BY JOEY LoMONACO
FREDERICKSBURG FREE PRESS
History class didn’t appeal much to a young Chuck Frye Jr.
“It wasn’t interesting to me,” Fredericksburg’s vice mayor recounted of growing up as a somewhat reluctant junior usher in the city. “I would go to school, and then I would go to grandma’s house. And what grandma was telling me wasn’t in the books.”
Fredericksburg’s Black history—including pivotal events in the Civil Rights movement like the Walker-Grant High School protest in 1950 and Freedom Riders in 1961—were presented as “more of a myth,” Frye said. “Today, we get to tell the stories of the untold.”
On Thursday, at the Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) that served as the backdrop of many of those milestones, Mayor Kerry Devine announced that Fredericksburg’s Civil Rights Trail: “Freedom: A Work in Progress” has been accepted to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The city’s trail, which includes 21 stops, becomes the fourth such site in Virginia.
“This puts us on the map in a way we couldn’t have imagined,” Devine told a congregation that packed the pews in anticipation of what was billed only as a “monumental announcement.”
Thursday’s announcement served as the culmination of a process hatched with “an idea and an email,” recalled Victoria Matthews, the city’s tourism sales manager. In July 2020, Matthews wrote to Chris Williams, assistant director at The University of Mary Washington’s James Farmer Multicultural Center. The two had met at a Freedom Riders event the previous year.
Matthews attached a preliminary draft of potential stops for a Fredericksburg Civil Rights trail with the caveat, “Please let me know your thoughts and what might be missing.”
“Clearly, there was a lot missing,” Matthews said with a laugh.
That email led to a Zoom meeting and then, in 2020, they held their first event, a ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, held outside due to COVID-19 limitations. From there, the project expanded to include stops—accessible online or by walking and driving—throughout the city. In February 2023, the Fredericksburg Civil Rights Trail opened to the public.
The criteria for being accepted as part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail included being related to major events or persons in the Civil Rights movement and being open to the public, Matthews said. Principally, she and Williams wished to submit for consideration the Freedom Riders historical marker.
“But then, I decided, ‘What harm could it do to include the rest of the trail?’ ” Matthews said.
Much to her surprise, not only did the U.S. Civil Rights Trail want the Freedom Riders site—they wanted all of it.
When Matthews told Williams the news, “I think the entire [UMW] campus heard us jumping for joy,” she said.
Staffers from the offices of Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as Rep. Abigail Spanberger read letters of support penned by their respective legislators. Williams also read a letter of congratulations from Vice President Kamala Harris.
“May the Fredericksburg Civil Rights Trail serve as a reminder that freedom must never be taken for granted,” wrote Harris, “and may it motivate us to continue fighting for justice, equity and opportunity.”
During his brief remarks, Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) Pastor, the Rev. Aaron Dobynes, acknowledged that history isn’t always the most palatable subject.
“It’s not always going to be nice,” Dobynes said. “It’s not going to always be sweet. But it needs to be told. As we are gathered here, there are people who have made it their mission to rewrite history or mute history.”
Dobynes referenced an African proverb that likened the death of an elder to burning down a library. “We are gathered to tell those who would rewrite history: it will not happen.”
Frye, struck with a newfound appreciation for history—a full history—echoed those sentiments.
“Elders pass and generations pass, and those stories stay in the living room,” he said. “But now, the stories that I was told in [grandma’s] little living room are the same stories that are going to be told around the world.”