By DANIEL ROZZEL
Chris Williams, an assistant director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center along with Dr. Christine Henry, professor of historic preservation, and Dr. Erin Devlin, professor of history and American studies, has obtained approval from the Virginia Board of Historic Resources for the creation of a Virginia State Highway Marker to mark the first stop of the Freedom Rides.
The marker is slated to be added sometime in either October or November of 2021 outside of the Greyhound bus terminal at 601 Princess Anne Street. A commemoration ceremony will be held when the marker is installed. On May 4, the anniversary date of the Freedom Riders’ departure, a small commemoration will be held which can be viewed online from the city government’s Facebook page.
The idea for the mile marker manifested during the Fall 2019 social justice trip, where Williams and Dr. Marion Sanford coordinated a bus ride that followed the original route of the Freedom Riders in 1961. Williams recalls the specific moment that inspired him.
“We were fortunate enough to have stops in Alabama, and we saw how they had properly marked different places that were touched by the Civil Rights Movement. And one of the places we went to was Anniston, Alabama, which is where the historic incident occurred,” said Williams. “It was actually several historic incidents that occurred, but that was one of them. Violent clashes where the Klu Klux Klan had poked holes in the tires, bus, and the bus tires flattened about a mile outside of Ansan, Alabama. Then the local chapter of the Klan firebombed the bus with the 13 Freedom Riders in there.”
Inspired by the State of Alabama and their remembrance and preservation of these historical moments, Williams immediately got to work after returning from the trip. Victoria Matthews, an attendee of the trip and tourism sales manager for the Department of Economic Development and Tourism for the City of Fredericksburg, worked with Williams to erect the mile marker.
“When we met at Dr. Paino’s house for the reunion for all the people who went on this trip, we talked about kind of starting the process of not only getting a highway marker for Dr. Farmer but also incorporating our own Black history and civil rights trails here in the city of Fredericksburg,” said Williams.
Henry spoke about her motivation for this marker and the role that she played in helping it get approved.
“My motivation was to see a more inclusive history told on our Fredericksburg landscape. This is a small step, but because it is a statewide program has a lot of impact beyond our local community,” said Henry.
“I worked with a great team of people including Mr. Williams and Dr. Devlin on campus to research the history of the event in Fredericksburg,” said Henry.
Henry was able to gain critical information on the location and history of the site. “Since I specialize in historic preservation, I was focused on finding information about the location of the bus station at the time, and any evidence of what it may have looked like since the Greyhound station was torn down and replaced with the current fire station,” said Henry.
“The UMW team also collaborated with the city on this project, and so I helped coordinate all of the contributors to the application which was made to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, DHR, to get the marker approved,” said Henry.
Afterward, Henry noted the importance of sharing the history and its use as a tool in social justice, both as a means of remembering past acts of heroism but as inspiration to continue social justice now and in the future.
“This marker shares a very significant moment in terms of social justice action when the Freedom Riders challenged segregation at the bus station in Fredericksburg as a starting point for their summer-long journey, which is inspiring because of the long-term impact of those actions. However, I also think it can encourage us to continue that fight for justice because it shows the power of collective action. Each of us can contribute in our own way to move forward,” she said.
For students who are interested in learning more about the Freedom Riders, the James Farmer Multicultural Center will be showing a documentary on May 4 at 6:00 p.m.. Students can register for the event on the JFMC website.