Press Release


African American Fellows Program Launches at Preservation Virginia

First class of student and community preservationist Fellows will study historic preservation best practices and research projects throughout the Commonwealth.

For immediate release

For more information, contact:
Dr. Lisa Winn Bryan,
(804) 573-9676

Richmond, Va. (April 3, 2023) – As part of the Voices Remembered initiative at Preservation Virginia, three student and community preservationists received fellowships through the African American Fellows Program. Over ten weeks, the Fellows will work with Preservation Virginia staff, learn from mentors and continue research projects in their communities. The curriculum includes “Preservation 101,” networking with historic preservation groups, experiential learning by visiting historic sites and identifying pathways to historic preservation careers. The program is made possible through a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.

Planning for the Fellows program began in 2021 through the guidance of an advisory committee of Black leaders, with the goal of increasing the number of historically underrepresented groups in historic preservation careers. Leading this initiative at Preservation Virginia is Dr. Lisa Winn Bryan, community outreach manager. “We received an incredible response for the first year of the fellowship, with over 40 applications representing preservation projects throughout Virginia and the nation,” said Dr. Winn Bryan. “Although this was a very difficult decision, the three participants in the first cohort were chosen because of the importance of their research and their commitment to preservation projects in their communities.”

All applicants to the program were invited to participate in a new program called The Collective. Members will have access to professional development and networking events through Preservation Virginia. “It’s important that we cultivate as many underrepresented preservationists as we can. We decided to create a group we refer to as The Collective for the applicants not selected in the first fellows cohort. They will have another opportunity to be considered for future fellowships,” said Winn Bryan.

“We’re thrilled to announce this first class of Fellows, but it will not be the last,” said Elizabeth S. Kostelny, Preservation Virginia CEO. “We’re committed to hosting this program annually and helping promote the historic preservation profession.”

The first class of Fellows include:

Sonja Branch-Wilson, Cumberland

Sonja Branch-Wilson is an educator, family historian/genealogist, podcaster (Threads and Truth) and current president of AMMD Pine Grove Project. She is especially interested in preserving for posterity the cultural landscape and oral narratives of her family’s ancestral home of Cumberland County, VA. Her proposed project for the African American Fellows Program is entitled Funeral Programs: The Biography of a Black Community from the1930s to 1960s. The catalyst for her research topic is to use information collected from funeral programs to enhance the significance of the eligible Pine Grove Rural Historic District nomination. Funeral programs and records connect the dots and further flesh out those important stories and biographies. This research will focus on the importance of obituaries and death notices in preserving Black genealogy, Black spiritual and ritual practices, landscapes and material culture/structures. She holds close to her heart words her grandparents often expressed that, “We need to understand where we came from in order to know where we are going.”

LaToya Gray Sparks, Richmond

LaToya Gray Sparks is a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the Wilder School at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Her research interests include urban history, historic preservation, housing policy and geographic information systems (GIS). In 2020, Gray Sparks received international recognition for her story map titled Planned Destruction, which outlines the history of urban planning and its effects on Black residents in Richmond, Virginia. She served as an Advisory Council member of Richmond 300 and currently serves as a board member of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) and Partnership for Smart Growth (PSG). She is also in a graduate internship program as an assistant historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR). In this position, she works on projects that will increase the number of Black historic landmarks recognized in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Gray Sparks’s Fellowship will focus on the historic Randolph community of Richmond, VA.

Randall Hazard, Gloucester

Growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, Randall Hazard is a graduate of Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University. He seeks to document the historical Black nightlife venues in and around his hometown of Gloucester using the model of Chaitra Powell, archivist and University Libraries Curator of Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. This model bridges two pre-existing structures- the institutional archive and the community archive- forming what is termed a community-driven archive. Institutional archives have historically prioritized largely homogenous collections that capture little of the lived experience of African Americans. Meanwhile, community archives, curated by “grassroots historians” in the Black community, exist in private collections outside the purview of mainstream academia and the historical narrative. Hazard’s research will focus on the documentation of venues tied to larger historical contexts such as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Others were listed in the Traveler’s Green Book. Affectionately known as “shot houses,” these venues were not registered as official businesses within the county. These locations were part of the local economy and society, and just as frequented as formal businesses. Because of their status, there are few traces of their existence in the historical record outside of the living memory of former patrons.

About Preservation Virginia

Voices Remembered is an initiative of Preservation Virginia to mine the past for underrepresented voices that have fallen silent: the voices of the first Black preachers in Virginia; the voices of families in rural Virginia, newly freed and pondering the future; the voices of long-forgotten ancestors who still have lessons to teach. Across Virginia, we want to help bring these voices to life, connecting them to modern communities and building capacity in localities to cement these historic places in the American story.

Preservation Virginia is a private, nonprofit organization seeking to inspire and engage the public in fostering, supporting and sustaining Virginia’s historic places through leadership in advocacy, education, revitalization and stewardship. Read more at