A church divided over slavery, and Fredericksburg’s first house of worship for African Americans

From John Hennessy:

One of the great things about Fredericksburg’s history is that local stories often reflect vividly on the national experience.  More than most communities, our local history reverberates across a national landscape. The battles fought here are obvious examples, but so too are more subtle, obscure stories (all of which we’ll write about in the future): the activities in Fredericksburg of the American Colonization Society, the constant quest for the mainspring to economic success, the slave trade as practiced by Aler and Finnall, and the turmoil in the Methodist Church hereabouts. The experience of the Methodist Church here in the decades before the Civil War is a vivid reflection of a nation and community in upheaval.

The three Methodist Churches of Fredericksburg.

Two obscure facts about Methodists in Fredericksburg:

– At various times between 1841 and 1860, there were THREE Methodist congregations in Fredericksburg whose churches stood within a four-block area of town.

– The first exclusively black church in Fredericksburg (at least so far as I have been able to determine) was not the African Baptist Church on Sophia Street (today Shiloh Old Site), but a Methodist Church located at what is today 523 George Street.

Therein lies a story or two. Continue reading

The Klan hood and the notebook–Part 2: what do we (or should we) learn from a dirty old hood?

From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

Conceding that comments written in the notebook are written for public consumption, they nonetheless reveal a great deal about how the public sees the Klan hood, the people who might have worn it, and even the museum that has put it on display.

The staff at the Fredericksburg Area Museum opted for minimalist, neutral interpretation of the hood in its adjacent label copy, clearly putting the emphasis on the question, “What does it mean to you?”

As a way to provoke a renewed sense of social consciousness (at least as expressed in the notebook), this approach has been exceedingly successful. But does this constitute “mission accomplished?” Are the assumptions visitors make about hood accurate?  Do they bring enough knowledge to the artifact to truly understand it? Does it matter that visitors leave the display with little greater understanding of the role the Klan played in early 20th century America, and Fredericksburg in particular?

In interpretation, provoking an emotional response or moral outrage in visitors is the low-hanging fruit. On a battlefield, for example, it’s fairly easy to bring people to tears, for the stories there are unspeakably sad. So too at Wounded Knee, Birkenau and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which all provoke outrage too. Is the value of these places (or the Klan hood) rooted in their ability to renew a sense of societal virtue and moral direction? How can you read the notation from the young student who declared, with obvious patriotic passion, that after seeing the hood, she wanted to grow up to fight hate crimes–because, she was reminded, “they still happen today”–and not conclude that the exhibit has done good beyond a thousand more traditional and forgettable displays (including every single one of the hundreds that I have done)?

It’s clear from the notebook that people’s reaction to the hood is derived from its association with terror and violence, perpetrated by people who were, as one visitor called them, “cowards, ignorant, inhuman.”

Certainly many were, but by reducing the Klan hood to a simple (though often valid) association with violence and barbarity, aren’t visitors missing something important, something perhaps even more important than the capacity of individuals to be evil? Continue reading

The Klan hood and the notebook–Part 1

From John Hennessy (for part 2 of his post, click here):

The notebook cost about $1.50, but in many ways it is the most interesting and valuable thing in the multi-million dollar exhibition at the Fredericksburg Area Museum (and that’s no slam on the rest of the museum, which is excellent).  It sits on a table beside a case containing a hood worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  The donor of the hood was anonymous, the history of this specific hood, beyond its connection to Fredericksburg, is uncertain.  Yet the reactions of the public to it, as recorded in the notebook, are a vivid chronicle of visitors and residents confronting a difficult piece of our collective past.  The exhibit asks visitors, “How does it make you feel?”  This simple interactive has stimulated both reflection and anger—some of it directed at the hood, some of it at the museum.

By way of background, the text label accompanying the hood reads:

click to enlarge

The big question: is the hood a point of departure for learning and understanding, or is it simply stimulus for emotional reaction based on what visitors already know—or think they know? In Part I of this post, we’ll look at people’s reactions to the hood. In Part 2, we’ll look at how the object is handled interpretively, and exactly what visitors seem to be getting out of the exhibit.

The hood and the notebook.

The overwhelming majority of visitors who recorded their thoughts expressed appreciation for the museum’s attempt to raise consciousness of a difficult, still-current issue.  Many saw virtue in the mere presence of an artifact like the hood in a museum.

The very nature of this artifact being displayed speaks volumes.   No longer a history to sweep under the rug or pay a fleeting lip service in 11th Grade, perhaps we can have a genuine dialogue about past, present, and future race relations in this country.  Display of this object requires the viewer to recognize the KKK’s deep and broad influence on our history.  Hopefully in this recognition we can find acceptance and healing.

Another visitor recorded a mixture of revulsion and appreciation.  The KKK hood made my heart sink to the ground in fear, disgust, and a sense of reality.  There should be more artifacts in museums that bring the forefront of reality.  As ugly as it is.

Clearly visitors see the hood as both artifact and symbol.  “Thank you for opening our eyes to the symbols and stories of a very black part of American history.”

Many used words like “powerful” and “chilling.”   Continue reading

George Aler slave trader

From John Hennessy:

It is the dark underbelly of Fredericksburg’s history: the slave trade. We know it took place here, but who, exactly, were the people in Fredericksburg trafficking in human beings? Were they an unseen underclass–pariahs? Little work has been done on them, but we do know a fair amount about three of them:  Charles Yates, one of Fredericksburg’s most powerful merchants of the 18th century, and one of its most respected citizens (for Yates’s letters related to the slave trade, click here). Walter H. Finnall took up the trade here in the 1830s; he probably bought and sold slaves more voraciously than anyone in Fredericksburg’s history.  And George Aler, who followed Finnall in the business in the 1840s, and who was the town’s major player in the slave trade at the onset of the Civil War.

We are working on Finnall, and will lay out what we find soon (some vivid and intensely interesting material). For the moment, let’s take an introductory look at George Aler.

Prior to the Civil War, Aler lived in what is today 300 Caroline Street (after the war the home of Sue and Melzi Chancellor, and so often referred to as the Sue Chancellor House). Aler was a brick-maker and ran the most successful of the three brickyards in town. He was, by most accounts, a respected member of the community. He was elected to town council in 1858, built St. Mary’s Church on Princess Anne Street, served on the board of the Fredericksburg Water Power Company, was appointed the town’s superintendent of streets, helped build the fairgrounds west of town, was a member of the Temperance Society, and even, in 1854, wrote a letter complaining about the lax enforcement of laws relating to the observance of the sabbath.

George Aler's house at 300 Caroline Street, later better known as the postwar home of the beloved Sue Chancellor--and thus most commonly referred to as "the Chancellor house."

But, from about 1848 until the Civil War, he was Fredericksburg’s dominant slave trader.

The references to him are many and ultimately require careful consideration (a task more suited to an article than a blog post), but we’ll share in raw form some of what we know.

Slave Isaac Williams remembered being purchased by Aler in the 1850s (Williams later escaped and told his story, which was then published).

I was sold to George A. Ayler of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a town situated on the Eappahannock river. Thither I was removed and kept by him in a sort of pen, where slaves and cattle were huddled promiscuously together. I was locked up at night in a little room just large enough to stand up in and kept there for nine days; then I was sold to Dr. James, a Tennessee slave dealer, who gave fifteen hundred dollars for me. (From Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life:  Reminiscences as Told by Isaac D. Williams to “Tege” [East Saginaw, 1885], pp. 9-11)

A young girl Julia Frazier was hired or sold to Aler in the 1850s. Many years later she remembered, “Father put me to workin’ for a nigguh trader…His name was George Aler. Man cursed with every breath he took. Had a saint for a wife. He couldn’ help it; jes’ natural with him.”

Aler’s partner in his brick-making business was John W. Coleman. He too was a slave trader–indeed had been Walter Finnall’s agent in town in the 1830s.  Coleman, about whom I know little at this  point, is the common link between the two men who dominated the town’s slave trade for nearly 40 years.  (Thanks to David Ellrod of the NPS, who has uncovered a bit about Coleman.)

Aler also had a central role in the saga of Ellen Mitchell, a slave of J. Horace Lacy (of Chatham and Ellwood fame) who raised funds to buy her family’s way out of slavery. Ellen Mitchell is worth a post to herself, but Aler’s role in facilitating her fundraising is worth noting.  It’s embodied in an article that appeared in the New York Times (and elsewhere) in 1859, which you can find here.

I’ll be working on this more in the coming weeks; it’s a fascinating topic, embodied still by places that survive within our midst.

An additional tidbit on the riot

From Hennessy (the original post on the race riot at Aquia landing is here):

Click to enlarge

A reader, George Combs, the manager of Special Collections at the Alexandria Library, was kind enough to send along this clipping from the Alexandria Gazette (August 4, 1865) about the riot at Aquia Landing. It includes a number of details not found elsewhere. We’re grateful to George for sharing this item (click to enlarge):

Shots Fired in Anger in Stafford County…During the Revolutionary War

from: Harrison 

In the course of exploring Aquia Landing and vicinity through various blog posts, let’s pause in one of the periods predating the steamboats and railroad.  The typical visitor to the public beach there who gazes across Aquia Creek to Brent’s Point in Stafford County is probably unaware they are looking at the tip of a peninsula that hosted the Fredericksburg area’s only known Revolutionary War fighting between organized units. 

The shooting part of the Revolution came to Stafford in July 1776, 15 months after Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, declared his colony in rebellion and a year after he moved the seat of his “government” to a British fleet that would raid up and down the Chesapeake and its tributaries.  That these operations included an amphibious attack on the Widewater peninsula—dramatic and much commented-on at the time—has recently begun to reenter common knowledge locally, thanks to the posting of primary accounts on Robert Heges VIIII’s Encyclopedia of Dumfries, Virginia website, around 1997, and the publishing of other primary accounts, together with extended narratives of the Widewater episode, in works such as Jerrilynn Eby’s They Called Stafford Home:  The Development of Stafford County, Virginia from 1600 Until 1865 (1997) and Donald G. Shomette’s Maritime Alexandria: the Rise and Fall of an American Entrepôt (2003). 

Widewater peninsula at center-right, between Aquia Creek, diagonal center, and Potomac River, far edge. The British landed along the northernmost third of the Potomac shoreline.

Widewater peninsula at center-right, between Aquia Creek (diagonal center) and Potomac River (far edge). The British landed along the northernmost third of the Potomac shoreline, not far south of where the line of the modern railroad begins curving inland. Site of the Civil War-era railroad terminus at Aquia Landing is the small, white-edged peninsula jutting up from lower right corner.

The following contemporary description, perhaps penned by an officer in the Virginia State Navy and recently made available online by an archive in Illinois, provides an overview of the amphibious operation of 1776.  It began with four British warships sailing past on the Potomac on July 22, and continued the next day, when at least one of the four, the 44-gun, two decker HMS Roebuck, returned to dispatch landing craft to William Brent’s Richland.  Richland, centered around what was described as an “elegant brick house,” was situated on the Widewater peninsula roughly three-quarters of the way up (northwest along) its Potomac shoreline.  Brent owned land in Prince William County as well as in Stafford, and was captain of the Prince William militia:

Continue reading

The Dilemma of “Contrabands” in Stafford County–a vivid case

From John Hennessy:

In mid-1862, the Union army struggled with the appearance of thousands of slaves flooding into Union lines at Fredericksburg and in Stafford County. Not only did these former slaves present a logistical challenge, they also challenged the intellectual mettle of the soldiers receiving them–many, if not most, of whom had little interest in emancipation. The legal status of these freedom-sleeking slaves was, before the passage of the Second Confiscation Act on July 16, 1862, ambiguous. Federal law proffered them no protection, and nor did Federal policy offer commanders in the field much guidance. And so they struggled along–going with the flow of contrabands, so to speak, until challenged.

Contrabands near Yorktown in May 1862. There are no known images of contrabands in the Union camps at Stafford that spring and summer.

A revealing challenge took place in June of 1862, when a Maryland slaveowner wrote to Colonel George H. Biddle of the 95th New York, then overseeing operations at Aquia Landing. Thomas Miller of Nanjemoy protested that one of his slaves had run off to Aquia to join his family, which had already taken refuge there. Biddle’s response clearly reflected both discomfort and ambivalence.  He told Miller, “If the man is here and desires to return to you, or if you should come here, and, without threats or violence, induce him to return, I will neither offer nor suffer any resistance. My duty here is simply to enforce the Constitution and laws, as construed by the early fathers, and in obedience to my superior officers.”

Biddle’s letter provoked a furious response from slaveowner Miller–one that faithfully reflects many of the pressures that helped shape Lincoln’s sometimes cautious rhetoric with respect to emancipation and the border states.  He derided Biddle’s claim that  he was “simply here to enforce the Constitution and laws” by pointing out, “In this State [Maryland] the receiving or employing runaway negroes is called harboring, and is a penal offence. I have yet to learn that the statutes of Maryland are violative of the Constitution. There is no man in Maryland more loyal than I, or who has encountered more odium for defending the Government, My loyalty here has been regarded as of the most ultra kind, in proof of which I can refer to every prominent Union man in the State….”

He warmed to his point:  “I am informed…that if I come over and can induce this negro to return with me he will see there is no interference. I am not willing to consult this negro at all in a matter of this sort. He is my property, my money paid for him, and if the Government requires a regiment of soldiers to stand between me and my just rights, I can only say I must submit — I am but an individual. It is not the value of the property that so much concerns me; it is the principle it involves.–Are we of the border States to be taxed to furnish rations to our own negroes. If officers in the army can’t catch slaves for their lawful owners, how is it they can catch them for themselves or for the Government?”

These are precisely the sort of sentiments that inspired Lincoln to limit the reach of the Emancipation Proclamation to only those areas then (as of January 1, 1863) unoccupied and in rebellion. A vivid example from our own back yard, and yet another instance of why our history hereabouts tells us so much that is important about the nation.

The letters of Biddle and Miller were published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 16, 1862, as evidence of disarray of the Union administration in Stafford and the inconsistencies in Union policy (inconsistencies that would be remedied by the Second Confiscation Act and, eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation).

Charles Dickens in White Oak?

From John Hennessy:

Charles Dickens was world-famous in 1842 when he made a trip to Virginia that brought him through, of all places, White Oak. At the time, there was no direct rail line between Washington and Richmond, and so Dickens took the common route: by steamboat down the Potomac to a landing at Belle Plain on Potomac Creek, and thence by carriage through White Oak to Fredericksburg, where, after a night’s rest, he picked up the train for the final journey south to Richmond. Dickens later wrote about his American travels, and left a vivid description of our part of Virginia in the process–a description focused largely on landscape and slavery. You can find a full account of his journey to our neighborhood here, starting on page 152.  Dickens, by the way, was among the last to have to endure the trip by stage from Potomac Creek to Fredericksburg. The rail line from Fredericksburg to Aquia Landing opened literally weeks after Dickens’s visit. His journey took him past White Oak Church (below), which still stands in Stafford County.

By the way, if you are interested in more footfalls of famous people in the Fredericksburg region, the Fredericksburg Area Museum (which has made itself one of the best regional museums in Virginia) now has an exhibit up on old Town Hall called, of course, Footfalls of the Famous, which describes some of the more curious and interesting famous visits to the Fredericksburg region over the decades.  Can you name, for example, the then-unknown wagoner (later famous for adventure) who hauled tobacco and grain from Culpeper to Fredericksburg in the late 1750s?

On to Dickens’s wonderful account…. Continue reading

Race riot at Aquia Landing

From John Hennessy:

One of the things I like best about our History at Sunset programs (read about History at Sunset here) is that they invariably lead us into new material, new things, new ideas.  That’s certainly been the case for the last few days as I have been getting ready for this Friday’s program–our first ever at Aquia Landing.

Aquia Landing in 1863. It likely looked much like this in 1865, when workers white and black assembled there to help rebuild the RF&P Railroad

Today it’s a windswept, forgotten place. But for a few days in 1865, Aquia Landing was front-page news across the country. The New York Times of August 5, 1865, blared, “Riot at Aquia Creek.” While the Times’s reference is brief, it certainly got my attention, and a little digging turned up a few other accounts of the events of August 3, 1865.

Racial violence on a large scale was a rare thing in the Fredericksburg area during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Indeed, while I am aware of a few incidents involving individuals or small groups (including an attempted lynching at the Fredericksburg jail in 1904, which you can read about here), I know of nothing that approached the scale of what happened at Aquia on August 3, 1865, when army troops were called over from Stafford Court House to quell the unrest, which they apparently did in brutal form.

The context is straightforward.  In the months following Appomattox, the Fredericksburg region waited impatiently for the reopening of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad–which had been repeatedly ravaged during the war. The company established a major base camp at Aquia–one that employed workers both white and black–many of the latter no doubt newly freed slaves.  The tension between the two groups burst forth in early August.  Here is the account from the Fredericksburg New Era:

The Aquia Creek Case—It seems that a negro named Jacob cursed a white man named A.T. Terry, who told him he was not putting the track right, and threatened to strike him with a hammer.  Jacob says Terry cursed him and threatened to kill him.  Terry afterward thrashed Jacob with switches, with the knowledge and assent of the Superintendent.  About thirty negroes then went at night to the white mens’ quarters, armed with sticks, and, it is said, “tools.”  The twelve white men ran off. The soldiers from Stafford Court House came about daylight, and beat the negroes generally, Jacob included.  One negro, who resisted arrest, was shot by the guard and died instantly. Another was wounded. The parties have all been arrested, and the matter is undergoing investigation before Captain Seligson, Provost Marshall.

It’s notable that the trigger for the revolt was, apparently, the “thrashing of Jacob with switches”–an unpleasant throwback to the methods of control and intimidation used to sustain slavery.

Reported from New York to Singapore (though, interestingly, it received only a paragraph in one of the two Fredericksburg newspapers then in print), the incident at Aquia Landing was seen, at least, as symptomatic of the trials faced by a society undergoing dramatic social transition. The Philadelphia Age, a leading Democratic newspaper, saw the “riot” as a foreshadow of failure:  ‘The negro plot discovered at Aquia Creek is the first startling exhibition of the bad effects of the doctrine of negro equality that has been developed in an associated form. What will the Republican State Convention, which meets at Harrisburg on the 17th, say about this phase of their doctrine? Will they cry long live the demon of radicalism, and thus sanction and endorse the negro assassination plot against the whites at Aquia Creek?

There remains much to learn about the incident and how it was perceived. But, I thought I’d share this tidbit of history in rather raw form, as evidence of just how interesting working in the field of public history can be.  I’ll share more on this as it comes to hand.