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Professor hits mark with new database

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University of Mary Washington geography department chairman Stephen Hanna has studied Fredericksburg’s heritage-based tourism for more than a decade.

But in 2008, as Gov. Doug Wilder’s proposed slavery museum began to falter, Hanna started thinking specifically about how slavery is represented in the city’s historical landscape—and how accessible that information is to the public.

The end result: A database of all of Fredericksburg’s historical markers, their themes, authors and locations along tour routes.

As it turns out, only nine of 224 historical markers mention slavery, emancipation or segregation.

Hanna created the data-base with UMW student Fariss Hodder, who was a junior majoring in geography when she started the project, using GPS to plot the locations of the markers.

“Part of what I love about geography is that every place has a history,” said Hodder, adding that the project broadened her knowledge of the region well beyond its widely known Civil War history.

Hodder, now a senior at UMW, designed a map-based directory to display the data alongside the town’s heritage sites and museums, city parks, the downtown retail district and the routes of most of the history-themed tours available to Fredericksburg residents and tourists.

These other data layers were included so the researchers could see which markers are prominently located and which ones are less likely to be seen.

Hodder and Hanna presented a paper summarizing their preliminary findings at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Los Angeles in April.


The project has two main goals, according to Hanna.

First, Hanna and Hodder were interested in whether narratives of slavery and emancipation are prominent in Fredericksburg’s landscape.

While several historical markers and monuments about slavery and emancipation have been dedicated in recent years, the UMW study located only nine—less than 4 percent of all the city’s historical markers.

Meanwhile, 117 mention the first Battle of Fredericksburg.

Hodder said the Civil War signs are also placed where tourists are more likely to see them.

Second, Hanna said they were interested in how narratives of segregation are largely ignored in the historical landscape.

“Emancipation is a wonderful moment to celebrate,” he said. “But there is a long history of segregation and racial issues. It’s tempting to stop the story at emancipation.”

While the number of markers mentioning these issues is still scarce, Hanna said those authoring the markers are headed in the right direction in recent years.

Most of the markers mentioning slavery or emancipation have been added since 2005.

However, markers mentioning the Civil War added since 2005 total 130.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have as many words about the Civil War,” Hanna said. “But there are other aspects of life important in antebellum Fredericksburg.”

For example, he said, more than 10,000 slaves freed themselves in the spring and summer of 1862 by crossing the Rappahannock River near present-day Old Mill Park and making their way to Union Army lines, often making the tough choice to leave family behind.

Though the crossings were commemorated last year as part of the Civil War sesquicentennial events, the marker that stands at that spot is relatively incomplete, Hanna said.

“There is a place at the river where the action of both literally and figuratively freeing oneself took place,” he said.


The two most prominent markers in downtown Fredericksburg about slavery are the slave auction block at the corner of William and Charles streets and the emancipation statue erected in February by St. George’s Episcopal Church at the corner of William and Princess Anne streets.

Hanna called them “bookends” to the story of slavery in Fredericksburg.

Hanna and Hodder shared their raw data with the city of Fredericksburg to be used in future planning.

Erik Nelson, the city’s senior planner, said his interest involves markers installed by the city. The markers need to be replaced every five years due to normal wear and tear.

He said the project is useful because it shows him where all of the markers are and which ones the city owns.

While there is no schedule for new markers, he said markers can be created when a group of people passionate about a historical event lobby the city. In recent years, he said the city has installed markers about historically African–American churches and the Civil War.

He said the city has found that trails, including the recently completed Rappahannock River Heritage Trail, receive the most traffic and are the most beneficial places to install markers.

Ultimately, Hanna said, the markers serve to educate the public not just about the area’s history, but about the atrocities associated with treating people as inanimate objects.

“Ideally, from these markers, we’d understand what the commodification of a human means to our history,” Hanna said.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976



See Stephen Hanna and Fariss Hodder’s historical marker project by visiting