Explore Black History in Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania

"Commerce Street" image courtesy Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont

One of the best things about the Fredericksburg area is the way this community refuses to let its history be forgotten. Remembering where we have come from is the key to continuing to move forward. This week I want to offer some resources for exploring the rich history of African-Americans in this region. February is Black History Month, but there’s enough ground to cover here to keep you busy all year long.

"12 Years a Slave" depicts the life of Solomon Northrup.As international ports, both Falmouth and Fredericksburg played a role in the slave trade, and they were a minor stopping point in a story now being told in the motion picture “12 Years a Slave.” Solomon Northrup, a free black in New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. On his journey south in 1841, he traveled by steamboat to Aquia Landing, where he was put on a stagecoach to Fredericksburg, boarded a train to Richmond, and eventually travelled by boat to Norfolk and on to New Orleans. The Free Lance-Star’s Clint Schemmer shares some notable resources for exploring Northrup’s journey through the area here.

A few decades later, the Rappahannock River was a major milestone for slaves seeking freedom. During the spring and summer of 1862, the Union Army was installed in Falmouth, and could offer safe passage to slaves seeking freedom from Fredericksburg and points south. Researchers have determined that more than 10,000 slaves passed through the area during this period as they sought freedom.

Among them was John Washington, then a 23-year-old slave in Fredericksburg. Washington’s memoir is one of the few written first-person accounts of the journey from slavery to freedom. The “Trail to Freedom” project has sought to preserve and interpret the experiences of Washington and so many others with a series of walking and driving tours, teaching resources and exhibits in Stafford County and Fredericksburg. Find maps and a wealth of multimedia resources regarding this remarkable time in area history at TrailtoFreedom.com.Trail to Freedom

Of course, Falmouth is rich in African-American history going back far earlier than the Civil War. One particularly interesting figure is John DeBaptiste, one of 10 black men said to have served military duty aboard the Dragon, a warship made in Fredericksburg by Fielding Lewis that saw service by more African-Americans than any other ship during the Revolutionary War. As a free black in Falmouth after the war, DeBaptiste became a successful businessman, amassing property holdings and running the Rappahannock River ferry at Falmouth until his death in 1804. He is buried in the cemetery at Falmouth’s historic Union Church. A valuable collection of stories of black history in Falmouth can be found in “Virginia Shade: An African American History of Falmouth, Virginia,” by Falmouth resident and historian Norman Schools.

Many sites in Fredericksburg help tell the story of black history in the community. They include Shiloh (Old Site) Baptist Church, the area’s first black church, and Original Walker-Grant school, the site of the city’s first publicly supported black high school, and still part of Fredericksburg’s public schools system. As the late historian Ruth Coder Fitzgerald notes in her brochure on the city’s African-American history, many important sites have been lost as time as passed, “so it is necessary to use the imagination to picture much of Fredericksburg’s black history.”

One person who can help with that is Gari Melchers, the painter who lived at Belmont in Falmouth. Melchers painted many local scenes, and a number of his subjects were African-Americans. His painting, “Commerce Street”  (pictured at the top of this post) depicts a scene on Fredericksburg’s William Street. To the right is the building that now houses Ristorante Renato, and to its left, where a parking lot now stands, is Bumbray and Coleman’s store, a grocery that served the black community. That building was torn down in the 1940s, but Melchers’ work helps us to imagine the street as it once was.

Members of this community continue to work to preserve sites important to telling the story of black history. Last year, Stafford residents Frank White and Norman Schools worked to have the Rowser Building, built in 1939 as the site of Stafford Training School, then the only school in the county that blacks could attend, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

In 2011, leaders in Spotsylvania County established the Spotsylvania County African-American Heritage Trail. The 11 sites on this trail recognize the accomplishments and history of African-Americans in the county. Download a trail brochure here.  

All month long, you can find a wide variety of lectures and events focused on dance, the arts and food to mark Black History Month at the James Farmer Multicultural Center at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Find something to your liking on the calendar here