© 2023
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Fredericksburg offers a walk through civil rights history

Robert Christian.png
University of Mary Washington
The new civil rights trail features a stop at the formerly all-White school integrated in 1962 by 12-year-old Robert Christian.

Fredericksburg is nearly 300 years old – founded in 1728 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly. History makes it a popular attraction for tourists according to Victoria Mathews with the city’s economic development office.

“We are George Washington’s boyhood home," she says. "There are buildings here that he would recognize today. The other big draw for folks is the Civil War battlefields. We have four in the area. A lot of the buildings around town were also used for hospitals. Clara Barton, who was the founder of the American Red Cross came to Fredericksburg and nursed soldiers at Chatham, and we know Walt Whitman came down during the Civil War and wrote about his experiences in Fredericksburg.”

And a few years ago she started thinking about the role her community had played in the civil rights movement. She reached out to the University of Mary Washington’s multicultural center after meeting its assistant director, Chris Williams. The two were part of a group that retraced the journey of so-called Freedom Riders who fought to desegregate interstate bus travel, making their first stop in Fredericksburg.

“We struck up a conversation for about two hours talking about what we could potentially do and what the trail would potentially look like after seeing what we saw in Birmingham, Alabama, and how they had their civil rights history laid out,” he recalls.

Farmer bust.png
University of Mary Washington
A bust of the late civil rights activist and college professor James Farmer is part of the new trail which passes through the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

The Fredericksburg trail features civil rights activist James Farmer, who taught at Mary Washington for more than a decade. It tells the story of an enslaved man who waded across the Rappahannock River to join the Union cause in 1862 and of a 12-year-old boy who – one hundred years later -- desegregated a local school.

“His mother said you need to do this, and so off he went and did this by himself. He was the only Black student in an all-White school for almost a year, and you can imagine the antagonism and the name-calling he had to suffer through that are shared in his oral history.”
Williams has recorded interviews with a number of elders – people in their 90’s who remember what happened in Fredericksburg, and the trail will eventually feature their voices.

“On the website and what’s called a traipse app,” Williams explains.

“There is a QR code associated with this tour,” Matthews adds. “People can just click on that QR code, and the trail shows up on their phones.”

Freedom Rides marker.png
University of Mary Washington
UMW's Chris Williams (L), Fredericksburg's Tourism Sales Manager Victoria Matthews (R) and other community residents pose by the place where Freedom Riders made their first stop in 1961.

The tour tells the tale of courageous teens whose all-Black school could not accommodate its largest graduating class, family members, friends and faculty. The year was 1950, and they asked city council to let them use the community center instead. It had, until that time, been used only by Whites, and the council said no.

The students pointed out that their parents paid taxes, so officials agreed to let them use the center, but not its front door.

“You may use the side door," they were told.

"That angered the students," Matthews says. "They protested in 1950. What is interesting about that is their courage, because this predates the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this pre-dates Emmett Till, this pre-dates Selma. This was a very, very early protest that happened in Fredericksburg.”

Shiloh Baptist.png
University of Mary Washington
The original Shiloh Baptist Church in Fredericksburg where many civil rights leaders came to address more than 200 parishioners.

In the end the graduation took place at the Shiloh Baptist Church, which is also on the trail. Many civil rights leaders stopped there, and more than 200 parishioners welcomed them.

Williams says the timing of this new trail is important given current events.

“Having these stories out there is important, especially as we see what’s happening nationally – black history not being told or devalued.”

The trail’s name is Freedom – a Work in Progress. A ceremony to mark its official opening is set for Thursday at 2 p.m. on the Mary Washington campus, and the public is invited.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief