Walking the Road from Slavery to Freedom With John Washington

[Click here for photographs from the day.]

I don’t really know how to begin this post about my experience yesterday in Fredericksburg other than to say that it reminded me of just why I find the study of history and the Civil War in particular to be so important.  It was a whirlwind day that began in the afternoon with a tour of John Washington’s Fredericksburg through his own words and memories.  Michaela and I were honored to be included in the afternoon tour which included Ruth A. Washington, granddaughter of John Washington and his great-great granddaughter, Maureen F. Ramos.  I was conscious throughout the tour that they were hearing the story of their ancestor for the first time.  For me it was a meaningful and entertaining way to broaden my own understanding of the past through the words of an actual participant.  However, as much as I was moved by Washington’s own words for Ruth and Maureen it was a much more personal and profound experience.  [The photograph at the left includes Ruth (l), David Blight, and Maureen (r).]

We toured various parts of the city, including the Farmers Bank where Washington lived for a time.  While on the second floor and in the hallway outside the room that probably served as his living space John Hennessy read from one of the most moving sections of Washington’s narrative:

The Night before Mother left me (as I was to be kept in hand by the old mistress for especial use) she, mother, came up to my little room I slept in the “White peoples house,” and laid down on my bed by me and begged me for her own sake, try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all she had tried to teach me and always think of her…

Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders–The morrow came and with tears and Lementations cars left with all that was near and dear to me on Earth.

One of the gems of the tour around Fredericksburg was a stop at the Minor – Maury House.  John read a few passages about slave life from the diary of Mary M. Blackford and then took us to the rear of the home where we could see the etching of slave names on the window of one of the buildings which was done as a reward for their learning to read.  Apparently Blackford went out of her way to defy the laws which made it illegal to teach slaves to read.  [Click here for the image.  I was intrigued to hear at this stop that nine black Fredericksburgers are buried in Liberia.  [In the photograph to the left you can see John Hennessy, Ruth, and Maureen by the window.]

From there we drove to the Taliaffero House where Washington also lived for a time.  We saw the slave quarters in the rear of the house which is believed to be where Washington lived at one point.  The structure is in remarkable condition and as luck would have it just as we were finished the owner pulled up and allowed us to peak inside.  The floors and beams are original and I can only imagine what Ruth and Maureen were thinking as they walked through.  I should point out that the two had flown to Virginia from Tampa yesterday morning and Ruth is 89 years old.  She didn’t miss a beat which was all the more impressive given the spectrum of emotions that the two exhibited.

Our final stop was the point along the Rappahannock River where on April 18, 1862 – and with the Union army opposite Fredericksburg – Washington crossed to his freedom.  John and Professor Blight made it a point to remind us that while our tendency is to see suffering and hardship for the residents of Fredericksburg following Union occupation for many it meant freedom.  Washington’s description of that moment can be connected to the experiences of thousands of black Americans whose memories have been forgotten by a nation that has since 1865 worked to distance the war from the central theme of emancipation that the slaves themselves helped to bring about:

Very soon one, of a party of soldiers, in a boat call out to the crowd standing around me do any of you want to come over–Every body “said no,” I hallowed out, “Yes I want to come over,” “all right–Bully for you” was the response.  and they was soon over to our side.  I greeted them gladly and stepped into their Boat, as soon as James (W’s cousin) saw my determination to go he joined me and the other young man who had come along with us–

Before morning I had began to fee like I had truly Escaped from the hand of the slave master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more.  I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim Every cent that I should work for as my own.  I began to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me.  I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain with the army until I got Enough money to travel further North This was the First Night of my Freedom.  It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen Thank God–xxx–we were all asstire [astir?] very early next morning for the soldiers had a sad duty to perform. [Washington witnessed the burial of Union soldiers killed while taking Falmouth.]

About 12 of us went to dinner and I was lucky enough to sit next to Ruth and Maureen.  They are both educators which gave us quite a bit to chat about.  Ruth still volunteers three days a week reading to children in the early grade levels.  It was also a pleasure to be able to talk to Professor Blight whose work on Civil War memory has been so influential and inspiring to me.  During dinner I asked all three to sign my copy of a A Slave No More which, unlike most of my books, I will not mark-up but keep as a memento of the occasion.

The highlight of the entire day was a dramatic reading of sections from Washington’s narrative which took place at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  Readers included Dominic Green, S.J. Cordell-Robinson, Sarah Poore, and John Hennessy who provided a stirring narrative that placed Washington’s life in its proper historical context.  The reader’s voices blended perfectly with one another and were interrupted only by the beautiful voice of Jim Thomas who sang a few appropriate slave spirituals.  I was very impressed with John’s narrative which began with the word ‘silence’ repeated a few times to highlight the amount of time that Washington’s voice, along with so many others, have been ignored or forgotten.  John brought the story to a close by noting that “the silence is broken” – and indeed it has.

David Blight touched on the importance of Washington’s narrative and the story of how two slave narratives ended up “on his lap.”  Finally, both Ruth and Maureen addressed the crowd.  Both of them thanked the city of Fredericksburg for their hospitality and the chance to reconnect with their past.  Rather than try to quickly summarize what they said I am going to wait until I’ve thought about it a bit more.

Finally, I want to thank John Hennessy for including me and my wife in yesterday’s events.  To say we had a great time would be an understatement.  John is doing groundbreaking work with events like this.  In my mind yesterday was a triumph for John on a personal level, the National Park Service and the city of Fredericksburg.  I hope the success of yesterday will translate into additional projects within the NPS that continue to push the boundaries of what it means to do public history.

Congratulations John on a terrific event that I will not soon forget.  Now take a few days off and relax.  You can find a few more photographs here.

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3 comments… add one
  • GreenmanTim Dec 4, 2007 @ 19:55

    On tonight’s edition of NPR’s Fresh Air (Dec 4th, 2007), the entire hour has been devoted to two slave narratives, including this one, and includes interviews with three members of the Washington family who I believe you met at Fredericksburg as they spoke about how meaningful that trip was for them.

  • Lisa Sheppard Nov 26, 2007 @ 21:20

    Wonderful blog. I had the chance to read the story in the Daily Press newspaper today. I invite you to visit our nonprofit web site and see how our organization, Slave Descendants Freedom Society in Hampton Roads, is providing a platform for descendants of enslaved people in America to tell the stories of their ancestors. We are developing a building in The Gambia, West Africa as a way of helping African Americans and other African descent people in the Disapora to reconnect back to Africa.

  • Chris Nov 18, 2007 @ 22:27

    Very nice post, I am enjoying the book myself…

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