On May 4, 1961, a group of white and Black civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders stepped off a Greyhound bus in Fredericksburg. It was the first stop in a monthslong effort challenging segregation on Southern buses and in bus station waiting rooms and restaurants.
This Tuesday, exactly 60 years later, city officials will hold a ceremony to mark the site and commemorate Fredericksburg’s role in that chapter of the civil rights movement.
In 1961, the Fredericksburg bus station was located at the corner of Princess Anne and Wolfe streets downtown, near where the fire station is now. After the bus stopped, a white man named James Peck entered the “colored” men’s restroom, while a Black man named Charles Person entered the white’s only restroom and then ordered a sandwich at the white’s only lunch counter.
The Freedom Riders’ test of the status quo wasn’t overtly challenged in Fredericksburg, but they encountered extreme violence as they traveled farther south.
“Fredericksburg, being the first stop, is the first step in the very long journey of the Freedom Rides,” Christine Henry, assistant professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington, told The Free Lance–Star last year. “We think that’s significant.”
Erin Devlin, assistant professor of history at UMW, said the Freedom Riders, who were led by James Farmer, “not only [inspired] an entire generation of activists, but [resulted] in regulations from [the Interstate Commerce Commission] that prohibited segregation in interstate travel.”
Henry and Devlin, along with Chris Williams—a Farmer mentee and assistant director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center—and Fredericksburg City staff liaison Kate Schwartz, embarked last year on an effort to place a historic marker at the site of the Freedom Riders’ first stop.
The Virginia Department of Historical Resources approved the marker in March and on Tuesday the city will place a temporary marker at the site and Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw will read a proclamation naming May 4 “Freedom Riders Day.”
Attendance will be limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the event will be livestreamed at facebook.com/VisitFred starting at 1 p.m.
Williams said he has always felt Farmer—who in addition to leading the Freedom Riders was the executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality and went on to teach at UMW—has never received the recognition he deserves for his work during the civil rights movement.
“To have a marker placed in downtown Fredericksburg to commemorate his signature achievement is fulfilling and exciting,” Williams said.
He said he, Devlin, Henry and Matthews are now working to have historic markers placed at three other sites in downtown Fredericksburg— “Free Alley” in the Libertytown neighborhood, which was the only route enslaved workers could take to get downtown without carrying papers; the current Foode restaurant building, which is where the Fredericksburg branch of the Freedmen’s Bureau was headquartered following the Civil War; and Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), which was visited by many prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
“This is a story of determination and it took a multicultural coalition,” Williams said of the successful effort to erect a Freedom Riders marker in Fredericksburg. “That’s something we can pull from this—it’s going to take all of us [to fully tell the story of Black Americans].”
The James Farmer Multicultural Center will also honor the Freedom Riders by showing the PBS documentary on the campaign Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. Those who wish to view it can register at the multicultural center's website.