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Mark that spot!
Mark that spot! Local black history is too often unnoted

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Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 3/2/2009

FORMER city planner Jervis Hair- ston recently hosted a trolley tour featuring a lesser-known facet of local history: the experience of Fredericksburg's slaves. Probably few residents, much less tourists, know the facts Mr. Hairston presented. And no wonder, for where are the historic markers?

Tour participants travelled from the Rappahannock riverfront--where slaves were once kept in holding pens--to higher ground, where slaves and free blacks co-existed uncomfortably with their masters and other white residents. Their stories are filled with unbelievable suffering, irony, fear, and--ultimately--redemption.

At the base of George Street sits the location where Fannie Richards was born--and from where she would leave to become a prominent educator in Detroit. The dock on the Rappahannock marks the approximate spot where John Duncan brought the riverboat Othello in 1771, hoping to reap profits from its cargo of slaves. On the corner of Charles and Amelia streets, the DeBaptiste family held a secret school for black children in their basement, falling under authorities' suspicion for their clandestine--and illegal--activities. Still visible, and walkable, in the Liberty Town neighborhood near Maury School, is the "free alley," where blacks were able to walk with relative freedom between their communities, avoiding fear-filled city streets.

At many of these stops, tourgoers ask, "Where is the historical marker for this?" Good question. For example, we can read about the spot on Caroline Street where George Washington dragged his small boat after crossing the Rappahannock from Ferry Farm, but there's nothing noting the location of the slave pens at the bottom of Rocky Lane.

Markers relevant to black history do exist at several locations around town, including one at the slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles streets. There's also one at the intersection of Caroline and William streets that discusses the civil rights era. Still more are in the works, says senior planner Erik Nelson, including one for the aforementioned "free alley" and potter's field nearby.

However, it's clear from the interest expressed by tourgoers that still more signs are in order to convey these stories--part of the fabric of Fredericksburg.

With so much history here--pre-Revolutionary and Civil War, in particular--there is still much to learn as we continue our journey toward understanding our city's--and our nation's--legacy. More markers would help.