I have spent my entire retirement working at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields National Military Park. As a young kid standing on Marye’s Heights in 1958, fascinated by the battlefield and the view from high above the street, I never imagined I would one day be working at the battlefield that kindled my Civil War interest. I did not realize that it also had some of the same problems as the rest of Virginia.
I now live in this historic old city. I met my wife here, and we even had our Civil War wedding in Historic Old Salem Church. Fredericksburg has always been my favorite city in Virginia, since I was about six years old—and it still is.
Fredericksburg is the first city, other than my hometown of Washington, D.C., where I first learned the history of my mother’s family. Her mother and father were both from Fredericksburg and lived their married life in D.C. Whenever we visited the city, we spent time with aunts, uncles, and cousins—and ate so much good Southern cooked food. I loved my Aunt Hattie Ennis Wheeler’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and homemade biscuits. What I had not realized was that we were not welcome to go to the restaurants and diners in the area. All I knew was that we spent quality time with our relatives.
Sometimes my grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Ennis Campbell, would drive my mother, brothers and sisters and me to Fredericksburg to see her sisters, Hattie, Martha, Kate, and Virginia. Since Aunt Hattie lived on Charles Street, we passed the slave auction block at the corner of Charles and Williams Streets. Grandma told us that her grandmother used to tell her that she remembered her brother was sold at that auction block.
That auction block got me interested in finding out more about slavery. In 2010, I shared my first History at Sunset walking tour with the chief historian, John Hennessy. I was able to tell my grandmother’s story at the auction block.
When my Aunt Hattie died, in her eulogy, it was told that my Aunt Hattie and Uncle Fielding Wheeler would open their home and hospitality to visiting African-American ministers to Fredericksburg because the ministers could not stay in hotels. Those ministers would be guest preachers for Shiloh Old Site, Shiloh New Site, and Mt. Zion Baptist churches.
I am still very close with my cousin Vera Jane Wheeler, their daughter (and when they’re in the area, my cousin, Fielding Jr., his wife Lorraine, and their sons, Kirk and Kevin). My Aunt Hattie worked at the James Monroe Museum for 43 years. My Uncle Fielding worked at Belmont for the Melcher family for many years.
In February 2011, John Hennessy and I gave a Black History month trolley tour for those same three churches. Since all three churches were originally part of the original Shiloh Baptist Church, they get together to present Black History Month programs for themselves and the community. After the tour, we were supposed to have a short question-and-answer session. It lasted for more than an hour, though, as people were very interested in the history was shared with them.
Many of the people grew up in the area, and their Civil War education was very limited because the United Daughters of the Confederacy controlled what was taught about the Civil War in the schools in the Southern part of this country. Many did not know about the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and were not aware that the National Park Service recognizes that slavery was the major cause of the Civil War. At the end of the program, some of the people even thought we would be in trouble for the information we gave out.
Since this occurred one month after the 23rd USCT was formed, I realized that one of the 23rd’s missions was to educate our community about the USCT! I also felt that, as the only black ranger in the park at that time, I had to do more to educate the community about the Civil War.