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Traveling Freedom's Road

When John Hanrahan retired from a career in advertising, he and his wife began traveling to places they had always wanted to see – places that were central to this country’s Civil Rights Movement: Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, Philadelphia and Jackson, Mississippi, Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta. The experience inspired him to do research and visit other spots that were not so well known, like Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. That’s where, in 1619, the first slaves arrived in North America, and in 1861 the place where many found freedom.

John Hanrahan
Sandy Hausman
Radio IQ
Charlottesville author John Hanrahan offers a book for travellers interested in the Civil Rights Movement.

"Three enslaved people escaped from across the river where they were forced to build reinforcement with the Yankees now across the river, and they just got a boat and asked for a place to stay," he says.

Union General Benjamin Butler, who had been on the job for a day, agreed – a decision that angered confederate officers who sent one of their own to get the slaves back.

"The commander came over and met with the general, and he said, ‘You know there’s a fugitive slave law in the United States,’ and just the day before Virginia had voted to secede, and Butler said, 'You’re not from the United States. You’ve seceded, so we don’t have to give you these people back.' By the time the general described this scene to the powers that be in Washington, hundreds had crossed the river," the author says.

That story and many more are told in Hanrahan’s new book – Traveling Freedom’s Road: A Guide to Exploring Our Civil Rights History. It devotes chapters to 12 cities and 14 states including Virginia, where a Baltimore woman – planning to visit her mother in the Commonwealth – was removed from a bus.

"We all know about Rosa Parks, but there were a number of women who essentially refused to give up their seat. + 15 – Irene Morgan was riding in the bus in July of 1944, and it happened somewhere in Middlesex County, and the bus driver told her and a seatmate to move back out of the white section, and her seatmate complied, but she stayed right where she was. She paid her fine for – as I put it in the book – for having her foot found in the groin of the officer who was trying to arrest her at the time, but she refused to pay any fine for the segregation issue. She fought that and won – Morgan v. Virginia—where the state happened to be on the wrong side of the law," he concludes.

There is also a detailed account of what happened in Farmville. "The Moton High School is where events occurred in 1951. The heroine of this story is Barbara Johns. Barbara Johns is 16 years old, and she leads a student walkout from Moton Hihg School, because that school was very substandard. The students at the school – a segregated high school of course – would see what the facilities were when they would go to other high schools for athletic events and other functions, and she had had enough, and so with great bravery and a little bit of trickery she led a student walk-out."

What did he mean by a little bit of trickery? "She wanted the principal to not get in trouble because of their actions," he explains, "so she told him that a student was in trouble down at the city hall, and so he left the school, and so when the students were told to come to assembly, they see Barbara Johns on stage, and you can see that stage when you go to the Moton Museum in Farmville."

There are also museums in Richmond, Roanoke, Lynchburg and Danville that one in a mansion from which Jefferson Davis sent his last official proclamation from the confederacy, and there’s a plaque at the site where police attacked peaceful protesters.

"About a month after the Birmingham campaign, demonstrators were seeking employment, equal opportunity in education and accommodations like all around the south, and marches started peacefully, but the police amped-up the pressure, and eventually the clubs came out and the fire hoses came out in Danville, just like they did in Birmingham, and there’s a marker at the circuit courthouse in Danville to commemorate what’s become known as Bloody Monday."

In the course of writing Traveling Freedom’s Road, Hanrahan paid special attention to the contributions of women.

"They were instrumental. They tended to be behind the scenes, and I have a lot of sidebars that focus on women like Ruby Dorris Smith Robinson who was one of the early organizers with SNCC, died at a very young age, but made a huge contribution," he explains. "Maggie Walker, the first African-American woman to be a millionaire. She has her own historic national site in Richmond."

Hanrahan will not be making millions from this – his first book. In fact, he says, there won’t be any profits for him.

"Profits from the book will go to two really worthy social justice organizations: one in Charlottesville, the Legal Aid Justice Center where I have been a volunteer for about a decade, and the second is Brian Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery – the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice," he says.

Traveling Freedom’s Road is available at New Dominion and the Blue Whale on Charlottesville’s downtown mall and through Amazon. For more information, go to