The assimilation of the African American story into the mainstream of American culture has proven to take far longer than is justifiable. But like many cities and counties in the state of Virginia, Fredericksburg not only recognizes, but embraces the African American History of its city, and how that history has shaped its culture to this day. It is essential to begin the substantial trek of Fredericksburg African American History that encapsulates so much of what has built this city.
History Through Film
In addition to housing an international port for the slave trade, Fredericksburg was a stopping point in the story of Solomon Northup, the subject of the Academy-Award winning film “12 Years a Slave.” Northup, a free Black musician 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 traveled by boat to Norfolk and on to New Orleans. The Free Lance-Star’s Clint Schemmer shares some notable resources for exploring Northup’s journey through the Fredericksburg area.
Rappahannock & John Washington
A few decades later, the Rappahannock River was a major milestone for enslaved persons seeking freedom. During the spring and summer of 1862, the Union Army was installed in Falmouth, where they could offer safe passage to enslaved persons seeking freedom from Fredericksburg and other southern points. Researchers have determined that more than 10,000 enslaved persons passed through the area during this period as they sought freedom.
Among them was John Washington, then a 23-year-old enslaved person 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” 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.
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 man 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 (which is still part of Fredericksburg’s public school system). As the late historian Ruth Coder Fitzgerald notes in her brochure on Fredericksburg’s African-American history, many important sites have been lost as time has passed, “so it is necessary to use the imagination to picture much of Fredericksburg’s Black history.”
Members of this community continue to work to preserve sites important to telling the story of Black history. In 2013, 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 Black students could attend, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
One person who has contributed to the remembrance of Fredericksburg African American history is Gari Melchers, the painter who lived at Belmont in Falmouth. Melchers painted many local scenes, and a number of his subjects were African-American residents. His painting, “Commerce Street,” 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.
Fredericksburg is always striving to explore the African American history that has shaped the character of this city to this day. We celebrate this history in many ways, including the Traipse African American Walking Tour in downtown Fredericksburg. And as we continue to examine how the African American story has taken its place in the history of this city and region, including the Spotsylvania African American Heritage Trail, we will always encourage residents and visitors to explore our rich, extensive, and complex past.