The only memorial to emancipation in the Fredericksburg region is a marker at the home of a white man, Moncure Conway of Falmouth, acknowledging his undeniable impact on the march toward freedom for America’s slaves. No memorial and few interpretive markers acknowledge the acts of the most important of all emancipators in the Fredericksburg region: the slaves themselves.
That will change this weekend when Stafford County, the City of Fredericksburg, and the National Park Service unveil the first interpretive markers on the new Trail to Freedom, which will track the passage of 10,000 slaves across the Rappahannock River into Stafford County (and Union lines) during the spring and summer of 1862. The location of these two exhibits–one in Old Mill Park on the Fredericksburg side of the river and one at Historic Port of Falmouth Park (Falmouth Beach) on the Stafford side–is no mere happenstance. They mark the crossing site of Fredericksburg slave John Washington who, on April 18, 1862, was among the very first of the 10,000 who dared to seize freedom themselves. The exhibits and the trail are the product of the regional Sesquicentennial Committee and its Crossing workgroup, which organized funding and put together the exhibits.
That this story is being told is due in large part to the emergence of John Washington’s narrative, “Memorys of the Past.” Before this narrative emerged in the 1990s, we had only statistics and the voices of Union soldiers who witnessed the passage. But now we know exactly what the moment meant to one of those slaves: “Life had a new joy awaiting me,” he wrote.
We also know almost precisely where John Washington went across the river–he crossed a few yards below the Bridgewater Mill, the ruins of which are still visible in Fredericksburgs’ Old Mill Park. This weekend’s ceremony, which will feature a reading of John Washington’s narrative of the moment by the indomitable Dominic Green, will take place on the Stafford side–at Falmouth Beach off River Road, where, that April 18 day, Washington was welcomed and surrounded by Union soldiers, curious about news from Fredericksburg and his life in slavery. One of them asked, “Do you want to be free?” Washington responded, “By all means.”
This blog is not really for plugging programs going on in the community. But this program is a bit different. I have always felt that the combination of a place, the words of one who was there, and the work of the mind’s eye makes for an experience rarely surpassed. All the elements will be there this weekend. But more than that, this expression toward our history is historic in its own right, as the words of the slave are being heard.