Fredericksburg History Makers
Written by Brenda Sapanghila
The African American Community has had a profound impact on the Fredericksburg region’s history. In celebration of Black History Month, we’ve rounded up a several fascinating stories and facts from these history makers. If you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to check out the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, visit local museums like The John J Wright Museum for Black History, or spend the day on the African American Heritage Trail.
Did you know…
- That the author of Roots, Alex Haley’s, ancestor Kunte Kinte, was brought as a slave to nearby Spotsylvania County?
- That Shiloh Baptist Church’s minister, Lawrence A. Davies, was the first black mayor of Fredericksburg, elected in 1976?
- That Lewis Randolph Ball ran the Burgess Barber Shop, 207 William Street, for 60 years!? A plaque at the business site reads,
“Dedicated to the memory of a man who for sixty years worked in Burgess Barber Shop and downtown Fredericksburg. During those years he warmed the hearts of this community with his friendship, ever present smile, and sense of humor. His contributions to our quality of life are gratefully acknowledged.” (link)
The DeBaptiste Family
The DeBaptiste Family was an entrepreneurial family of free African Americans, in Fredericksburg. The De Baptiste’s ran the ferry to Falmouth. They also owned the majority of the east side of Charles Street, from William Street to Amelia Street. At one time, family resided in the southeast corner of Amelia and Charles Streets. It’s there that they held an illegal, secret school for African American youth. To avoid being caught, girls pretended to sew and boys pretended to make matches out of sticks and sulphur.
George DeBaptiste, born in either 1814 or 1815, grew up to become both a business owner and a key player in the Underground Railroad. He is known to have worked alongside famous abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Most of his Underground Railroad activity took place in the mid-west (Indiana and Ohio). In 1860, he purchased a steamboat, T.Whitney, that went to and from American and Canadian ports. As you may have guessed, The T.Whitney was also used to ferry runaways from Ohio and Michigan, to freedom.
“He apparently listed people in his cargo as “black wool,” his way of concealing their presence on board while making a private joke.” - African-American Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, By Rachel Kranz
One of the most pivotal cases to test the Fugitive Slave Law, a component of the Compromise of 1850, involved a Stafford County slave named Anthony Burns. Burns was a runaway that was captured and tried in Boston. Though the Fugitive Slave Law favored Burns’ former master, Charles Suttle, most citizens sided with Burns. On June 2, 1854, Anthony Burns was ordered by the court to be returned to slavery, in Stafford County. Records show that more than 50,000 outraged people rallied on the streets of Boston for Burns, as soldiers escorted him to the waterfront to be shipped back to Virginia. In the end, luck was on his side. Anthony Burns was purchased by an African American abolitionist minister for $1,300, and given his freedom. He was back in Boston within a year.
According to legend, a slave from Stafford County named Dabney, who worked as a cook and groom for Union troops durning the Civil War, was also a spy. Dabney provided intelligence on Confederate forces from across the Rappahannock River. He kept everyone in the dark about where his recognizance was coming from, even from the Union troops themselves, for a long time. As it turns out, his wife in Fredericksburg had developed a communcation system using her hanging laundry to signal unit dispositions and strengths.
Falmouth’s own intellectual, Moncure Conway, attended both Dickinson College and Harvard University, and later became a minister and author of over 70 books! Durning his amazing life, he befriended other well known intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and shared his views on abolition with President Lincoln. A strong abolitionist, Moncure Conway returned to Falmouth, in 1862, and moved 31 of his family’s slaves to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Harlem Renaissance painter, Palmer Hayden of Widewater, was among the first African-American artists to use African subjects and designs. He blended African-American folklore, history, and aspects of everyday life into his work. You can find his work displayed at The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, California.
Henry "Box" Brown
Henry "Box" Brown was born a slave in Louisa County. In 1849, his pregnant wife and three children were sold to a plantation, in North Carolina. Horrified, he watched helplessly as 350 chained slaves, including his wife carrying their unborn child and their three young children, march south. It was in that moment, that he resolved to become free. With the help of James Caesar Anthony Smith (a recently freed man) and Samuel Alexander Smith ( a white sympathizer ), he sealed himself in a box and shipped himself to freedom.
The box was three feet long, two feet eight inches deep, and two feet wide, and marked as “dry goods.” The arduous journey took a whopping 27 hours! The box containing Henry "Box" Brown was received by William Still, James Miller McKim, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson, in Philadelphia PA. The moment the box was opened, Brown said, “How do you do, Gentlemen?” and recited a psalm, “I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.” A replica of his box is located in front of the Stafford tourism office.
Top picture is a photograph of George DeBaptiste