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Monday February 27, 2023
COMMENTARY: Remote work and the future of Fredericksburg | ANALYSIS: Censorship, fragility, and the damage to education | OBSERVED: Moment | LETTER TO THE EDITOR | PUBLICATION: Schedule
COMMENTARY: In a state turning back the clock on racial relations, Fredericksburg looks to the future
By Martin Davis
Gilbert Stuart, James Madison, c. 1821, NGA 56914.jpg by Gilbert Stuart is marked with CC0 1.0.
James Madison is a name that is well-known by Virginia’s school children; few, if any, would deny him his place in the state’s K-12 textbooks, or museums, or tourist information.
Of his enslaved attendant John, however, there are very, very few who would know him. Or his role in Madison’s life. Or that John and Madison once had a major dustup in downtown in Fredericksburg.
“We like to give homage,” says Fredericksburg Mary Katherine Greenlaw, to the promises made in the Constitution. But to realize those, “we have to tell the whole story” of our region.
We haven’t just given the history of Black Virginians short shrift, we’ve consciously ignored and suppressed it for years.
The city of Fredericksburg, along with other historical sites in central Virginia, is working hard to bring this all-important history to light.
From auction block to walking blocks
In September 2017, the city of Fredericksburg began an open dialog about the auction block that had long stood at the corner William and Charles streets. That block was moved to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, and went on display to the public last year.
That debate launched six years ago, however, was about much more than one artifact. In fact, it ignited a larger discussion about telling the full story of Fredericksburg history. And that led last week to the launch of the new two-part civil rights trail.
“The Civil Rights Trail is an incredible example of a city really listening to its African American community members,” says Gaila Sims, curator of African American history at FAM. “The city used [the auction block discussions] to learn more about what people were looking for, and discovered the Fredericksburg community members wanted to see African American history remembered and honored on the city landscape.”
The trail - most of which can be covered by foot - covers the history of Blacks across the city’s history timeline. A booklet that provides a complete description of the path and stops, as well as longer stories, frames the history this way:
This tour includes sites where Black people created educational, housing, and business opportunities in the midst of Jim Crow era segregation, as well as buildings where people protested racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. As in the rest of the United States, Fredericksburg’s Civil Rights history continues into the present and this tour includes sites associated with Black political leaders in the mid to late 20th century and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
Joshua Cole, former House delegate, captured the importance of making Black history a prominent part of the city’s landscape this way: “There's so much history hidden [in plain sight]. Even [as] someone who grew up here, I didn't even realize the Black history right in our back yard.”
Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) - the first stop on Part I of the trail - not only was the home to some of the city’s most prominent ministers and political leaders, but the church has played host to leading Black thinkers W.E.B. Dubois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
To be sure, the city’s trek to the establishment of this new trail has not always been smooth or easy. These discussions have been tough at times, but necessary.
The full history of our city “is in our DNA,” says Greenlaw. “Telling all of it is the only way I know” to live up to the ideals we aspire to as a people.
A short drive from Fredericksburg is the aforementioned Madison’s home. Over the past two years, the foundation that operates the home has been embroiled in controversy as it tried to implement a unique power-sharing structure (called “structural parity”) - crafting a board equally composed of descendants of enslaved persons, and non-descendants.
Last year, things went badly, as I reported. The board chair and CEO of the foundation tried to walk back their promise of structural parity.
Following a protracted battle, the defenders of structural parity carried the day and are working finally to fully implement their vision of telling whole-truth history. This means digging as much into the life and work of Madison as the lives of those enslaved on the plantation who made Madison’s life work possible.
Clint Schemmer, previously editor of the Culpeper Star-Exponent, has done some of the best reporting on this struggle. In a piece published by the Charlottesville Daily Progress on Saturday, Schemmer tells the story of how Montpelier emerged from the chaos of last year and is redefining our national understanding of our past.
It won’t be doing this alone. Montpelier is helping build out a trail called The Arc, an 850-square mile area running from Richmond to Fredericksburg. This area “encompassed one of the highest concentrations of enslaved Americans during the formative years of the United States,” according to the site. “These communities formed the socioeconomic, cultural, and intellectual backbone of a vital early American ecosystem conventionally known as the region of James Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.”
Not everyone is onboard, as Schemmer notes. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have been vocal in what they see as discussing the role of slavery at the expense of the story of Madison.
Not everyone’s on board
In Richmond, some of our most powerful leaders share Heritage’s concern and are doing their best to ensure that John and the names, lives, and significant impacts enslaved people like him had on Virginia’s history are never fully told.
Since becoming governor, Glenn Youngkin has railed against Critical Race Theory, blown racist dog whistles to further his political career, advocated for revised K-12 history standards that wrote large chunks of Black history out of Virginia’s story, and has begun the process of keeping Virginia’s most-talented high school students from taking AP African American history.
For a man who likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr. - his “content of their character” line at least (and grossly out of context); we’ve yet to hear him wrestle with the message of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” - Youngkin is either incredibly ignorant about Black history in America and its impact on life today, or he is consciously playing to racist tropes to win over white voters in his power-driver quest for the White House.
His behavior is a blatant reminder that when it comes to race, the same ignorant ideas that catalyzed the Civil Rights movement are still with us today.
So, too, are the forward-thinking leaders who insisted the nation make good on its promise of freedom for all.
We should be proud that here in Fredericksburg, our leaders are among the forward-looking.
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