A Slavery Museum? Race, Memory, and Landscape in Fredericksburg, Virginia

By Hanna, Stephen P. | Southeastern Geographer, November 2008 | Go to article overview

A Slavery Museum? Race, Memory, and Landscape in Fredericksburg, Virginia


Hanna, Stephen P., Southeastern Geographer


In spring 2001, former governor Douglas Wilder announced that he might locate the United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Despite some recent changes, Fredericksburg's heritage tourism landscape, as it is built and performed, reproduces a white American nationalism extolling the virtues of individualism, valor, and free enterprise. The mere potential of adding the Museum to Fredericksburg's landscape engendered intense debates about the ways the City's cherished Colonial and Civil War pasts are remembered. In this article, I use recent literature on landscape, memory, and race to explore changes in how African-American histories are represented in and through the landscape. Then, I examine one venue for these debates--the letters-to-the-editor, op-ed pieces, and online reader responses published by Fredericksburg's newspaper of record, The Free Lance Star. In these texts, Museum opponents and supporters selectively deploy constructions of race, versions of Fredericksburg's past, and visions for the City's future to support their arguments. I conclude by noting how debates over the Slavery Museum continue to inform more recent proposals to change Fredericksburg's landscape.

KEY WORDS: collective memory, slavery, landscape, Fredericksburg, Virginia, museum, heritage tourism

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On the evening of November 17, 2007, I attended a program at the antebellum Fredericksburg Baptist Church entitled, "To Freedom: The World and Words of John Washington." John Washington was a rare individual, but also representative of the larger slave population during the Civil War. A literate slave, he was one of the first to escape bondage in spring 1862 when the Union Army reached the bank of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Some estimate that 10,000 slaves escaped through Fredericksburg in the months that followed (Hennessy 2006). In 1873 Washington detailed his life as a slave and his escape to Union lines in his memoir, Memorys of the Past. (1) The 270 people attending the "To Freedom" program witnessed dramatic readings of Washington's and other residents' written memories of slavery and emancipation in this southern city. It was a performance of local memory--an attempt to remind us of African-American sacrifice, bravery, and struggles for freedom.

One month later, sixty Confederate re-enactors marched by my house on their way to "skirmish" with Union forces in Fredericksburg's streets. As has happened every December for almost twenty years, the City government closed residential streets to traffic to accommodate this practice of memory. Thousands of visitors and residents of Fredericksburg witnessed the re-enactors' commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers. As always, the focus of this performance was on the Battle of Fredericksburg itself. Few of the programs held that weekend mentioned that slavery was the primary cause of the war or that it secured the emancipation of African-American slaves.

These two events symbolize the uneven and unequal ways memory is performed and inscribed in the heritage tourism landscape of Fredericksburg, Virginia. More specifically, they offer evidence that while African-American narratives continue to be marginalized in the City's collective memory, individuals and institutions within and beyond Fredericksburg are making slavery, resistance, and emancipation more visible in the landscape as it is built and performed. This is a key aspect of broader debates over Fredericksburg's identity as a historic small town increasingly surrounded by suburban sprawl. In this struggle, City officials, tourism workers, residents, and tourists embrace and deploy different memories of the City's past, different accounts of the role of race in that past, and different visions for Fredericksburg's future.

At no point was this more evident than in the days and months that followed former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder's April 28, 2001 announcement that he was considering Fredericksburg as the site for the United States National Slavery Museum. …

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