Fannie Mae Richards was one of fourteen children born to Adolphus and Marie (nee Moore) Richards. Her father, Adolphus Richards, born about 1804, was experiencing poor health in his home country of Guadalupe and was urged by his friends to relocate to Virginia. He took their advice and made his way to Virginia, settling in Fredericksburg where he would soon meet his bride to be, Maria Louise Moore.
Maria L. Moore was the daughter of a Scottish’s man, Edwin Moore, and an unidentified African woman from Toronto. It is unknown when and why her parents arrived in Fredericksburg, but what is known is that Maria was born in 1801 in the City of Fredericksburg shortly after Gabriel’s Rebellion. Her parents, not hiding their interracial marital status, socialized more with elite people of African descent than they did with whites.
Adolphus and Maria married on May 20, 1820, when Maria was twenty years old. As the couple began to start a new life together, the laws imposed upon enslaved Africans also applied to “free” people. Concerned with the idea that enslaved Africans socializing with “free” Africans might get the crazy idea of being free themselves, white fear created undue tensions for everyone. Whites really believed that the inherent spirit of freedom we are all born with had to be modeled by “free” Africans in order for enslaved Africans to know that freedom existed. Against this backdrop, the mayor of Fredericksburg, Robert Mackay, began enforcing an 1804 Act passed by the Virginia Legislature that defined when and how enslaved Africans could socialize:
That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, at any meeting house or houses, or any other place or places, in the night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered as an unlawful assembly.
To encourage regular citizens to report violations of the law, rewards were given to informants who told the police when and where the unlawful meetings were happening. From 1821-1834, 81 warrants had been issued against anyone who held a meeting after dark in a public or private place where enslaved Africans were present. Adolphus had two warrants issued against him in 1828 and was fined $3.00 for each violation because one of the people he met with in William Kirk’s home, was enslaved. While the specific law was narrowly focused on enslaved people, the outcome was that it also applied to “free” people.
It was hard enough just trying to live at the turn of the 19th century but the enforcement of the “unlawful assemblage” rule compounded what had at once been an acceptable practice of openly sharing information such as reading and writing amongst “free” Africans. Before 1830, free schools for African students were supported by African philanthropists and they had been operating without issue until 1831 when a new law shut down all schools for Africans in Virginia:
All meetings of free Negroes or mulattoes, at any schoolhouse, church meeting house, or any other place for teaching them reading and writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered unlawful assembly.
The ham-fisted crackdown on educating people of African descent bore down on Maria in a menacing way. She was responsible for educating their children in her home but as her family increased, so did the other responsibilities of running a home. Added to the regular family pressures, informants were trolling her community looking for suspicious criminal activities like teaching a kid her ABCs and then reporting whatever they said they saw to the police to collect the reward. The increased pressure Maria felt as a mother and wife was minuscule compared to the anger she felt about the new laws imposed upon her and her family. She was, however, adamant and steadfast in her belief that her children would be educated regardless of what anyone else had to say.
There were a few options available to her: she could send her son to John De Baptiste’s home at 1015 Charles Street where De Baptiste and his wife were already educating their seven children in an “illegal” school; or, she could send her son to an Englishwoman named Mrs. Beecham, who operated an illegal school in her home with the help of her daughter. She took the Beecham option but that solution only lasted a short while because it was too risky and too complicated to remember all of the backup plans and signals that everyone had to remember just to evade detection. Maria came up with another plan to send her son, John D. Richards, to John Francis Cook’s school in Washington D.C. Cook was an abolitionist, educator, and founder of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. The risk she took in sending her son to D.C. grew worrisome for her and her husband because Virginia passed another suppression law in 1838 that forbade the repatriation of any African person from returning to the state if they had completed or begun their education in another state. Maria was both devastated and angry, but determined, still, that her children would be educated even if it meant not seeing her first-born for a short while.
She endured Fredericksburg so long as she had her beloved Adolphus with her. After he died on February 9, 1851, Maria soon sold the family home in Fredericksburg and moved to Detroit, Michigan. Maria, rightfully so, grew tired of the sustained social and legal constraints placed upon her and her children. Her son John immediately reunited with the family once everyone was in Detroit. The Richards’ were soon followed by other Fredericksburg families, namely the Lees, Cooks, De Baptistes, and Williamses; and the Pelham’s of Petersburg, Virginia.
Fannie Mae was only ten years old when her father died so she did not have the same memories of the social dysfunction as her parents and older siblings experienced while living here, but she did have some memories including witnessing her mother’s self-determination to never give up. Fannie followed her mother’s example of leadership and resistance to inequalities in the African community and her lifetime achievements are evidence of that.
Fannie’s educational progress began in Toronto where she learned English and history among other subjects. She could have attended school in Detroit but she felt the schools offered an inferior education for African students. Fannie completed school and eventually went on to graduate from a Teacher Training School in Detroit.
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1862, a white man named Mr. Whitebeck opened a public school for African children in Detroit. Fannie saw the schoolhouse and was inspired to do something more to lift up her people, deciding to open her own private school at the Second Baptist Church in 1863. Fannie taught at her private school for six years until a brand new public school, Colored School #2, was built. She asked about a teaching opportunity with a member of the school board, William D. Wilkins, who in turn introduced her to Superintendent Duane Dotty. Dotty was impressed with Fannie and invited her to apply for a teaching position. Her interview scores were the highest of all candidates, so she was offered and accepted the job. Fannie, of course, knew at the time that there was more to the moment than just landing the job. She understood the historical gravity of becoming the 1st African American teacher in Detroit’s public schools. One year later, on the first day of school, she stopped by her private school to escort all 40 of her students to their new school, the Colored School #2.
Her sincere desire to elevate her people was not limited to classroom learning. She encouraged and helped finance Joseph Workman’s lawsuit against the Detroit Board of Education in 1869 which challenged the idea of segregated schools. Workman’s complaint made it to the Michigan Supreme Court where he eventually prevailed. When the schools in Michigan were ordered integrated in 1871, Richards was transferred to Everett School where she taught very few African American students during her 55-year career. She expressed no regret for the circumstances that led to her reassignment to an all-white school because, in the end, it was a small price to pay for the benefit of the African American children she wanted to help. Indeed, breaking the back of segregated schools in 1871 was no small feat but she led the way with her first job and there was no looking back. Life doesn’t get much more incredible than that.
Fannie Richards will always be remembered for fighting the good fight to equalize the education for underserved students. And although she made her home in Detroit, she will always be a source of pride for the City of Fredericksburg.
 W. B. Hartgrove, “The Story of Maria Louise Moore and Fannie M. Richards,” The Journal of Negro History 1, no. 1 (1916): 23–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/2713513.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 General Assembly, and Aaron Davis. “An Act further declaring what shall be deemed unlawful meetings of slaves (January 24, 1804)” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 11 Jan. 2022.
 Fredericksburg Historic Court Records, https://www.fredericksburgva.gov/998/Historic-Court-Records.
 Fredericksburg Mayor’s Court, “Unlawful Assembly”, Book 1828-1835, entry date 6/20/1828, p. 8.
 Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, Virginia (Unicorn, 1979), 73.
 Ibid., 35.
 Karen A. Johnson, Abul Pitre, and Kenneth L. Johnson, eds. African American Women Educators: A Critical Examination of Their Pedagogies, Educational Ideas, and Activism from the Nineteenth to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. R&L Education, 2014, p. 31.
 Hartgrove, “The Story of Maria Louise Moore and Fannie M. Richards,” p. 26.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 31.
About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD
Dr. Royster is the Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. Dr. Royster teaches undergraduate coursework in Humanities and Social Sciences. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice; and an advanced graduate certificate in Creative Writing. Her research interest is the African Diaspora.