African-American History of Fredericksburg, Virginia
By Ruth Fitzgerald*
Blacks first inhabited Virginia in 1619. They came to the sparsely settled Rappahannock Valley long before Fredericksburg was officially founded in 1728.
In colonial times, Fredericksburg and Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, were important centers of trade. The towns were considered the gateway to the mountains and the way west, and they also served as major seaports.
Because of the thriving import-export business here, there were always many slaves in the area, both owned by local residents, or en route to the interior. Free blacks also lived in the Fredericksburg area, especially after the Revolutionary War. Some slaves were freed for their participation in the Revolutionary War. Some were freed by benevolent owners, while others were allowed to purchase their freedom. Still others were free because of the legal status of their mothers.
Slaves worked on plantations, on the docks, in iron industries, mining and quarries, mercantile businesses, construction, domestic services, and others were skilled blacksmiths, coopers, cobblers, and draymen. African Americans were vital in the development of the area.
From the late 1700's to the mid-1800's there were about 12,000 slaves in this area, 14,000 whites, and about 900 free blacks. In the city of Fredericksburg, there were about 1,200 slaves, 3,000 whites and about 350 free blacks.
Today, about one-fifth of the area's population is black.
Most owners had only a few slaves. Large plantations might have 50 or 60 slaves, and on rare occasions, especially after 1800, a plantation might have more than 100 slaves. Also, indentured white servants were available for hire in the late 1700's and early 1800's, and they were brought into the area by the boatload, just as slaves were brought here.
Alex Haley, the author of Roots, traced the story of his ancestor, Kunte Kinte, who was brought as a slave to nearby Spotsylvania County.
Many of the homes and businesses of blacks have been torn down, so it is necessary to use the imagination to picture much of Fredericksburg's black history.
[Barton Street | George Street | Sunken Road | Falmouth]
City Dock. The riverside was once a busy area with ships docking and wagons unloading and loading and leaving for the interior as well as bringing goods into Fredericksburg. The ships, docked all along the riverside, included large sea-going vessels. In colonial times, Fredericksburg was such a busy international port that Thomas Jefferson said sailors from all over the world could be found there.
Slave ships also docked here. John Duncan, a slave ship captain who landed here in 1771, wrote letters to the owner of his ship that a slaver had not been here since 1765, and he expected a good sale of slaves. However, a later letter reported that he did not have good luck in his sales because of a flood.
Most slavers sold their cargoes while sailing up the river and often the prime, young slaves were sold further downstream.
Also along the river in the antebellum era were slave pens where slaves were kept until they were sold or taken down south by slave traders known as "Georgy" men.
Shiloh Old Site Baptist Church, 801 Sophia Street. This was the first black church in the area. On this site was the original Fredericksburg Baptist Church, a white church with slave and free black members. When the white Baptists built elsewhere in 1854, their old church was sold to the black Baptists who renamed it the African Baptist Church.
George Rowe, a white man, was the minister before the Civil War. During the Civil War, it was used as a hospital. Repaired, it became known as the Shiloh Baptist Church and prospered until the 1880's.
The church is within a flood plain and the old building, weakened by flood damage, collapsed in 1886. The congregation divided over where to rebuild, on this site or at a new site.
After a court decision, about half the church members remained to rebuild the church in 1890, calling their church Shiloh Old Site Baptist Church. Baptisms of church members were conducted in the river until the early twentieth century.
Its minister, Lawrence A. Davies, was the first black mayor of Fredericksburg, elected in 1976.
Sophia and Pitt. During the late 1700's Sophia Street extended northward for several blocks. One of the area residents was a black man, John De Baptiste from St. Kitts, who ran the ferry to Falmouth. At various times, his children owned a sea-going ship, were fishermen, contractors, plasterers and land speculators. They were considered to be among the aristocracy of Fredericksburg blacks and owned at least two slaves themselves.
Caroline and Pitt. Many taverns were located along Caroline Street because it was the main street. Often slave auctions were held outside these taverns as well as in front of the courthouse on Princess Anne Street.
Anthony Buck, a licensed auctioneer, sold slaves as well as other merchandise at Buck's Auction Room, thought to be located behind his home at 801 Caroline Street in the first half of the nineteenth century. The building is now a restaurant.
William Street. A plaque at Burgess Barber Shop, 207 William Street, commemorates Lewis Randolph Ball, a black man who worked for 60 years at the barber shop. He died in 1987.
A small brick building near the northwest corner of Princess Anne and Amelia Streets, The Quarters, was once the slave quarters for the Doggett House.
On the southeast corner of Princess Anne near William Street is Town Hall, now the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. Completed in 1816, free blacks helped whites to build it although blacks were not allowed to sell produce in the market square behind it.
In November 1824, when General Lafayette visited Fredericksburg, a reception was given for him at Town Hall. Free blacks and slaves were told to stay off the streets during his visit.
St. George's Episcopal Church, Princess Anne Street at George Street, is built on the site of the first church in this area. One of the ministers of the church co-sponsored a colonial slave school. Another minister helped to start the local chapter of the American Colonization Society in 1819 and several free blacks from the area migrated to Liberia.
The National Bank of Fredericksburg, 900 Princess Anne Street, once was named the Farmer's Bank of Virginia. Abraham Lincoln spoke to troops and residents from the building's steps on April 22, 1862. The Freedmen's Bureau had its offices in the bank in 1865.
The Fredericksburg Courthouse in the 800 block was designed by James Renwick and built in 1852. In antebellum Fredericksburg, petitions were posted on the courthouse doors requesting permission for free blacks to stay in Fredericksburg despite laws of the times. During the war, contraband or runaway slaves from the surrounding counties were quartered in the basement of this building by Union troops.
Near the southwest corner of Hanover and Princess Anne Streets is the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church. The earlier Methodist congregation divided in the 1840's over the question of slavery nationally as did this church.
On the northeast corner of Princess Anne and Wolfe Streets is the Fredericksburg Fire Station, built on the site of the Colored School of Fredericksburg, built in 1884.
Another school for the black children was built near lower Charles Street in 1935 and named Walker-Grant School after Joseph Walker and Jason Grant. Joseph Walker was a former slave, born in Spotsylvania in 1854, who worked as a custodian at the National Bank and at St. George's Episcopal Church. Jason Grant, son of a Kentucky slave who escaped to Canada, came to Fredericksburg in the 1880's to teach. Both were active in establishing higher education for black children.
Shiloh New Site Baptist Church, 214 Wolfe Street, was built in 1890 after the division of the Shiloh Baptist congregation on Sophia Street. In 1905, a black high school began in the basement of Shiloh New Site. Called Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute (FNII), it was the only black high school in the area. Students from surrounding counties attended it.
In 1906 the high school moved to an area known as Mayfield, south of Fredericksburg and the school became known as Mayfield High School. Later it merged with the elementary school near lower Charles Street.
Nearby at 309 Wolfe Street is Mount Zion Church, which began in 1904. After a split with the Shiloh New Site congregation, the present church was built in the 1920's. The 500-600 blocks of Princess Anne was one business area for the local black community. Also the 1500 block of Princess Anne had many black businesses. Others were located on William Street and scattered throughout the city.
James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, 908 Charles Street. James Monroe practiced law in Fredericksburg from 1787 to 1789. Later he was governor of Virginia and President of the United States.
Monrovia, capitol of the African country of Liberia, was named for him because of his interest and activity in the American Colonization Society which encouraged black migration to Liberia.
The slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles Streets was used for the sale of property and the sale and hire of slaves during the decades prior to the Civil War. Slaves were kept in warehouses near the block until the time of sale. Before buying a slave, a potential owner would check the slave's health, stamina and disposition. The De Baptiste family, a family of free blacks, owned most of the east side of Charles Street from William to Amelia Streets in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The William De Baptiste family lived at the southeast corner of Amelia and Charles and held a secret school for black youth in their house. The female students pretended to sew and the male students pretended to make matches out of sticks and sulphur in case the Fredericksburg policeman, stationed outside, tried to catch them in their illegal school.
The Mary Washington House, 1200 Charles Street, was the home of the mother of the father of our country. She lived here from 1772 until her death in 1789. Slave quarters over the original kitchen stand behind the house. Some of her slaves were willed to relatives.
Pitt and Charles Streets. Free blacks lived in this area before the Civil War, and it remains a black residential area. Many moved here to work on the canal built in the 1830's to transport produce from the mountain area and interior to Fredericksburg and then on to the seacoast. Although the canal failed, many blacks remained. During the Civil War bombardments, they hid in warehouses built for canal trade.
Kenmore, 1201 Washington Avenue, was the home of Fielding and Betty Lewis. Betty was the sister of George Washington. Colonel Lewis owned a gunnery, which supplied arms for the Revolutionary War.
He also owned ships important in the Revolutionary War. The Dragon, built in Fredericksburg, was used to patrol the Rappahannock River and parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the area's slaves were freed after service as sailors on his ships and prospered as free blacks.
Lewis also supported a pre-Revolutionary War slave school sponsored by the Bray Associates of England. The purpose of this school for black children was to teach them to read so that they might participate in church services.
The school existed in Fredericksburg from 1765 to 1770 and was discontinued because of the tensions of the coming war and because slave owners did not want their slaves educated.
This area was once known as Liberty Town and before the Civil War, many free blacks rented homes here. Old Maury School stands where the potter's field and the Colored Cemetery were located. When the school was built here in the 1920's, many bodies were moved to Shiloh Cemetery at Littlepage Street and Monument Avenue.
At the intersection of George Street with Barton and Liberty Street, on the south side of George Street is Free Alley, a path leading south where slaves could walk freely to town without having to obtain a pass.
Generally, slaves walking in town had to have a pass written by a responsible person or they could be arrested. The path is still used as a shortcut to Hanover Street. In antebellum days, the path led downtown.
The battles of Fredericksburg were fought in this area in 1862 and 1863. Blacks were active in the Civil War as body servants for confederate officers, loading and unloading supply wagons for troops, digging trenches and other activities. After the war, blacks were employed buying Union soldiers in the national cemetery at the end of Sunken Road.
The first black officer to be buried in the National Cemetery was Urbane Bass, a black Fredericksburg doctor who died in 1918 while serving in World War I in France.
Belmont, the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, is the home of the late artist, Gari Melchers, who painted portraits of area persons and scenes of Fredericksburg and Stafford County as well as many other subjects. Some of his models were area African Americans.
Chatham, which now belongs to the National Park Service, was the site of a rebellion in January 1805. Some of the estate's slaves refused to return to work after the Christmas holidays. Several persons were killed.
Chatham was also the home of Hannah Coalter who owned more than 90 slaves. When she died in 1857, her will gave her slaves the choice of becoming free and migrating to Liberia or the North, or remaining a slave and choosing one of her relatives to live with. The will was considered void because blacks were not considered to be people, and therefore had no freedom of choice. The slaves were not freed until the Civil War. Most may have chosen to stay in the area because of family living on nearby plantations.
*Brochure researched by Ruth C. Fitzgerald and based on her book A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania with assistance from Janice P. Davies and Jervis Hairston.
This brochure is being reprinted on the Internet courtesy of:
City of Fredericksburg
Department of Tourism
706 Caroline Street
Fredericksburg, VA 22401
540-373-1776 or 1-800-678-4748