The final song in the musical “Hamilton” asks: “Who tells your story?”
Our human stories tend to get told by those who are in power, and sometimes history gets skewed in the process. The stories of the powerless often don’t make it into the history books and onto historical markers.
Virginia’s state historic marker program, the first of its kind in the nation, was begun almost a century ago, in 1927.
The first markers were along U.S. 1, running through Fredericksburg on its way from the Potomac River to the North Carolina line.
It would have been more accurate to have called it the state white historic marker program.
By 1930, 700 markers had been erected. Three of them were dedicated to Black history. Jim Crow was riding high, and Virginia reflected the times in who and what it chose to memorialize.
All of this makes the Virginia historic marker that’s now on Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg all the more laudable.
The temporary marker, which will be replaced by a permanent one in November, recognizes the Freedom Riders’ first stop in the city on May 4, 1961, in their perilous journey south to protest segregated facilities.
James Farmer, who later would teach at what now is the University of Mary Washington, was the group’s executive director and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, making the marker even more meaningful.
May 4 in Frederickburg was proclaimed “Freedom Riders Day.”
More than 400 volunteers rode buses through the South as part of the Freedom Riders’ effort. They were advised before embarking on their journey to write their last wills and testaments.
The bus that stopped in Fredericksburg left Washington, D.C., with 13 activists, seven Black and six white. The group included future Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
On that day 60 years ago, a white man entered a “colored” restroom at the Greyhound terminal, which was located near the present fire station. A Black man entered the whites-only restroom and then ordered a sandwich at the whites-only lunch counter. These actions took place without incident.
The beatings, attacks and at least one firebombing that seemingly innocuous acts like these would breed farther south didn’t happen here. But this is where the journey began.
The marker in Fredericksburg is part of a trend. From its white-centric beginning, Virginia’s historic marker program has done much to become more inclusive. Of some 2,500 markers now, 12% are dedicated to Black history.
Markers like the one on Princess Anne Street are one way of making sure that everybody’s story gets told.
— The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg