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Fredericksburg unveils marker recognizing 1961 Freedom Riders' first stop
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Fredericksburg unveils marker recognizing 1961 Freedom Riders' first stop

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When Dion Diamond applied for employment with the federal government, a question on the application asked if he’d ever been arrested.

“The only way I could respond was I’ve been arrested approximately 30 times,” Diamond said. “Please check with the FBI for dates and locations.”

Diamond’s arrests during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were for what the late Rep. John Lewis called “good trouble.”

Diamond was a Freedom Rider—a group of Civil Rights activists who rode interstate buses to protest racial segregation in the travel industry.

Marker memorializes city's role as first stop by Freedom Riders seeking to end segregation on buses in 1961.

The 80-year-old Petersburg native was a guest speaker Wednesday afternoon at 601 Princess Anne St., as a historical marker recognizing the first stop on the Freedom Rides was unveiled in downtown Fredericksburg.

The marker notes that the Congress of Racial Equality, led by James Farmer, organized the Freedom Rides in 1961, to challenge racial segregation in interstate bus travel.

It goes on to state that after the first bus departed Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, the initial stop was at the Greyhound bus terminal in Fredericksburg, where riders integrated the restrooms and lunch counter without incident.

The marker also states that the riders encountered “brutal resistance and arrest” as they traveled toward New Orleans.

Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw said Wednesday was a historic day in the city.

“It’s a wonderful day for the city of Fredericksburg and our future generations to be reminded of the selfless dedication of those folks who had the courage to get on that bus and come down here and then continue on,” Greenlaw said. “It literally changed America. It changed not just one law, but it changed the mindset and set an example.”

The collaborative effort to get the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to erect the marker began two years ago and culminated earlier this year when city officials received word that it was approved.

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The city partnered with the University of Mary Washington’s James Farmer Multicultural Center to conduct research.

Christopher Williams, assistant director of the multicultural center, presided over the ceremony. Assistant professor Christine Henry, a member of UMW’s Historic Preservation faculty, also spoke, and said the marker is helping to “make a more diverse history visible on the landscape of Fredericksburg.”

Tim Roberts represented the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and gave remarks. Roberts noted that Virginia has the oldest highway marker program in the nation. It was established in 1927 but has recently seen an uptick in more diverse applications.

Roberts said 370 markers in Virginia are dedicated to Black history and 48 percent of all new markers approved fall into that category. Roberts said ceremonies like this one show that “we can make history at the same time we memorialize it.”

Fredericksburg resident and former history teacher Mayo Carter supplied the funding for the effort and received a plaque from the city. Carter said when she taught lessons about the Freedom Riders, her students were in awe that the activists signed their last will and testament before embarking on trips because of the possibility of death.

There were two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional, but the Freedom Riders were protesting the nonenforcement of those decisions in the southern states and the federal government’s refusal to intervene.

Diamond recalled that at Parchment Prison in Mississippi, he was cellmates with Farmer, who later became a history professor. at Mary Washington

A quote from Farmer was placed outside during the ceremony that read:

“Anyone who said he wasn’t afraid during the Civil Rights movements was either a liar or without imagination. I was scared all the time. My hands didn’t shake but inside I was shaking.”

There were also photographs of the other Freedom Riders for visitors to view, and a 1962 bus that was borrowed from the Commonwealth Coach and Trolley Museum in Roanoke.

The names of the 13 original Freedom Riders were read by UMW senior American Studies major Sydney Baylor, who has worked on a Civil Rights trail project and interned with the city this past summer.

Vice Mayor Chuck Frye Jr., the lone Black representative on City Council, ribbed Diamond for his nickname “Crazy Dion,” before stating that people like Diamond are the reason he was able to become a government official.

“If you can make a difference by what someone calls ‘crazy,’ ” Frye said, “then let’s go crazy.”

Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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