A life-long Culpeper County resident keeps uncovering untold and under-recognized stories in American history, an essential effort that keeps gaining attention.
For her extensive field work, research, investigation and writing about African American history, freelance journalist Zann Nelson, of Reva, is among the first recipients of the William H. Carney Recognition Award to be presented Saturday as part of The Trail to Freedom Symposium at Courtyard Marriott in historic downtown Fredericksburg.
With a theme of “Duty, Honor and Country,” the award honors the service of men and women who have made significant contributions in the preservation of African American History within their communities.
Rixeyville residents Robert and Kathy Ellis are also getting the award for their work to preserve the family farm and the once enslaved residents who lived and worked there.
Stafford native and historian Frank White is the third recipient of the award named for an African American Civil War soldier given the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Fort Wagner, S.C.
The Trail to Freedom Committee of Spotsylvania County is presenting the Symposium and awards, building on last fall’s “To Freedom” program at Fredericksburg City Dock. The morning session is free and begins at 9 a.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg. The awards will be presented at 3:30 p.m. as part of the afternoon session and buffet luncheon at the hotel.
More than a dozen Culpeper County residents, including the longtime chairman of the Culpeper County Planning Commission, nominated Nelson for the regional prize.
“She exemplifies the theme of Duty, Honor, Country,” said Sanford Reaves, Jr., county planning commission chairman in his nomination endorsed by several others.
“Zann reminds all that we are our brother’s keeper. As a white female, she sees no color or race, but focuses daily on not letting history, especially black history, be lost in rural communities like Culpeper.”
Nelson fought tirelessly for recognition for Hall of Fame player and Buena native Pete Hill, Reaves added in the nomination.
“Even though Zann was up against some powerful resistance including racism, she stayed steadfast and unmovable,” he said. “I truly believe that our country, state and county are a better place for minorities because of the commitment to duty and honor of Zann Nelson.”
Another group of local residents agreed.
“Ms. Nelson has made it her duty to research and therefore preserve many lost or forgotten historical records,” wrote Syd Fazar, Joyce Price, Myra and George Williams and others in the William H. Carney Awards nomination. “Ms. Nelson has contributed so much toward the preservation of Black History. She has trudged through woods and wild to re-establish the location of forgotten graves for their families.”
The group listed among her notable accomplishments: 1) discovering the death record of a black resident of Rappahannock County previously unknown to their family for more than 50 years; 2) researching, compiling and writing about the nearly 300 local men who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops ; 3) researching and publishing the life story of 101-year-old neighbor Laura Hoffman, a Culpeper icon who Nelson arranged to meet President Barack Obama last year; 4) researched, uncovered, wrote about and lobbied for county acknowledgment for Pete Hill, the Negro League power hitter and National Baseball Hall of Famer born in Culpeper; 5) co-founded the African American Heritage Alliance and 6) organized the 2012 Crossing to Freedom Commemoration on the Rappahannock River, the site of the Riverbank Choir’s first performance.
Nelson, director of the Museum of Culpeper History from 1994-2006 and a Star-Exponent columnist for the past seven years, in addition, trudged through the woods on the county’s northern end in the farming area known as Korea some years ago to uncover the final resting place of young Allie Thompson.
As she helped reveal in one of her first notable Black History research projects, Thompson was wrongfully lynched in 1918 as Culpeper County officials turned a blind eye to the racially motivated murder, denying him due process even as the Star-Exponent’s predecessor published a false account of his death. Nelson’s work on the untold true story of Charles Allie Thompson, “Buried Truth,” won her and the newspaper a national award from the Associated Press. In nominating Nelson for the latest award, nominees noted, “We feel her passion and dedication to researching and preserving Black History are noble contributions to our country’s legacy.”
Nelson is certainly in good company with the award namesake. William H. Carney was born a slave in Norfolk the son of William Carney who had adopted the name of his master, Major Carney, owner of a large Virginia plantation, according to the New Bedford Historical Society web site at nbhhistoricalsociety.org.
On March 4, 1863, Carney joined 40 other African Americans from his home county in enrolling in Company C of the Massachusetts 54th to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The Massachusetts 54th was the first black army unit to be raised by the North. At Fort Wagner, after only three months of training, Sgt. Carney emerged as a patriot and hero.
According to the New Bedford Historical Society, Carney sprang into action upon seeing the color guard, John Wall, struck by a fatal bullet and about to drop the flag. “He threw down his gun, seized the flag and held it high throughout the fierce and bloody battle. Though twice wounded in his leg and right arm, bleeding, and hardly able to crawl, Carney clutched that flag until he finally reached the parapets of Fort Wagner,” according to the historical society web site.
Carney was the first Black American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Said Nelson, “I am honored to be associated with Sgt. William H. Carney, a man whose character and achievements are an inspiration. I would add that if he is watching, it is my hope that he recognizes that many of us are trying to live up to his standards.”
Also receiving the award in his name this weekend is the Ellis’ of Culpeper County. The emotional and rewarding challenges they face in learning, sharing and preserving the enslaved cemetery on their farm continues to open new relationships and turn new pages within Virginia’s history, according to event publicity.
Musical power to the people
A spirit of receptive joy charged the sanctuary at two-century-old St. Stephen’s Episcopal Saturday night at a musical tribute to African American History – “Faith, Fortitude and the Quest for Freedom.”
Folks of all ages and from various backgrounds filled the historic church for the innovative program written and produced by Reva resident Zann Nelson in the latest of her ongoing efforts to shine a light on the lesser-told stories of American history
The light at dusk glimmered through the stained glass windows of Christ’s final hours adding an extra glow and layer to the richly cultural event presented under the musical direction of Dr. Ellsworth Weaver.
“The joy emanating throughout the church was palpable,” said Nelson after the one-hour performance by the Riverbank Choir. “I will do everything I can to present this concert wherever.”
Wilderness resident Dale Brown, former board member with Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield, was among those in the church for the soul-searching show about an enslaved population’s long quest for emancipation. He called it a musical tour de force and a performance of a lifetime.
“A powerful message delivered by some of the most powerful and beautiful voices you’d ever want to hear,” Brown said.
The 16-member choir produced beautiful music indeed sharing songs both religious and patriotic like “Amazing Grace” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Many in the audience sang along, raised their hands and shouted responses of appreciation and several numbers received a standing ovation.
“Faith, Fortitude and the Quest for Freedom” was presented as part of the town of Culpeper’s Eighth Annual Remembrance Days. It opened with a commanding performance by Scotty Williams, of Reva, on the Djembe drum, interacting with the choir and attendees to present an “African Welcome Song.”
The evening ended with the audience singing along to “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and let it begin with me; Let me walk with my brother In perfect harmony.