Research focuses on Fredericksburg's oldest Black families' ancestors

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Posted at 11:05 AM, May 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-30 11:05:57-04

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — When the Fredericksburg City Council voted in 2020 to relocate the slave auction block that stood on the corner of William and Charles streets for 176 years, it jumpstarted a conversation about the way history is told in the city.

Fredericksburg officials were compelled to discuss whether or not the Black experience has been effectively chronicled through historical markers, wayside panels and at the Fredericksburg Area Museum, where the auction block now resides.

City Council made telling a more inclusive story of Fredericksburg an official priority in 2020 and is helping the museum hire a Black history curator.

The responsiveness of City Council gave Paula Royster confidence that the door was open for community members to freely express themselves to leaders including Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw.

"It let me know that the city was ready," Royster said. "Mayor Greenlaw is a very progressive mayor. She understands how the disconnect between history that's being told and reality impacts the community. It drives apathy. It drives cynicism. It drives mistrust. I don't think she and the council members want to live in a divided city."

Royster is the founder and CEO of the Center for African-American Genealogical Research. She's also a published author who teaches coursework in humanities and social sciences.

City Council donated $5,000 to Royster's "Reclaiming Our Time" project, which will identify the 10 oldest Black families in Fredericksburg's history.

A male member of those families will undergo extensive DNA testing to determine if their ancestors hail from one of the 12 African nations that had slave ships arrive at the Fredericksburg dock centuries ago.

"This project is to reclaim our time by way of whatever records are available and substantiated by the DNA," Royster said. "So that when we talk about the history of Fredericksburg, we are talking about its true history and the contributions that our African ancestors made."

In addition to funds from City Council, St. George's Episcopal Church has donated $5,500 to Royster's project. Trinity Episcopal Church has pledged support. Mayfield Civic Association President Trudy Smith and Fredericksburg native and U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater have also given donations.

Royster has identified eight of the 10 families and hopes to finalize the complete list by next week. The project is expected to take seven months. She's hopeful the final outcome is that the city will support an African-American Cultural Heritage Center, where Black people can conduct research on their lineage, watch documentaries on the places where they originated and cultivate a community garden.

"It just gives us African-Americans validation," Smith said of why she supports the project. "You just didn't drop here from nowhere. You have a history. You have people before you who made contributions to civilization other than picking cotton, cleaning the kitchen for somebody else and cooking the food."

Royster said that certain architectural structures in Fredericksburg lead her to believe that people from multiple African nations inhabited the city.

She noted the use of cowry shells that are native to Ghana in some buildings and grounds around the area. She believes the Bakongo tribe was present because of the way graves were decorated at Shiloh cemetery.

She said she's discovered evidence of the slave ships' arrival and now she has to sort through a particular time period to identify the nations from which they came. She said there are two ships that came from Anomabo, Ghana, and that the cowry shells and the ship's manifest substantiate that people in Fredericksburg have ancestors from Anomabo and do not know it.

"My hope is that out of this, these families can have some closure," Royster said. "I hope that they can build off the research that I've done to continue looking at other areas, to identify those (traditions) in the past that have been retained through the generations without knowing what they were."

Royster observed census records from 1810–60 and made a list of every Black family. She then determined who had been there the longest by who appeared first. Only free Blacks were counted on the census, Royster said.

Royster is not prepared to release the eight names she's come up with so far, but said they're familiar names with many descendants still in the area.

"It just does my soul good to know that Dr. Royster is taking the time to connect the dots," Smith said. "It has fueled the fire for me to connect the dots in my family and I'm sure it's going to do the same thing for other people."

Royster said she hopes white families will assist her by providing historical journals, notes, wills and other documents that kept record of when Black slaves were born, who their parents were and the cost of their purchase or sale.

Greenlaw said she's eager to see the results of Royster's work. She noted that Fredericksburg started a relationship with its sister city in Ghana, Prince's Town. She and others planned a trip there to visit officials but it was called off because of the pandemic.

Greenlaw said Royster's project "is one of the most exciting things I've seen as far as our community is concerned."

"This follows along with our telling the whole story," Greenlaw said. "It's absolutely part of what we want to do—to identify our roots and the real history of this city."