This morning I attended, and spoke at, Crossing the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom. The event, put on by the African American Heritage Alliance of Culpeper county, headed by Zann Nelson and Howard Lambert, commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by visiting the site of the famous August 19, 1862 photograph of slaves crossing the Rappahannock. (We have written about that photograph here and here.) It’s likely that since the war, not a hundred people have been to the site for historical purposes–and maybe not a dozen with knowledge of the site’s association with the famous photograph. In that sense and others, it was an extraordinary morning.
I spoke, as did the indomitable Bud Hall, and Dr. Dianne Swann-Wright (she was the keynote, and rightly so). Everyone did well, but it occurred to me as the morning went on that not a person there would have remembered beyond dinnertime any of the profound thoughts we conveyed if we had been in a banquet hall or lecture room, or in Minnesota or Maryland. What we said assumed true meaning and (I hope) memorability by virtue of where we were. The place–it alone ensured t that anyone who made the journey to the river will never forget their experience.
The Cow Ford crossing of the Rappahannock assumes significance not because it is unique, but because it is the site of what is one of only a handful of images–and probably the only photographs–that portray slaves escaping to freedom. That image with the place and the words of those who witnessed the event, on this day overlaid with music with deep cultural meanings for those in attendance, make for a powerful, memorable image in the mind’s eye. There is nothing that can match it. No movie. No video game. No NatGeo spread.
I did not get a chance to ask any of those who walked across the river why they did it and what it meant to them (I was especially affected by the woman in the purple skirt, by the end soaked above her knees, but determined to do it), and I won’t presume to guess, but I do know that for me and others, watching those people was an important part of the process of according significance to what is otherwise an unremarkable place. The re-enactment of the crossing entailed a level of effort and commitment (and perhaps a little risk) that emphasized both the importance of today’s program and the profound symbolic importance of those who crossed there in 1862. It struck me that every school child in the region should visit that site at some point and walk across the river there. They’d remember that day’s history lesson the rest of their lives.
I have been around long enough to have seen any number of sites that were once unknown assume cultural significance, even fame: the site of John Washington’s crossing in Fredericksburg, Moncure Conway’s house, the Slaughter Pen Farm. More often than not, today’s emerging sites reflect stories that were long ignored, even suppressed. Their emergence is an interesting process, almost always born of the knowledge of a few that prompts the caring of others, and, finally, the commemorative acts of many (like today’s event). Over time these stories and sites become ingrained as part of the American fabric. I sense and hope that Cow Ford, inelegantly named but powerfully stamped by history, will become one of those places.