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New panels help tell story of Black history in Fredericksburg
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New panels help tell story of Black history in Fredericksburg

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When Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw attended an NAACP meeting last year, she anticipated discussing the controversial slave auction block in the city that was later removed from the corner of William and Charles streets.

But at the meeting, Greenlaw also learned of the Walker–Grant High School Class of 1950 that was not allowed to enter the front door of their graduation ceremony at the Dorothy Hart Community Center because of the color of their skin.

Greenlaw was taken aback when she was told that some Black people in the city tend to avoid the Dorothy Hart Community Center as a result of that incident 70 years ago.

“It was like a bomb went off,” Greenlaw said. “It was like, ‘Where have I been?’ I was 10 years old at the time and I lived a block and a half from the community center. I never knew African American families in this city were not comfortable going to the community center.”

Greenlaw said that was like a “great a-ha” moment for her.

The mayor and City Council soon began formulating a plan to tell a more inclusive story of Fredericksburg. Four initiatives in that plan have recently come to fruition.

The city is now displaying three wayside panels that tell the story of the Green Book, French John’s Wharf and the Freedom Riders.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has also announced that a historical marker will be placed at 601 Princess Anne St. detailing the first stop on the 1961 Freedom Rides that challenged Jim Crow laws in the south. The effort to establish the marker was spearheaded by City Councilman Chuck Frye Jr. and the James Farmer Multicultural Center at the University of Mary Washington.

“It’s a great milestone that the city has met and it’s a huge deal that we have taken time to settle down and tell the story of Fredericksburg,” Frye said. “To me, it shows how history books don’t tell the story of African–American history. And here in 2021 we’re researching information and coming up with actual history.”

The Green Book panel can be found on the corner of Wolfe and Princess Anne. The panel displays a view of the 500 block of Princess Anne, where many Black-owned businesses once thrived.

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Several businesses in that area were listed in the Green Book, which was a guide for Black travelers that showed where they could find safe accommodations during an era when they were often met with intimidation and discriminatory practices.

The Green Book included restaurants, hotels and gas stations that serviced Blacks. Esso was the only oil company that sold franchises to Blacks at the time. A Fredericksburg Esso station agreed to sponsor and sell the Green Book, which was in circulation from 1936–67.

The panel dedicated to French John’s Wharf sits on Canal and Caroline streets. It recognizes John DeBaptiste, a free Black man who established a shipping wharf where Canal Street meets the Rappahannock River in the 18th century. He eventually purchased the land, as well.

DeBaptiste was an entrepreneur who operated both the wharf and the Falmouth Ferry at a time when no bridges crossed the river at Fredericksburg.

Mayor Greenlaw said the city plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders making their first stop in Fredericksburg in early May. The event took place May 4, 1961, and a panel sits on Princess Anne pointing visitors to the former location of Fredericksburg’s bus depot, which is now the site of the city’s fire station.

Fredericksburg was the first stop at the start of a seven-month campaign challenging southern states to recognize the 1946 and 1960 Supreme Court rulings banning segregated interstate travel.

A quote from deceased Freedom Rider James Farmer, who later became a history professor at Mary Washington from 1985–98, is written on the panel. It reads: “Anyone who said he wasn’t afraid during the civil rights movement was either a liar or without imagination. I was scared all the time. My hands didn’t shake but inside I was shaking.”

Frye said city officials are actively seeking more diverse stories to tell throughout Fredericksburg.

Greenlaw noted the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes a replacement for former Diversity, Equity and Economic Advancement Officer Angela Freeman, who recently resigned to take a position in the private sector.

Freeman, the city’s former business development manager, was reassigned to the diversity position last summer following the removal of the auction block and civil unrest as a result of the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis.

“For me, it’s bigger than what’s happening here in the city,” Frye said of the effort to tell more Black history. “It’s telling a broader story of what’s happening in America.”

Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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