The Fredericksburg Area offers meaningful ways to create a connection to the nation’s African-American heritage and better understand the experience of those who came before us. As a vital trade center and seaport in colonial times, the area was a gateway to the west and an important part of the journey for many slaves. During the Civil War, the Rappahannock River and the Union encampment at Falmouth helped thousands of slaves find freedom. In classrooms and communities of the region, the 20th century battle for education and equal rights continues to enlighten visitors.
Whether you trace your own lineage to Spotsylvania County, as author Alex Haley did when telling the story of Kunte Kinte in Roots, or find inspiration in the determination of educators and students striving for equality during the Civil Rights era, African-American history in Fredericksburg is both moving and accessible. To enrich a family vacation, family reunion, or your own getaway, here are a few ways to explore black history through the region’s fascinating African-American sites and stories.
Follow the Trail To Freedom
The path to freedom for many led to Falmouth, VA, in 1862, where the Union Army offered safe passage for an estimated 10,000+ slaves seeking to escape from points south. The Trail to Freedom follows the journey of John Washington, a 23-year-old slave in Fredericksburg who wrote of his escape. The trail combines a walking tour of Fredericksburg with a driving tour of African-American history in Stafford County to include both preserved sites like Chatham Manor and marked locations to give you a powerful sense of the experience.
Take a Walking Tour of Fredericksburg
While sites like the slave auction block at the corner of Charles and William Streets may bear little resemblance to their troubling past, you will sense the power of African-American history in Fredericksburg on a walking tour of the downtown area. Also part of the Trail to Freedom, the tour features buildings created with the help of free blacks and the site of first black church in Fredericksburg. For a mobile guide to this and other tours, download the new Fred Map App.
Drive the African American Heritage Trail Through Spotsylvania County
From Civil War to Civil Rights, the 11 sites on Spotsylvania’s African American Heritage Trail reveal the stories of 23 historic events, people and places. Along a serene route through the countryside, you’ll encounter one-room schools, churches and an old gold mining site as you learn of famed troops and revolutionaries. There are plenty of ways to make this scenic drive a family outing, including stops for dining and recreation. For trail guidance including points of interest and mobile friendly app downloads, click here.
Spend a Day at Aquia Landing
The subject of the movie 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northrup was transferred from steamboat to stagecoach here after his capture. Now a park with a riverside beach, fishing, picnicking and recreation, Aquia Landing was both an important access point for military operations and slaves seeking freedom in the 19th century. Part of the Trail to Freedom driving tour and designated by the National Parks Service as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site, the park allows families to reflect on the past while enjoying the beauty of a natural setting.
Visit the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum
Named for a noted educator of the 1920’s, the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum preserves Spotsylvania’s stories with permanent exhibits of artifacts, photographs and interpretations of the history of public education for African Americans in Spotsylvania County. Follow the determined efforts of educators, community leaders and students for an inspiring reminder of the challenges faced during the pre-Civil Rights era.
Visit Historic Falmouth
Explore the site of the crossing of John Washington, whose 1862 escape to freedom inspired the Trail to Freedom, at the Historic Port of Falmouth Park along the Rappahannock River in Stafford County. The nearby Moncure Conway House, home of a preacher and abolitionist who helped his father’s slaves escape to freedom, is an NPS Underground Railroad site and a stop on the Belmont-Ferry Farm Trail. Historic Union Church and other locations are central to the story of John DeBaptiste, a successful businessman and free black during the Revolutionary War.
Tour Chatham Manor
One of America’s most beautiful and historic homes and site of an 1805 slave uprising, Chatham Manor was supported by nearly 100 slaves before being occupied by the Union army during the Civil War. The setting remains much as it was, allowing you to imagine a time when field hands and house servants toiled, lived and sometimes rebelled.
Tour Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont
Gari Melchers lived at Belmont in the early 20th century and was one of the most celebrated painters of his time, commissioned for portraits by the rich and famous. Yet he loved capturing local scenes and created an enduring record of the lives of African Americans in settings throughout Fredericksburg and Stafford County. Adjoining the Belmont estate, you can visit the Fannie Roots House, a rare surviving cottage named for its last resident. A highly respected citizen and Civil Rights activist, Fannie Roots lived here her entire life, from 1914 to 2004, with no indoor plumbing and only a wood stove for heating and cooking. Built after the Civil War, the cottage stands in stark contrast to the luxury and comfort of Belmont as it preserves African American gardening traditions and the stories of tradesmen, workers and women of the area.
Pay Your Respects to African American Soldiers
Amid the various battlefields and historic sites of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County National Military Park, the Fredericksburg National Cemetery offers a glimpse into the stories of several African American soldiers. Whether they served among the 300,000 United States Colored Troops of the Union Army like Charles Sprout, or in later wars like WWI physician and Distinguished Service Cross recipient Urbane Bass, their stories are compelling. They are honored with a final resting place in the hills of Fredericksburg, where lighting of luminaries is a favorite Memorial Day event.
Join an African-American History Tour
Whether you hire a step-on guide for your group tour or request a customized Trolley Tour, you’ll learn from those who know their way around Fredericksburg’s African-American heritage story. You’ll hear of the arrival of indentured servants in 1619, the history of Shiloh Baptist Church, stories of the DeBaptiste family of free blacks who risked everything and of peaceful sit-ins at downtown lunch counters in 1960.