On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders stopped in Fredericksburg to challenge segregation in the city’s bus station.
Sixty years later, their visit—the first stop in a monthslong effort challenging segregation in buses and terminals in the South—has been commemorated with a Virginia historic marker and a proclamation naming May 4, 2021, “Freedom Riders Day.”
Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, Vice Mayor Chuck Frye Jr. and Del. Josh Cole, D–28th District, were among the leaders present at a ceremony unveiling the text of the marker Tuesday afternoon near the fire station in downtown Fredericksburg, where the Greyhound terminal was located in 1961.
“This is what work looks like,” said Frye, describing the joint effort between the city; University of Mary Washington professors Erin Devlin and Christine Henry; and Chris Williams, assistant director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center, that resulted in the approval of the new state historic marker. “If we could just clap a lot for Fredericksburg today.”
Frye and Greenlaw said the Freedom Riders marker represents an effort by the city to tell its history in a more inclusive way that highlights the significant achievements of Black and Native Americans
Speaking to the audience at Tuesday’s ceremony, Devlin, an assistant professor of history, said James Farmer—who led the Freedom Riders as executive director of the Congress on Racial Equality and later went on the teach history at UMW—would tell his students that the Freedom Riders’ mantra was “be the change you want to see in the world.”
That mantra guided their strategy of nonviolent direct action, Devlin said.
“If they wanted desegregated buses, they had to ride segregated buses. If they wanted desegregated lunch counters, they had to order from segregated lunch counters,” she said. “And that is what James Peck and Charles Person did here in Fredericksburg.”
Peck, a white man, entered the “colored” men’s restroom at the Fredericksburg station, while Person, a Black man, entered the white’s-only restroom and then ordered a sandwich at the white’s-only lunch counter.
Devlin said Farmer also spoke critically to his students about officials who would scream about “outside agitators” anytime segregation was challenged by non-locals.
“It was his belief that every citizen should be concerned about injustice anywhere,” Devlin said. “I hope we can be inspired by Farmer to be directly involved in action.”
Henry, an assistant professor of historic preservation, spoke about Virginia’s state historic marker program, which was the first of its kind in the country when it was established in 1927. The first markers were erected along U.S. 1, which runs through Fredericksburg on its north–south route through Virginia.
By 1930, there were 700 state historic markers, but only three of them were dedicated to Black history, Henry said. Now, there are 2,500 state historic markers and 12 percent of them are dedicated to Black history, she said.
“We still have work to do and this is part of that work,” Henry said of the Freedom Riders marker.
A permanent marker will be dedicated at the site in November, Williams said.
Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973