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Freedom Riders marker in Fredericksburg, Va., tells the ‘untold story’

Students and faculty from the University of Mary Washington in 2019 at a stop in Anniston, Ala., where civil rights activists the Freedom Riders were attacked. (Christopher Williams/University of Mary Washington)
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Christopher Williams lived in Fredericksburg, Va., all of his life so it came as a surprise to him — a history buff — to learn from a book that a major milestone of the civil rights movement happened in his hometown.

“It was a little bit mind blowing because I had no idea,” Williams said.

The Fredericksburg Greyhound bus depot was the first stop for the Freedom Riders, a group that started with 13 and grew to more than 400 Black and White civil rights activists who in 1961 rode regularly scheduled buses through the South to challenge the segregated interstate travel system. They were threatened, brutally attacked, jailed — even firebombed along the way. The revelation from a book by historian Raymond Arsenault really illustrated for Williams how little of Black American history is taught and commemorated.

“There’s such a rich cultural history here that hasn’t been told in a way that is satisfactory and truthful to the Commonwealth,” Williams said.

So in the fall of 2019, Williams, who is the assistant director at the University of Mary Washington’s multicultural center, along with other faculty and administrators organized a social justice trip, taking a group of about 60 students and area residents along the same route as the original Freedom Riders. At one of their stops in Anniston, Ala., where the activists were attacked by the local Ku Klux Klan, who beat them with chains and bats, Williams and his students noticed that there was no historical marker at the stop, though they later found out that there was a commemorative plaque about a mile down the road from the original site.

“That became the impetus for me to say the Freedom Riders history needs to be showcased in a meaningful way in Fredericksburg,” Williams said.

He joined the Freedom Rides of the ’60s for what he thought would be a weekend. It turned out to be two years.

About a month after that, Williams contacted Fredericksburg Vice Mayor Charlie Frye to put into motion a plan to get a state historical marker set up at the former Greyhound bus terminal, which is now a fire station. The process involved coordinating with the city as well as the Commonwealth’s Department of Historic Resources, which approves new markers.

On Tuesday, about 60 years after the riders first came to Fredericksburg, the town will place a replica of the historical marker on Princess Anne Street, once a thriving center for Black businesses, in a ceremony that will be live-streamed on Facebook. Due to the pandemic, the foundry that crafts the markers couldn’t have the plaque ready in time for the ceremony, but the town hopes to have the official marker placed in the fall.

“This very well may be the first [historical marker] in the Commonwealth of Virginia dedicated to the Freedom Riders,” Williams said.

In addition to Fredericksburg being the first stop for the Freedom Riders, it was also where civil rights legend James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and organized the Freedom Rides, made his home. Farmer, one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998. He went on to teach at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, and served as a mentor to Williams in his teenage years until Farmer’s death in 1999.

“He had such a big, booming baritone voice and he was such a great story teller,” Williams said. “Being around him was such a compelling and once-in-a lifetime experience for me.”

The marker will be placed just over a year after a 1,200-pound slave auction block in downtown Fredericksburg was finally removed after years of debate and protests. The block was relocated to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.

Frye had long pushed for the auction block’s removal and said that the change in landmarks sends an important message.

“I didn’t want to do any other thing until we removed that actually, because the slave block was always referenced as the story of African American history in Fredericksburg and I wanted to get past that,” Frye said. “This marker for the Freedom Riders shows forward progress for the city.”

After a long debate, Fredericksburg, Va., finally removes a slave auction block from downtown

Frye, who along with the support of the rest of the city council helped Williams get the Freedom Riders marker installed, said he hopes it will be a new beginning for the town.

Williams is hoping to get more historical markers placed, tying together a larger African American history and civil rights trail. Particularly significant locations include the town’s outpost of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a subdistrict of a larger network created in 1865 to assist African Americans and poor Whites with food, housing and legal assistance after the Civil War.

“The historical markers, they tell the untold story,” Frye said. “For so long, we’ve only had one story.”