AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY IN FREDERICKSBURG
African and African-descended people have lived and worked in this region since the seventeenth century. While subject to enslavement, racism, and segregation, African Americans have built community and made essential contributions to the city of Fredericksburg and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Here you will find physical and digital resources for exploring Black history in the Fredericksburg area.
Between 1728 and 1773, ships carrying enslaved people made over fifty voyages up the Rappahannock River. The slave ship Othello landed at the port of Fredericksburg in April 1771, carrying at least 85 enslaved people from the west coast of Africa. Visit City Dock Park to view the wayside panel marking the Othello’s arrival.
Enslaved labor was integral to Virginia’s early economy and infrastructure. Visit Chatham Manor, part of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, to explore an plantation once inhabited by enslaved people. Chatham was also the site of Fredericksburg’s only documented slave uprising.
Like other Fredericksburg residents, African Americans participated in the Revolutionary War, including John De Baptiste, one of the most prominent free Black entrepreneurs of the late eighteenth century. Visit the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. to learn more about the De Baptiste family, or check out the French John’s Wharf wayside panel at 1601 Caroline Street.
French John's Wharf Wayside Panel
A Monumental Weight: The Auction Block
Located at the corner of William and Charles Streets, Fredericksburg’s Auction Block was the site of at least twenty sales of enslaved people between 1847 and 1862, involving over three hundred enslaved people overall. In 2020, the Auction Block was relocated to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and the city installed a commemorative marker at its former corner. Visit the FAM to view the exhibition A Monumental Weight: The Auction Block in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
John M. Washington was born enslaved here in Fredericksburg on 1838 and described his experience of enslavement in and around the area in the narrative he wrote later in life, Memorys of the Past, which was published by David Blight in A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation in 2007. Listen to the “John Washington’s World” podcast tour hosted by John Hennessy while exploring downtown Fredericksburg.
Washington was one of over 10,000 enslaved people who freed themselves by escaping behind Union lines during the Civil War. Follow the Trail to Freedom to retrace the route of these freedom-seeking men, women, and children through Fredericksburg and Stafford. The Stafford Museum also explores this time period, remarking on Washington’s time with Union soldiers, Ellen and William Craft’s escape to freedom, and the story of Andrew Weaver, soldier in the 23rd U.S. Colored Troops.
Stop by Fredericksburg’s historic African American churches to learn more about their unique histories and important community achievements. Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) was established in the early 1800s at 801 Sophia Street. Old Site has been home to several highly influential pastors, including Reverend B.H. Hester, who established the Shiloh Herald, and Reverend Lawrence A. Davies, the first African American elected to Fredericksburg’s city council and later the city’s first African American mayor. Shiloh Baptist Church (New Site) stands at 525 Princess Anne Street, established in 1890. The first Black high school, the Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute, began in the church’s basement, and Fredericksburg’s first Black physician, Dr. Urbane Bass, was a member of the church.
In the early twentieth century, African American youth attended several segregated schools in the area. The John J. Wright Museum tells the history of African American education in Spotsylvania County, part of the larger African American Heritage Trail. In Fredericksburg, city’s first publicly supported Black high school, the Walker-Grant School, was built in 1935. The original building on Gunnery Road is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walker-Grant students were involved in one of the earliest Civil Rights events in Fredericksburg’s history. In 1950, Walker-Grant seniors requested to hold their graduation ceremony at the city’s Community Center, but were denied. Eventually, the city relented, but stipulated that students and attendees could only enter through the back of the building. In response, the students organized a protest, with support from members of Shiloh Old Site Baptist Church. In 2022, the City of Fredericksburg recognized the importance of this protest by unveiling a marker commemorating the Walker-Grant High School Class of 1950 outside the Dorothy Hart Community Center.
Walker-Grant Marker: Photographed By Devry Becker Jones (CC0), March 4, 2023
Learn more about local Civil Rights efforts by following the Civil Rights Trail. Divided into two parts, the trail includes a walking tour through Fredericksburg’s historic downtown district and additional stops on the University of Mary Washington’s campus. Contact the Fredericksburg Tourism Office to schedule a Civil Rights Trail Walking Tour guided by local Fredericksburg residents.
Fredericksburg has a long and storied history of African American entrepreneurship. Head to Liberty Town at the corner of Liberty and George Street to glimpse a neighborhood established in part by a formerly enslaved man named Henry Deane. Dean came to Fredericksburg shortly after the Civil War and began acquiring real estate and constructing buildings along with his wife, Lucy Combs. The couple would eventually accumulate 19 houses and 2 stables, by far the most property owned by any local African American family at that time.
Visit the 500 Block of Princess Anne Street in remembrance of Fredericksburg’s thriving mid-century Black business district. Situated in between the railroad station on one side, Black homeowners and Shiloh New Site Baptist Church on the other, and located on what was once the bustling thoroughfare of US Route 1, this area housed several Black businesses, including the Paris Inn, the Rappahannock and McGuire Hotels, Sonny Dyson’s Record Store, and Brown’s Funeral Home. While few remnants of this community remain, wayside panels mark the landscape, including one commemorating the Green Book, an essential travel guide published between 1936 and 1967 that identified businesses like restaurants and hotels that would accept African American customers.
Exhibitions at the Fredericksburg Area Museum feature a multitude of stories related to African American history and culture in the Fredericksburg area. These Old Walls: A Town and Its Stories, includes images from the Fredericksburg sit-ins and dishes from local African American restaurateur Matthew Buckner’s Seafood Lunch. Visit the third floor of the museum for Seen: Viewing the Work of African American Artists of Fredericksburg, or schedule a Black History Walking Tour with Dr. Gaila Sims, Curator of African American History and Special Projects.