Colored' School" was built in the Zenda area. A school had existed prior to this time, and it is probable that Lucy F. Simms, a well-known teacher from Harrisonburg, began her teaching career at Zenda during the 1870s. Simms was born enslaved in Harrisonburg and after emancipation pursued an education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University).
The new 1882 school consisted of a one story, one room building with an attached half acre of land and an outhouse. A 1922 “Term Report” by the Rockingham County School District lists the school’s seating capacity at 28 students. Twenty-five students were enrolled in the school at this time, but only around 13 attended on a regular basis. As one of few African-American schools in the area, the Zenda school drew students from as far away as Keezletown about 10 miles distant.
Adults who lived at Zenda worked as laborers on neighboring farms and sometimes as hotel workers, carpenters, or mail carriers. Many children also worked, helping out at home, hiring themselves out to farms, or even leaving home to live with those who would employ them. While African Americans in the community lived strenuous lives, many owned their own land, and such ownership allowed them to prosper beyond their worker’s wages.
After reaching a peak in 1900 with 17 households and 80 people, the African-American population in the Zenda area began to decline. This decline coincided with the mass migration of African Americans to cities at the turn of the century. Some community members moved to Harrisonburg so their children could attend high school; others moved as far away as Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, and Baltimore.
Evidence remains today of the African-American community at Zenda. Long's Chapel still stands, with gravestones and sunken graves visible beside and behind it. Remnants of some houses and sheds are also discernible on the site of the former community. In 2005, the Longs Chapel Preservation Society was founded by Al and Robin Jenkins to preserve the property and history of Longs Chapel, which was nominated to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2006. A Virginia state historical marker honoring Longs Chapel and Zenda was dedicated in September 2007. The restoration of Long's Chapel was completed in 2009.
Geographical and Contact Information
Fridley's Gap Road (SR 81 1)