Road to Freedom, a new self-guided driving tour, showcases African American history in Virginia in the Civil War era and beyond.
There’s nothing inherently new along Road to Freedom, which covers people and events prior to 1861, showing “the tenacity and determination of African Americans to self-emancipate,” and continues through the long postwar period, said Drew Gruber, executive director of Williamsburg-based Civil War Trails, which developed Road to Freedom in a partnership with American Battlefield Trust.
The history has always been there and has already been noted one way or another, though too often overlooked. However, by stitching together scattered historical sites and events and packaging them as a tourism trail, organizers hope it will attract the sort of attention the history deserves.
“I would say the goal is to lift up these African American stories and to remind people these stories have always been on the landscape,” said Gruber, who notes that sites within the Civil War Trails’ network already underscore many of the stories through interpretive signage.
Gruber describes Civil War Trails, which has operated since the 1990s, as “an open-air museum” that includes several narrative driving trails of more than 1,300 sites across six states. The program aims to put travelers in the footsteps of those involved and affected by the Civil War: “generals, soldiers, citizens and the enslaved,” as the organization puts it in an explanation of its mission.
By focusing on African American history, Gruber said, Road to Freedom will help dispel the notion that the Civil War was “just a white, male, military story.”
“Many people tend to forget this fuller story of the Civil War,” Gruber said. “I hope the legacy of the Road to Freedom project is that it inspires communities to bring their rich history out and to change the narrative so people … remember people like Mary Peake in Hampton, for example.”
In the years leading up to the Civil War and in defiance of Virginia law, Mary Smith Peake taught enslaved people and free Black people to read. At one point, she taught under what became known as Emancipation Oak, a sprawling tree that still stands near the entrance of Hampton University. In 1863, the year after she died at age 39 of tuberculosis, the oak tree where she held outdoor lessons was the site of a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Emancipation Oak is one of 100 sites along Road to Freedom, highlighted in a new brochure and an online app that allows anyone anywhere to delve into the history.
Development of Road to Freedom would seem a natural step as the notion of racial justice, along with a long-delayed reckoning with the United States’ complicated history, has taken center stage since the social unrest of last summer ignited by the death in May of George Floyd. In fact, though, Road to Freedom, which was proposed by officials at American Battlefield Trust to officials at Civil War Trails, was already in the works. It was unveiled in February, during Black History Month, but had been in process for more than a year before that, said Mary Koik, director of communications for American Battlefield Trust, a nonprofit that works to preserve the nation’s battlefields and to educate the public about what happened in those places.
“We believe in the power of place,” Koik said. “It’s at the heart of everything we do. It really connects you to the people who were there in a different way. ... Not to slight any wonderful books or documentaries or museums, but there is something profound about knowing you’re standing where these people were and these things happened. The trust is really interested in using preservation as a tool to tell under-represented stories.”
One such place and story along Road to Freedom is New Market Heights Battlefield, the site east of Richmond of a significant, though lesser-known Civil War battle in September 1864 in which U.S. Colored Troops were sent to divert Confederate attention from Union movement around Petersburg. The USCT troops distinguished themselves bravely in battle, securing a portion of the Confederate line while suffering 800 casualties that day. For their particular valor, 14 Black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, a remarkable number considering only 25 Medals of Honor were awarded to Black soldiers during the entire Civil War.
In February, American Battlefield Trust announced it paid $260,000 to purchase 22 acres of the battlefield, bringing the total holdings at New Market Heights to 88 largely contiguous acres. At the moment, there are only a couple of informational signs about the battle — a Virginia Department of Resources highway marker and a Civil War Trails interpretive sign — along Route 5 near the Virginia Capital Trail, which passes through the heart of the battlefield. There is no opportunity for visitors to experience New Market Heights as they can other battlefields in the area, but that is “a vision of the future we hope to help bring to fruition,” Koik said.
Working with institutions and community leaders from across Virginia, Civil War Trails created the initial framework of Road to Freedom by identifying 100 sites, resources telling these stories: 82 interpretative signs and 18 institutions with permanent exhibits. Koik said Virginia was an obvious choice as the first state to launch Road to Freedom because of its abundant history and existing sites. Other states are looking to do something similar, she said.
Civil War Trails already serves as “an incredible historical and educational asset for Virginia,” said Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corp.
“The new Road to Freedom network provides an even more powerful opportunity for visitors and Virginians alike to learn the whole story, exploring unheard or under-told insights into the African American experience during the American Civil War,” McClenny said in a statement.
There are numerous Road to Freedom sites around Richmond, McClenny noted, including Gabriel’s Rebellion in Lakeside and the Freedmen’s Bureau in downtown Richmond.
“There are so many significant stories to discover that changed the very course of our nation’s history right here in central Virginia,” she said.
As racial justice demonstrations swept across the nation last summer, Gruber said his office was contacted by travelers seeking historic sites where they could “not only answer questions about race in society but also find comfort, direction and inspiration in some of these stories.”
“You can argue the Civil War happened because Black lives matter,” Gruber said. “The Civil War includes the tenacity of people who were self-emancipating before the fighting broke out. Their war started before Fort Sumter, and the civil war continues through the postwar elections and arguably through May of last year.
“The fuller story of the Civil War is diverse: It’s dynamic; it’s rich; it’s tenacious; it’s beautiful; it’s bad. These stories have always been part, but we oftentimes don’t lift them up as we should.”