Haunting mystery solved in desegregation of Fredericksburg school

The 1962 photograph is soul-stirring — a preteen Black student, standing alone, far apart from classmates outside the previously all-white Maury Middle School, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The evocative image of the young man, on the day he desegregated the school was taken by a photographer with the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, and has been displayed for years on the public school system’s website, in the retelling of its once-segregated past.

robert christian desegregating maury school
A 1962 photo, originally posted in Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, of Robert Christian, 12.

Yet, 60 years later? “Nobody ever knew who he was,” marveled Chris Williams, assistant director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center at the University of Mary Washington. “There was no name in the newspaper when that picture was taken — it just said ‘a young Negro boy.'”

Finally, Williams and other researchers have learned the identity of the person in the picture, who attended the school named for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a founder of modern oceanography before joining the Confederacy during the Civil War.

“The first student to desegregate it was a young man by the name of Robert Christian,” Williams said. “He was 12 years old.”

Now, Williams and other researchers are set to unveil a Fredericksburg civil rights trail, entitled “Freedom, a Work in Progress,” on Thursday. The three-mile walking trail will guide participants through post-Civil War history in the city, including the site of the former school, which closed in 1980 and was converted into condominiums in 2007.

However, before the Maury school was built in 1920, the site was already rich in history.

“The Colored Cemetery at Potter’s Field was a place where Black citizens were buried, within the city of Fredericksburg,” Williams said. “But because the city needed a place to build a school, they dug up those bodies and moved them elsewhere.”

Interred bodies of enslaved people and free Black people were moved to Shiloh Baptist Cemetery.

Finally, the solitary young man tells his story

In September of 2022, co-researcher Victoria Matthews asked Williams’ cousin, Frank White, to see if he could discover the identity of the young man.

“Literally, within three hours, he found his sister,” who put Williams in touch with Christian, he said.

“At first he was hesitant,” Williams said. “Eventually he agreed to do an interview, which I must tell you was the most moving interview I did, in speaking with all these African American elders here in the City of Fredericksburg.”

While the historic photo depicted white schoolmates gawking at the school’s first Black student on the day he entered Maury School, Williams said Christian described the hostility he faced during the school year.

“It was a bit traumatic for him to recount those stories of what he went through during that time in 1962, being the only Black boy in the classroom, hearing the N-word, every day,” Williams said.

The unkindness ran deep.

“He was on his own, literally,” said Williams. “Nobody would play with him, nobody would sit with him at the lunch table — the teacher forced him to sit at the back of the classroom.”

Christian described the isolation he felt.

“His house was within a minute of the school, and he said he ran home every day after school,” Williams said. “He was just traumatized.”

Eventually, during their hourslong conversation, Williams sensed Christian felt the catharsis of finally detailing his painful experience: “He told me it was like talking to a family member.”

Christian’s desegregation story, at the site of the former Colored Cemetery at Potter’s Field is one of 22 stops on the civil rights trail. It chronicles court rulings and protests from the Jim Crow era to the Black Lives Matter movement, stopping at churches, cemeteries, markers and monuments.

The unveiling event for “Freedom, a Work in Progress” will take place at UMW’s Jepson Alumni Executive Center in Fredericksburg on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 2 p.m.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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