Sit-in Corner: July 1960

From John Hennessy:

W.T. Grants, corner of Caroline and William. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

It is likely the place most powerfully associated with the Civil Rights movement in Fredericksburg: the intersection of Caroline and William, at the very heart of downtown. In 1960–long before outlying strip malls rendered downtowns historical curiosities–this corner was the virtual center of commerce and shopping for the Fredericksburg region. Four prominent business sat on the four corners here, three of them major national chains. Department store Woolworths stood on the northeast corner, where R&R Antiques now stands. Across William, on the SE corner, was W.T. Grants (in the old Ben Franklin), a direct competitor to Woolworths both locally and on the national stage. Across Caroline from Grant’s (today it is the antique store next to Crown Jewelers) stood People’s Drug Store, then perhaps the most prominent chain drugstore in Virginia. Local Drugstore Bonds stood on the NW corner.

All three of the national chains had something in common: they all served food at in-store lunch counters. These counters would become a non-violent battleground in the struggle for civil rights.

Much was happening elsewhere that summer of 1860. At North Carolina A&T, students had started sit-in protests at lunch counters in Greensboro, and shortly thereafter enthusiasm for similar protests emerged in Fredericksburg. Problem was, Fredericksburg had no college or university that permitted African-American students, and so the lot fell to high school students to mount the challenge.

Woolworths. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Local dentist Phillip Wyatt (president of the local NAACP chapter) and community activists Gladys Poles Todd and Mamie Scott worked with the students to organize the protests. They drilled in methods of non-violent protest, preparing for the resistance that would inevitably come. They dressed neatly. They learned not to touch merchandise–lest they be accused of theft. They organized shifts  committed to–by their simple presence–closing the lunch counters in the three chain stores on a rotating basis.

On July 1, 19060, the protests began when eight students walked into Woolworth’s at 1 p.m.  They took their seats silently–some of them reading books–and did not order. Staff quickly put out signs, “This Section Closed.”  For an hour the students rotated between the three stores. As soon as the students left, staff reopened the counters to white customers. And so it would go.  The Free Lance-Star reported that “Police observed the afternoon demonstrations but indicated they contemplated no arrests unless a trespass complaint was filed by a store.”

The sit-ins required extraordinary effort on the part of the students. Most of them lived in the Mayfield section of Fredericksburg and could get downtown only by walking. Every day. In the clutches of summer.

But resistance came in many forms.  Continue reading

The wound inflicted: Memorial Day, reconciliation, and a rebuke

From John Hennessy:

For fifteen years after the creation of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, local Memorial Day observances for the Union dead were commonly organized and led by Fredericksburg’s African-American community. Indeed, as Donald Pfanz has pointed out in his soon-to-be published history of the creation of the National Cemetery, in 1871 the Memorial Day ceremony included both black and white participants–a rare phenomenon that provoked rage in the local community. Years later, the Free Lance published a bitter remembrance of that day (the editorial in fact reveals more about white attitudes in 19th century Virginia than it does about the Memorial Day in question):

Some twenty years ago on the 30th of May, Decoration Day, a few colored people, a scattering crowd of men, women, and children, headed by a forlorn white man in the person of a postmaster or deputy collector of internal revenue, and preceded by a wheezy band of dilapidated instruments blown by unskilled players, use to straggle out to the National Cemetery and scatter a few faded flowers over the graves. The white people looked on in disgust and contempt, and many refused to give the small darkey flowers for the ceremony. It was a pitiful sight, an honor sought to be paid by those who scarcely knew what honor meant, to the dead, in a land that regarded them as occupying dishonorable graves.

Still, the efforts by the local Black community to commemorate continued unabated until 1884. That year, the quest for national reconciliation overawed local African-Americans’ determination to honor and remember the Union dead. The episode is Blight’s Race and Reunion in microcosm–a vivid example of how the desire for reconciliation apparently helped separate African-Americans (indeed all Americans) from the emancipationist legacy of the war. Continue reading

A lynching foiled in Fredericksburg–1904

From John Hennessy:

There are few images calculated to unsettle modern Americans more than those that emerged from the spate of lynchings that plagued the nation in the six decades after the Civil War: rogue mobs, often with the implicit approval of local law enforcement, seeking vengeance on those (usually though not always black) convicted or even suspected of crimes deemed especially offensive. This was the fate of Culpeper resident Allie Thompson, charged (possibly falsely) with sexual assault on a white woman in 1918. Local white men dared not risk a trial, and on November 24, broke into the Culpeper jail, hauled him three miles outside town, and hung him from a tree.  I am unaware of any lynching closer to Fredericksburg than Thompson–to my knowledge, none occurred in Fredericksburg, Stafford, or Spotsylvania.  That, however, was not for a lack of trying.

In November 16, 1904, a “mulatto” man named Charles H. Blandford of Spotsylvania, wanted for an unspecified “serious” crime, was identified by residents on the streets of Fredericksburg. One of them brought him down with a brick to the head. Blandford was arrested and hauled off to the jail behind the Circuit Courthouse, along what has long been known as “Jail Alley.”  The local newspapers for some reason did not report the nature of his crime, but whatever it was, it charged elements within the local community. That very afternoon there was talk around town of breaking Blandford out of jail and imposing some street justice upon him.

Local law enforcement heard the rumors, and police sergeant J.Conway Chichester remained watchful at the jail until 1 a.m. Sensing that the threat had passed, Chichester finally went home. But, someone was watching, and soon after Chichester departed, a group of “40 to 50 men” emerged from the shadows, armed with crowbars and rope, extinguished the gas lamp in the alley, and got to work. 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

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):

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.