History in hand: New Va. app tells historic tales along local trails

WASHINGTON — Yes, stocking up on snacks is important, but part of planning for a road trip these days involves filling your phone with an army of apps that can help you locate the cleanest restrooms and steer clear of the nastiest traffic jams.

And this summer, there’s a new app for your road-trip arsenal: the Virginia History Trails app.

The platform, which contains more than 400 stories of 200 sites throughout the Commonwealth, can be used in a number of ways. The “near me” feature allows users to explore historic points of interest near their geographic location.

For example, in the D.C. area, the app highlights Herndon’s Frying Pan Baptist Meeting House, the Manassas Industrial School, even Eden Center, a popular Falls Church shopping center built by South Vietnamese immigrants and refugees that arrived in Northern Virginia before the fall of Saigon in 1975.

“We’re really glad to bring visibility to stories that matter and that people should know about more,” said Kathy Spangler, executive director of Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, which launched the app.

Travelers can also use the app to plan a trip along themed “trails.” The app groups together sites based on categories, including immigration, presidents, exploration, women, resistance and religious liberty.

Clicking on the category for women brings up political contemporaries like Leslie Larkin Byrne, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia in 1993, and cultural icons, including Patsy Cline, who lived in Winchester from 1948 to 1953.

The subject of immigration highlights the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, the Mauck Meeting House in Luray, and Columbia Pike in Arlington.

Spangler points to one of her favorite stories on the app, which is the 1951 Morton School Strike in Farmville, a town about an hour outside of Richmond. The app shares the story of Barbara Johns, who at the age of 16 led a strike over substandard facilities at her high school. Civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of the school’s students, which eventually became part of the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

“We’re excited about bringing these stories in a way to people that are contemporary today, but have value from the perspective that the places that we live matter, their history matters, and (the stories are) as relevant today as they were then,” Spangler said.

The app is free to download and is part of Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, which marks the 400th anniversary of a handful of significant events take took place in 1619, including the first representative legislative assembly, the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America and the first official English Thanksgiving. And while not all of these events are ones that should be celebrated, Spangler said it’s important for the state to share full, authentic versions of these histories.

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