Ruth Coder Fitzgerald: A Life Filled with Determination
“She was always very generous with her time and hospitality to me, and I loved working with her. She helped me with my walking tour as well. I have not been in touch with her over the past several years, but to this day whenever I give one of my walking tours downtown, I make sure that all on the tour with me are made aware that the basis for most of the information shared on the walking tour is the result of the great work and passion of one Ruth Coder Fitzgerald and her book -- A Different Story. In my view, Ruth was always a caring and powerful voice for the underdog, the ‘little guy,’ and her lifelong commitment to inform, to teach, and advocate for that particular constituent speaks volumes about her makeup, her sense of fairness for all, and her heart of gold. My admiration and love for Ruth, and what she stood for, is never-ending.”
--Jervis Hairston, former City Planner and local historian
On April 10, 2013, a highly-regarded pioneer in local African American history died at her home in downtown Fredericksburg. Ruth Coder Fitzgerald was well-known throughout the community for her historical research and writings as well as for her championing of an important cause for Vietnam veterans.
A former Peace Corps volunteer, as well as a journalist and historian, Ruth came to Fredericksburg in the late 1960s with her husband and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Barry Fitzgerald. Barry was a photographer and reporter for the Free Lance-Star newspaper, and Ruth often contributed articles to their Town and County section, particularly its “The Way It Was” column. Her stories often focused on local African American history, about which there was very little written at the time.
She took it upon herself to change that and wrote A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford County, in 1979. Indeed, so personally important was the project to her that she and her husband took out a loan to get it printed. Once printed, it was very well-received as it helped to fill a void in what was known of times past for a huge segment of the area population. Local educators took it to heart and for a time it was used as a supplemental text in American history at James Monroe High School. Until her later years, Ruth could often be found researching stories in the Virginiana Room of the Headquarters library. She gleaned insight from microfilmed newspapers going back hundreds of years, but she also conducted excellent face-to-face interviews. Much of A Different Story relied on first-hand accounts, particularly for the sections about the Civil Rights era.
Ruth became part of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.’s team who put together local residents’ stories as an oral history project. For her part of “Pieces of Our Past,” Ruth interviewed Reginald Coleman, the Howison Sisters of Braehead, Edward Alvey, Jr., Waldo Beck, and L. Reginald Lewis, several of whom had been featured in her book.
She also gave a preface to The Life of Joseph F. Walker of Fredericksburg, Virginia—the namesake of Walker-Grant Middle School--and along with Barbara Pratt Willis transcribed Memorys of the Past, by John Washington. Details from his life were later edited and printed by other historians as John Washington’s Civil War, a Slave Narrative. Her work is respected into the 21st century. John Hennessy, Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, tweeted his praises:
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Besides her work with local history, Ruth was also known for her dedication to United States veterans. She was the force behind a plaque placed near the Vietnam War Memorial that honored those who died not in the war itself but from injuries sustained there, whether in the body or the mind. It took an Act of Congress to get it done, but Ruth was very determined.
For her it was a personal mission for her beloved brother, John Coder, had died from complications arising from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1992 when he was 49. His cancer had been attributed to Agent Orange exposure during the war where he served as a “Jolly Green Giant” pilot. When his family asked to have his name added to the Wall but were refused, Ruth spent the next eleven years fighting for this monument as another form of acknowledgement for John and other veterans. At last, the In Memory plaque was dedicated on Veterans’ Day, 2004. It reads:
“In Memory of the men and women who served in The Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”
Her service to soldiers did not end with the plaque’s placement. In 2009, Ruth was honored by the Washington-Lewis Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution for her years of crocheting lap robes, caps, and scarves for veterans at McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond.
Ruth Coder Fitzgerald contributed hugely to our knowledge of African-American history and is also to be lauded for her efforts in establishing the "In Memory" plaque at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. To sample some of her many fascinating newspaper stories and learn more about her work with the “In Memory” project, please check out our resource list: CRRL History: Ruth Coder Fitzgerald.
The photograph of Ruth Fitzgerald seated near "The Three Soldiers" statue in Washington, D.C. appears here courtesy of The Free-Lance Star.