The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
‘To Freedom’: Connecting to slaves’ flight
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
It’s the names that you can’t shake off.
Fielding Lewis, 13, valued at $1,000, from Boscobel, Stafford County.
Rose, 32, from Grafton Farm, Stafford.
Kitty, 35, a washer and ironer, from Fredericksburg.
Willie Ann, an infant, from Grafton Farm, Stafford.
Jacob, with one eye, 55, from Boscobel, Stafford.
Nancy Smallwood, from Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg.
Lizzie, a delicate girl, about 17 years old, from Princess Anne Street.
For those present at “To Freedom: A Celebration” this weekend, the names of the Virginians who passed from slavery into a new life beyond the Rappahannock River in 1862 are unforgettable.
They make history real.
They also give scale to what happened here in the spring and summer of 1862.
More than 10,000 formerly enslaved people from as far south as Chesterfield, beyond Richmond, crossed the river into refuge behind Union lines.
Of that multitude, the names of only 237 are yet known to researchers.
But the people who gathered in downtown Fredericksburg on Saturday honored all of those people who trekked here 150 years ago, as one speaker put it, “in search of the full promise of freedom.” And in the course of the evening, every single name was read aloud.
In Riverfront Park, Paula Royster of the national Center for African American Genealogical Research welcomed participants and marveled at the Civil War refugees’ courage and determination.
“Can you imagine walking from Richmond or Culpeper, Dahlgren or Stafford through the woods at night with no shoes or light, in the rain?” she asked listeners as a few raindrops fell.
“Have you ever wanted something so badly that you would turn away from everything familiar to you to run to something untested, with no guarantees? Would you? Could you?
BEARING OF THE STONES
Then, after a prayer led by the Rev. Hashmel Turner, people came forward to pick up rounded river stones to carry down to the river beyond City Dock—each associated with a card with the name, age and known details about one of the 10,000-plus who fled to freedom.
“Here is where they came in search of the American dream that had been built on their backs, with their hands, generation after generation,” Royster told participants before they set off down Sophia Street. “This it the place where the Constitution truly became a living document.”
For six blocks, announcers, including schoolchildren, stood on short stepladders in the middle of Sophia, reading off more names as the stream of pedestrians—who ranged from age 3 to 70-plus—passed by. For example:
Thornton, 22, a good blacksmith, from Greenfield Plantation, Spotsylvania County.
Frances, 26, a cook and washer, 26, worth $1,000, from Fredericksburg.
Jim, 7, from Ferry Farm, Stafford.
Charles Sprow, 19, from Ellwood, Spotsylvania, enlisted U.S. Army, buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
Mary Agnace Upshur, 28, from Greenfield Plantation, Spotsylvania.
Randall Ward, from Sherwood Forest, Stafford.
SHEDDING OF BURDENS
When the procession reached private parkland below City Dock, more participants were waiting, having sat through a rain shower. More than 250 people attended the two-hour program.
After being welcomed, those who’d carried stones silently placed them in the grass in front of the speakers’ platform—symbolizing the shedding of the burdens of human bondage.
Organizers, led by Sabina Weitzman, plan to use these stones to create a permanent piece of public art commemorating the trek to freedom.
DRUMS, MUSIC, LIGHTS
The procession, led by re-enactors of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, culminated in “Ten Thousand Lights to Freedom,” a kaleidoscope of words, sights and sounds.
The program began with African drumming by Chris Greene, reading of a Langston Hughes poem by Dysheria Turner of James Monroe High School, and singing by acclaimed vocalist Anthony Campbell, a Spotsylvanian who performed Vusi Mahlasela’s song “River Jordan,” accompanied by guitarist Ronald Richard.
Jim Thomas of the U.S. Slave Song Project, an alumnus of Fisk University’s Fisk Jubilee Singers, sang spirituals and encouraged everyone to join in, even if they could only hum along.
Dana Foddrell–Bland performed a gorgeous rendition of “Do Lord Remember Me” and, toward the program’s conclusion, led a rousing all-vocalists rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Interspersed with the music, readers with rich voices shared passages penned by antebellum people and witnesses to the Civil War that included the viewpoints of local slave owners, critics of slavery, Union officers and John Washington, the Fredericksburg slave who wrote an eloquent memoir of his life here.
Several of those historical figures wrote of the emotional pain of slavery, even for those who merely witnessed it.
Mary Minor Blackford, a white Fredericksburg resident, described a “coffle” or gang of chained and handcuffed slaves being taken down to the river. They’d been sold to states in the Deep South, and included Melinda, a girl of 12 or 13 “who was a favorite with those who knew her,” Blackford wrote:
“My good neighbour, Mrs. Stevenson, told me that when [the girl] came to take leave of her, ‘every limb of her delicate frame trembled.’
“I saw companies of females weeping as they walked before the drivers, stopping occasionally as they proceeded to take leave of their relatives and friends as they met them,” she wrote.
“The frequency of these sales and the high prices offered by the traders and above all the deadening effects of slavery upon the feelings have steeled the hearts of the people to its enormity.”
The evening’s program evoked strong emotions in audience members, who praised the effort.
“I just experienced the most amazing program that I’ve been to in my life. My emotions went from joy to deep sorrow to anger and laughter and a sense of having come full circle,” René Marie, who recently moved to Fredericksburg, said afterward.
“I’m feeling very, very thankful. And I’m wishing 10 times as many people could have been here tonight to witness what I did. It’s been great.”
The program moved some people, black and white, to tears.
Andrea Griffin of Glen Allen was one of those people.
“To get my card—‘Clairborne, 14,’ that’s it, that’s all it said—and to see the beautiful lights, I feel so connected and so validated,” she said afterward, as darkness shrouded the Rappahannock.
Griffin spoke of the ridicule that her peers heaped on her, growing up, because her parents forbade slang, required proper English and stressed the importance of a college education.
“I got teased a lot for that,” she said.
“Now, I feel like it was for a purpose. Tonight, I felt really free, really special—because the opportunities that my family fought for as slaves, on both sides of my family, were not in vain. They were for a very important reason—so that I could have a dream, and I could live it.”
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029