Africans first arrived in the Virginia colony in 1619 as indentured servants. In the late 1600s, slaves were brought into the sparsely settled Rappahannock Valley, primarily to serve as agricultural laborers.
As the colony grew, Falmouth and Fredericksburg, situated on the Rappahannock River at the limits of inland navigation, became important seaports. Seagoing ships lined the wharves, and slaves busily unloaded and loaded supplies at these trading centers. Human cargo from newly arrived slave ships disembarked as well, and slave auctions could be held anywhere a crowd would gather.
Locally owned slaves worked on farms and docks, and at stone quarries and iron industries such as Accokeek Furnace, owned by George Washington’s father Augustine. They also worked in mercantile and construction businesses and provided domestic services. Others became blacksmiths, coopers, cobblers, and draymen. Due to Stafford’s location between the Rappahannock and Potomac River, some African-Americans also worked as commercial fishermen and on ships.
Most Stafford whites were not slave owners. The largest numbers of agricultural slaves were held on the larger farms or plantations, such as Chatham.
Many slaves were owned by James Hunter of Hunter’s Iron Works, also known as Rappahannock Forge, west of Falmouth in Stafford, (In 1783, he paid taxes on 260 slaves.) This enterprise, which produced arms and equipment for the Continental Army, has been credited with helping to win the war for independence. John DeBaptiste, originally from nearby Spotsylvania County, was one of as many as 10 blacks who served on the Dragon, one of the fleet of boats and ships patrolling the Rappahannock and the Chesapeake Bay. Today James Hunter and John DeBaptiste, both honored by Revolutionary heritage groups, lie close to one another in Falmouth’s Union Church Cemetery. Black soldiers also fought in the Continental Army (and for the British as well), on the promise of freedom for service.
After the Revolutionary War, Stafford had a large role in the construction of the nation’s capital in the District of Columbia. Slaves, free blacks, and skilled European artisans worked side by side on Stafford’s Government Island to quarry and move the enormous amount of Aquia sandstone needed for the construction of the White House and center-section of the United States Capitol.
In 1810, Stafford County had a population of about 4,200 slaves, 350 blacks, and 5,400 whites. The large black population and the possibility of slave rebellions caused concern among some white residents. Stafford was the stage for a rebellion that preceded the famous Nat Turner Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia by a quarter of a century. Early in January 1805, slaves owned by William Fitzhugh refused to return to their jobs after a Christmas holiday. When ordered back to work by the overseer, they severely whipped him. He escaped with the aid of one slave and returned with help. The slave ringleader was shot and killed while trying to escape and another fell through the ice and drowned while trying to cross the frozen Rappahannock River. Other slaves were imprisoned.
During the 1800s slaves could generally be sold for ready money, so were valued as investments as well as workers. A Stafford resident wrote a friend about the prices of slaves in 1839. “Negroes are selling higher at this time than I have ever seen them. Best men 1450 to 1550. Best field Girls 1300 to 1350.”
By the 1850s, the issue of runaway slaves became a concern. One of the most important cases to test the Fugitive Slave Law involved a Stafford slave, Anthony Burns, who escaped by ship and was captured and tried in Boston. Over 50,000 outraged Bostonians rallied in the streets to support the black man they considered kidnapped. Burns was shipped back south but was later purchased by an abolitionist minister for the sum of $1,300 and set free.
In 1857, Mrs. Hannah Coalter of Chatham attempted in her will to free 92 of her slaves. However, J. Horace Lacy, a Coalter relation who bought the plantation, blocked their freedom in the Virginia courts. The John Brown Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 renewed old fears of slave insurrections. Business as usual continued in Stafford, however, with most slaves now working as domestic and farm workers.
Prior to the Civil War, local slaves and other slaves from further south left seeking freedom in the north. Hiding in safe-houses and alleys, they left on foot or by way of boats, trains, or slower-moving wagons. Over the years, participants in the “underground railroad” are primarily unknown saviors and were most likely free blacks.
Although no major battles took place in Stafford County, both Confederate and Union troops occupied the area at intervals from 1861 to 1865. While some slaves freed themselves and moved north to greater safety, others stayed and worked for the Union troops. According to tradition, a Stafford slave named Dabney worked as a cook and groom for Union troops in Stafford. He provided detailed information on Confederate forces across the river. His knowledge puzzled the Union officers, as he never left his position. Finally, he confessed, saying that his wife in Fredericksburg hung up the laundry to signal unit dispositions and strengths via an ingenious system using clothing on clotheslines.
Stafford’s most famous voice against slavery was that of Moncure Conway of Falmouth. After leaving Falmouth and attending Dickinson College and Harvard University, he became a minister. Later he became friends with prominent intellectuals of the period like Ralph Waldo Emerson and became a noted author of over 70 books. Conway shared his views on abolition with President Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, Moncure Conway returned to Falmouth and moved 31 of his family’s slaves to freedom at Yellow Springs, Ohio. Some descendants still live there today.
After the Civil War, Stafford suffered terribly from the former occupation of over 150,000 Confederate and Union troops. It is said that not a tree was left standing from Stafford Courthouse to the Rappahannock River. Discovering barren land, many African –Americans left Stafford to go north to Washington, D.C. and other cities for better job opportunities and a better life. The black population decreased by 60 percent after the Civil War. Blacks who stayed began their own lives, schools, and churches. They continued to work in many of the same occupations that they had before the war, but now in freedom. They now had their own small farms and businesses.
During this period, many black churches were organized in Stafford, initially in homes and in brush arbors. Churches were important to the black community, not only for religious services but also as gathering places for civic, social, and civil rights meetings.
By the 1870s, Stafford had its first two black schools with a total of 99 students; both had white teachers. By 1883, there were eight one-room schools for blacks, some of which had black teachers; by 1904, all of Stafford’s black schools were taught by blacks.
Some notable black educators were John, E.H. and Lizzie Dishman (1880s), Rev. Albert Ray (1880s), Jason Grant (1890s), F.E. and Robinette Cunningham (1900s), Annie Morton (1920s), Addie and Henry Harrison Poole (1930s-1950s), and Edward Smith (1950s).
H.H. Poole was appointed supervisor of black schools in Stafford and King George counties. A school was named for him in the 1950s and later renamed the Rowser School in honor of Ella Rowser, a distinguished teacher and black school leader. In the 1990s, a Stafford school was again named for Mr. Poole.
The Stafford school system started the integration process in September 1961, seven years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, when Doretha and Cynthia Montague entered the all-white Stafford Elementary School. Total integration of Stafford schools took place in 1964.
Two artists who depicted the lifestyles of African-Americans in Stafford were Gari Melchers and Palmer Hayden. Melchers’ 18th-century estate home and studio, Belmont, is open to the public. Melchers’ work hangs in museums throughout the world, and some of his murals decorate the walls of the Library of Congress.
Palmer Hayden was born Peyton Cole Hedgeman in Widewater. Considered a Harlem Renaissance painter, he was among the first African-American artists to use African subjects and designs in his works. He not only depicted everyday life but also folklore and black historical events. Most of his works are displayed at The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, California.
Preserving Black History Today
The African-American community in Stafford is a vibrant and growing part of this population. Blacks in Stafford today occupy many positions in the private sector, as well as in local, state and federal governments. They represent Stafford and the surrounding areas on many boards, committees, and other organizations. The Stafford County Branch of the NAACP remains the primary civil rights organization in the county. The NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, and the Stafford County Historical Society have all contributed to the preservation and dissemination of African-American history through their programs and publications.
Special thanks to the African-American History Brochure Committee: Al Conner, Jane Conner, Terry Payne, Elnora Poindexter, Lorraine Walker, Frank White.
Brochure based on information obtained in: A Different Story, by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald; Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, by Ervin L. Jordan, Jr.; Stafford County in the Civil War, by Homer D. Musselman; They Called Stafford Home, by Jerrilynn Eby.
Brochure researched and written by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald.
This brochure, originally printed in 2002, has been reproduced with permission from the Stafford County Tourism Office, 1300 Courthouse Road, Stafford, VA 22554. www.TourStaffordVa.com. 540-658-8681.