Alexandria’s African American History

Statue of sisters Emily and Mary Edmonson at 1707 Duke Street.

Telling the Whole Story

By Glenda C. Booth

The white brick building at 315 Cameron Street was a thriving oyster house from 1803 to 1824, attracting diners from miles around for its she-crab soup and crab suppers. Dominick Barecroft, a manumitted slave who had once been purchased for $200, was the successful businessman and owner. Now a private home, 315 Cameron and many other sites scattered across Port City relate pieces of Alexandria’s African and African American history, much of which went untold for many years. It’s a story of involuntary servitude, war, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, civil rights, education, politics and more, a multi-layered story of master and slave, trials and triumphs, pain and passion and, for sure, strength, perseverance and courage.

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman says, “Alexandria is home to a wide variety of stories of African Americans, from those who came off boats, to those who escaped to freedom, to those who brought freedom and civil rights to others.”

Unlike many landmarks with plaques recognizing former homes of historic figures (George Washington, John Carlisle, Robert E. Lee), the homes, businesses and lives of minorities, and especially slaves, garnered little notice, official or unofficial, around the country for years. Much of this history never made it into the written record, except for the purchases of human beings. Most African Americans’ graves lacked enduring headstones. Alexandria has one proud African American history and another not so proud. For example, two African Americans were lynched on lampposts: Joseph McCoy in 1897, at Lee and Cameron, and Benjamin Thompson at Fairfax near King Street.

The injustices of slavery are part of the story. But there were also other injustices when, in the 20th century, minority neighborhoods were transformed by “urban renewal,” when people were removed from their traditional neighborhoods by government.

1983 memorial honoring Mount Vernon slaves buried in unmarked graves.

And a civil rights campaign unfolded in the city at least 100 years before and then again 25 years before the turbulent 1960s. In 1864, when the city was occupied by Union troops, members of the U.S. Colored Troops staged one of the first organized civil rights actions when patients at the Union’s L’Ouverture Hospital petitioned for their comrades to be buried in Alexandria’s National Cemetery.

Alexandria’s Black History Museum at 902 Wythe Street is a treasure trove with exhibits and more than 4,000 volumes of African American history. An exhibit of 23 paintings by Sherry Sanabria, “Before the Spirits Are Swept Away,” depicts Virginia buildings associated with African Americans. The museum is housed in the former Robinson Library, built in 1940 for African Americans after a 1939 sit-in led by black attorney Samuel Tucker protested the “whites only” Queen Street Library. A video tells this story.

Slavery

Four hundred years ago this year, “20 and odd” people from Angola were forcibly brought to America landing at what today is ironically named Point Comfort in Hampton, VA. More enslaved Africans, from today’s Namibia, were recorded as being in Alexandria later that same year.

Slave life in Alexandria, with all the encumbrances of the cruel institution, was a bit different from slave life in more rural areas. In the city, enslaved people lived close together and could intermingle more privately across fences, in alleys, along streets and in markets. Also, a busy commercial port provided opportunities to connect with out-of-towners, and to flee. Some sea captains, working with what were called “benevolent societies,” helped slaves escape.

Exhibit at Freedom House, 1315 Duke Street, the forced “migration” or movement of slaves from Alexandria.

Where can you see the vestiges of slavery today? Freedom House at 1315 Duke Street housed one of the most lucrative slave-trading businesses in the country. Isaac Franklin and John Armfield kept an office and “pens” for slaves awaiting auction there. By 1836, they had exported 3,750 slaves throughout slave-holding states and territories.

“The establishment is easily distinguished as you approach it, by the high, white-washed wall surrounding the yards and giving to it the appearance of a penitentiary,” wrote E. A. Andrews in 1835. Today, the Northern Virginia Urban League’s museum relates the stories of the people who passed through this despicable den, some bought for $500 and sold for $860.

Slave dealer Joseph Bruin had a “Negro Jail” at 1707 Duke Street in 1844. Today, statues there honor the Edmonson Sisters and 77 enslaved people who tried, but failed, to escape on a schooner, The Pearl, and when captured, were sold to Bruin. The sisters, Emily and Mary, were sent to New Orleans slave markets, but returned to Alexandria and were freed when their father raised $2,250 with the help of abolitionists.

“The Path of Thorns and Roses,” a Mario Chiodo sculpture at Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial, 1001 South Washington Street.

At South Washington and Church Streets, African American graves were destroyed, paved over, excavated, heaved around by bulldozers and encroached upon by a railroad, brickyard, streets, the Beltway/I-95 and even covered by a now-demolished building and gas station. During the Civil War, people of African descent who fled the Confederacy and were protected by the occupying Union forces were called “contrabands” and over 20,000 contrabands, many destitute, came to or passed through Alexandria. Markers at today’s Freedmen’s Cemetery explain that once there were 1,800 graves here. The Place of Remembrance, designed by Alexandria architect C.J. Howard, and a Mario Chiodo sculpture depicting grief leap off a former gas station pad.

In 1792, Edward Stabler opened an apothecary at 105-107 South Fairfax Street, employing – that is, paying – African Americans. While better known for his pharmaceutical services, Stabler was an ardent abolitionist who working with Quakers formed the first benevolent society in 1794 to free or manumit slaves and to protect former slaves from being kidnapped. After three years, his society went underground. About slavery, he said, “. . . it sickens my heart to reflect upon it.”

Slaves were the “economic engine” for local enterprises like Gadsby’s Tavern, John Carlyle’s home and businesses, much port-related commerce and for the Hoffman Sugar House, a refinery next to the Lloyd House at 220 North Washington Street. The Lloyd House was headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War.

Detail (Mother and baby) from “The Path of Thorns and Roses,” a Mario Chiodo sculpture at Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial, 1001 South Washington Street.

Churches

No exploration of Alexandria’s African American heritage would be complete without including churches. Alfred Street Baptist Church, dating from 1803, is the oldest black Baptist church in the Washington, D.C., region. Many others were founded and built in the 19th century and became the center of community life that sustained the spirit.

Post-Slavery

The nine-acre African American Heritage Park on Holland Lane is the site of the oldest-known, independent African American burial ground, dating from 1885 with 28 known burials. A sculpture, “Truths that Rise from the Roots Remembered,” by Jerome Meadows, has three bronze, 12-to-15-feet trees and a symbolic grave mound.

T.C. Williams High School was central to this story by demonstrating that the schools would see greater success through integration. Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school systems throughout Virginia dragged their feet to desegregate. It would be twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education before a full integration plan was in place in Alexandria. T.C. Williams High School opened in 1965 as an integrated school and the city’s other two high schools were later merged into it.

Slave cabin at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

Plantation Life

“I wish to get quit of negroes,” George Washington wrote in 1778, a frank, perplexing revelation from a slaveowner who did not free his slaves until his death. Mount Vernon’s managers have built a rough-hewn log and mud, 14-by-16-foot slave cabin where up to eight people slept on pallets or dirt floors, a sharp contrast with the first U.S. president’s elegant mansion. About the cabins, a 1798 visitor from Poland wrote, “They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants.” Near the Washingtons’ imposing tomb stands a 1983 memorial created by Howard University architectural students honoring the slaves in unmarked graves held in bondage by the Father of Freedom.

George Mason held 100 enslaved people at Gunston Hall’s four farms, a plantation owned by the man who wrote, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights ….” Some of his slaves were wedding “gifts” when he married Ann Eilbeck in 1750.

“The best history is real history,” argues Audrey P. Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum. “In Alexandria, there are museums, citizens and organizations who are working to make sure Virginia’s African American History is not forgotten.” Alexandria’s African America heritage is robust and reflects the pain and passion of the whole community.

Upcoming African American History Events in Alexandria

Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom, February 9, 12 noon, Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe Street

The Underground Railroad, an exhibition of 50 color photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales, until March 16, Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe Street

Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” re-enactment by Sheila Arnold Jones, March 27, 7 p.m., Duncan Library Manumission Tours

Mount Vernon’s Slave Life Tour