This highway historical marker now stands in Virginia's Northern Neck. Photo: Historic Christ Church & Museum

County’s 1st Black Lawmaker, Rappahannock Bridge Pioneer, Honored with Highway Marker

There’s a new Historical Highway Marker in Virginia’s Northern Neck, all in honor of a 19th-century lawmaker who had the vision to connect each side of the Rappahannock River with a bridge.

Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources unveiled the highway marker on Kamps Mill Road, off Route 3 between Lancaster Court House and Kilmarnock, to recognize the Honorable Armistead S. Nickens (ca. 1836-1906), Lancaster County’s first Black elected official.

The marker recognizes his lifetime commitment to education, public affairs, and civic duties for all citizens.  A portrait of him hangs in the Lancaster Board of Supervisors meeting room.

Elected in the fall of 1871, Nickens represented the county for two terms in the House of Delegates. A man of vision, he introduced a bill to construct the first bridge across the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg, connecting Tappahannock to the Northern Neck near Warsaw (the site of today’s U.S. Route 360 bridge)

It was an ambitious idea, as the river is a full mile wide at that point, deep and very powerful, but
he understood the value such a bridge would bring to the people of the Northern Neck in place of
a ferry.

Nickens was born into an established family of free Black people in Lancaster County that included multiple veterans of the Revolutionary War. When a young man, he worked in a sawmill and farmed while raising a family. After his terms in the General Assembly, he continued his public service by helping raise financial support for the state’s new public school system, which was chronically underfunded. He also donated land and helped construct Lancaster County’s first school for African American children in 1876, and he assisted the county in several official positions during his later years.

A devout Christian, he served as a trustee of Saint John’s Colored Baptist Church in 1890 and reportedly hauled logs and laid bricks during construction of Calvary Baptist Church, in which he was later ordained a deacon. The historical marker stands on land Nickens once owned. The Nickens Family, the Foundation for Historic Christ Church, the Kilmarnock Museum, the Lancaster Virginia Historical Society, and the Lancaster Community Library sponsored the ceremony dedicating the Highway Marker.

-John Page Williams