On a mild summer morning, in view of the Rappahannock River that once stood as a final obstacle to freedom for hundreds of enslaved Virginians, 50 people from 33 countries took in their first moments of American citizenship.
For some, like Hannah Yema Olu-Nylander who grew up under colonial rule in Sierra Leone, the journey was decades in the making. She came to the U.S. for school and ended up building a life here—a 38-year career in banking, a son who now has two children of his own.
“I was always going to,” she said of U.S. citizenship. “But I waited until I retired.”
Just after 10 a.m. Saturday, some 48 years after her arrival, Olu-Nylander stood on the grounds of Chatham Manor in Stafford and clutched a thick, white folder bearing an embossed certificate of naturalization. Her daughter-in-law kept asking her how it felt and she struggled to explain it.
It was like getting married, she said finally. Nothing feels different but everything has changed.
Claudia Echegoyen felt free. She came to Virginia six years ago from El Salvador, a country so dangerous the State Department warns Americans against travel there. The murder rate is among the highest in the world; muggings, home invasions and highway assaults are commonplace.
“I feel free to walk around my house, to go to work,” said Echegoyen, who held the hand of her 3-year-old daughter, Valentina Molina.
Echegoyen, who lives in Dumfries and works in retail, donned heels and a black dress with a sequined collar for one of the most momentous moments of her life. She bent down to adjust Valentina’s hairbow.
America, she said, “is so beautiful.”
Before the group of 50 raised their right hands and repeated in unison the oath of allegiance to the United States, sealing at last their arduous paths to citizenship that included interviews and background checks and tests in English and civics, they took a tour of the grounds of Chatham.
John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, led the way, telling how some 9 million Americans lived and died as enslaved people. He told how it was in this region, more than any other place, that the Union and Confederate armies met in a bloody Civil War that solved the question of slavery once and for all.
It is well known, Hennessy said, that “when the Union army came here in the spring of 1862, it was a disaster for the local community.”
Chatham Manor, once a proud, 1,280-acre plantation overlooking the Rappahannock, was occupied by the Union army for 13 months. The Georgian mansion served as a hospital for the wounded; amputated limbs were said to have been tossed out the windows and into the shade of two catalpa trees that still stand.
Many locals fled. “One enslaved man, he didn’t run. He went out to look across the river.”
He was sure of his freedom then, Hennessy said. He made what would be his first step to citizenship.
“Equality, as you know, has been struggle for this nation and it continues to be,” he said. “We challenge constantly our nation to be better. We are loud and noisy and ungrateful. But you know what? We figure it out.”
Hennessy pointed to a small rectangle of stone signifying the burial spot of an unknown Union soldier.
The man’s family never knew what became of him, he said. “Many of you come from war-torn countries and know that pain very well.”
Then it was time to take their seats on the National Park Service grounds beneath a giant ginkgo tree. This was the second time Chatham Manor hosted a naturalization service. Last year, 36 men and women raised their hands in oath.
Now 50 listened and stood as their home countries were called:
Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil. China, Columbia, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia. Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco. Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, Sierra Leone. Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Vietnam.
They held tiny American flags in their left hands and raised their right hands—citizens of those countries no longer. Soon, they would form a line to turn in their voter registration papers, their first act as Americans.
“Congratulations,” Sarah Taylor, Washington District director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said when it was over. “You are now American citizens.”
Cheers rang out from the dozens of family and friends who’d come to support them.
In the front row stood Nana Asihene, a resident of this country since she was 15. Now she was 23, a rising senior at the University of Mary Washington, where she studies biology.
Asihene had never imagined this as a child growing up in Ghana, where there was no public school or decent health care.
“Coming here opened me up to so many opportunities,” she said. “If you ever grew up in Ghana, you would know how much luckier you are here.”
Kristin Davis: 540/374-5417
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