In a school library, a historic courthouse, and a county museum, the people’s orator is coming back. It seems fitting, really, that Patrick Henry — the man who turned down the national spotlight for his community — would have the spotlight of history shine on him in his own hometown. In Hanover County, Virginia, a few citizens have decided their local hero is worth remembering and have worked to make it happen.
Oscar Walker, a retired engineer and historical enthusiast, has spent the past few months trying to ensure Patrick Henry’s legacy is preserved — and he recently received news that his initial work had been successful. A signed copy of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty by John Kukla would be accepted at the Patrick Henry High School library for the coming school year.
“I’ve always had an interest in the local history and civic affairs locally, and I was … looking for a fresh direction,” Walker said.
At the time, Walker was “reading a lot” and watching the news. Like many citizens, he was dissatisfied with what he saw: little civil discourse, few efforts at honest persuasion, and politicians who are totally disconnected from the people they serve. Furthermore, the past few years have been full of cultural iconoclasm. The destruction of statues is a symptom of historical ignorance that finds its root in our classrooms. Teachers, meanwhile, continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable for children to study, from racist views of history to pornography. Parents began noticing these trends during Covid as their children learned “social studies” at home, but communities remained disconnected from their historical roots.
Walker’s frustration left him wondering what he could do, but in the meantime, he kept reading. That would turn out to be exactly the catalyst he needed.
“A young attorney recommended I read a book on Patrick Henry, and I was familiar — had participated in the reenactment of Parson’s Cause [Henry’s defining colonial right legal case] as a jurist spectator in the Historic Hanover Courthouse,” Walker said. The Parson’s Cause Foundation reenacts the case that preceded the American Revolution and launched Henry’s political career at the Hanover Courthouse. The historic St. John’s Church presents the famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” reenactment throughout the year.
The first time Walker read Kukla’s book, he was “refreshed” and decided to dedicate his newfound energy to more visibility for Hanover’s local Founding Father. Around the same time, school boards across the country were fighting parents over school library content and curriculum. Those two events converged in a unique way for Walker.
“Here in Virginia, a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that our state was kind of the granddaddy of the 13, and the teaching of history had been on a decline. … I went to school board meetings, and what I discovered is that an uneducated population can be fooled,” Walker said. “Why are our kids not getting this? We’ve got plenty of role models, but they’re not worthy of really following. The more I looked at it, we’re sitting here where our nation was birthed, we have a great story that needs to be told.”
Walker decided it was time to contact John Axselle, then the chair of the school board, to see what he could do to bring Patrick Henry back.
“Oscar made me aware because generally people in my position are not made aware of any individual book,” Axselle said. “The board was having an issue at the time where we were finding books that we didn’t care for because of pornographic material, so Oscar’s coming to me was the perfect time because we were already focused on books in the library.”
Walker and Axselle worked together to see if the local schools had any copies of the Patrick Henry biography.
“Guess what? Not one copy,” Walker said.
Walker took time to meet with the author, get a signed copy of the book, and contact a few others who would be interested in helping him. Once he was ready, he and Axselle put the question to the board: Can we approve this book?
“In one week (which is absolutely a miracle with government), the people came back and said we’d vetted the author, we’ve vetted the book, and we’d be happy to receive it,” Walker said.
In late June, Walker and Axselle put together a presentation event. It was simple and even a bit rushed, but they found that people were eager to come together to support kids learning more about history. The superintendent of schools attended and offered remarks; representatives from various schools and boards across the county were in attendance, and students and alumni from Patrick Henry High School spoke about how much this meant to them.
Chance Toliver, a current student, was drawn to Henry out of his love for history and his Christian faith. Toliver stressed how much his classmates needed an honest view of history.
“History now is being reworded to kind of fit the agenda or the curriculum, not to offend people but to censor more; not to tell all stories and all sides and let people make their own judgments,” Toliver said. “In high school, your brain develops and you’re more involved in politics, voting, and social media. People are starting to get phones and develop opinions, politics get brought up in school…”
Toliver said he loves his school and teachers, and he’s excited about the addition of apolitical historical accounts in the library.
“It doesn’t have to be either side, just learning the information and how to tell what is real,” Toliver said.
His sentiment was shared by Travis Rector, a graduate of Patrick Henry High School.
“There’s not enough time spent reflecting on the Founding Fathers in general in high school education,” Rector said. “There needs to be more awareness of what these men were giving up, there’s a lot of things they sacrificed in order to pursue liberty for everyone. We’ve got to remember that in this day and age where we get so comfortable and complacent.”
Those involved in the library endeavor are pleased with the outcome but say it’s not enough. When asked how this historical effort would continue, they said the community is coming together to do more already. Especially with Hanover County’s 2020 tricentennial, its residents have a renewed focus on their community’s place in history. Walker spoke highly of the new director of the Hanover County Museum, and Rector and Axselle both emphasized the Parson’s Cause Foundation, which is dedicated to the remembrance of Patrick Henry’s work and oration partly through its Parson’s Cause reenactment.
No one from the museum or Parson’s Cause Foundation offered comment. The foundation’s website, however, says it is dedicated to “promoting the historical importance of The Parsons’ Cause Trial … producing the Parsons’ Cause reenactment … and enhancing the public’s awareness of persons and events relevant to the history of the United States of America in general and the Commonwealth of Virginia in particular.”
Walker believes all of his community’s efforts center on one thing: memory.
“One mentor suggested if you want to make something lasting then you have to memorialize or memorize it. So that is the next chapter,” Walker said. “For those who want to get involved in something in their community, look for one person in your local history that people can identify with.”
Over the next few years, Hanover County will celebrate the anniversaries of significant events in the founding of our nation. If Walker, the Parson’s Cause Foundation, and Hanover schools are successful, they will also celebrate Patrick Henry and his incredible persuasive leadership.
This article has been updated since publication.