Slavery and freedom, embodied


In a sense, the Edmonson sisters have come full circle for their return to Alexandria.

Admittedly, the terms are far better in 2010 than when they arrived here more than 150 years ago. The slave pens that once dotted Duke Street are long gone. The gripping, first-hand accounts of life behind those fences have been confined to books and museums for decades. The idea of buying and selling humans for a lifetime of servitude is now a valuable lesson, not a valuable capital venture.

Now, on their return to 1701 Duke St., Emily and Mary Edmonson, two former slaves, stand guard in bronze as a reminder of what came before.

Bracketed by the former Bruin Negro Jail that held them for sale, a famous breakfast spot and one of the citys most modern-looking new office buildings, the roughly 10-foot tall bronze sculpture of the two sisters gazes down Holland Avenue toward the African American Heritage Park.

Holding hands on the site where they were once looked upon as chattel, Mary and Emily are emerging escaping from the shadow of a rock that sculptor Erik Blome said represents the darkness of slavery.

The way it turned out, I think its beautiful, said Audrey Davis, assistant director of the citys Black History Museum. What happened to Emily and Mary sort of sums up what happened to a lot of people during slavery. The experience not having control, being sold away from your family its kind of all embodied in their story.

Daughters of a free black man and an enslaved woman, the two teenage girls were among the nearly 80 slaves that attempted to escape to freedom aboard the Pearl in April 1848.

Their flight, however, lasted only a few days as the ship was captured in the Chesapeake Bay before reaching safe harbor in the north. The Edmonson sisters, then ages 13 and 15, were sold to prominent Alexandria slave trader Joseph Bruin.

At one point, the girls were nearly sold into what could have been a life of prostitution in New Orleans. But that November, the girls father, Paul, with the fundraising help of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and other northern abolitionists, managed to purchase and free Mary and Emily.

Blome, an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Fransisco, was commissioned to create the piece in 2008. The artist said he obsessed over the statue of the Edmonson sisters, his 48th monument, for the duration of the project.

I think the faces came out superb I worked really, really hard on the faces for more than a week, said Blome, 43, Saturday after the sculpture had been set in place. The size of it I think helps people notice it from the street and gives it the level of importance that it should have.

The sculptor had just four photos to work with, so beyond absorbing what literature was available on his subjects including Harriet Beecher Stowes The Key to Uncle Toms Cabin, a non-fiction reader that touched on the girls story he turned to descendents to complete the sisters likeness.

This, over time, might just be one little brick in the broader history of slavery in America, Blome said. Buildings go up and come down, and eventually the story is gone. Its easy to forget things.

In bronze, the story of the Edmonson sisters is sure to last. For Blome, its the staying power of the medium not the physical weight that gives his work gravity.

Its forever. This piece, even if you neglect it, its going to be here longer than that building and that building, Blome said, pointing to large, contemporary structures across the street. You can throw it in the Aegean Sea and 10,000 years later theyre going to pull it out and put it in a museum.

The making of the sculpture itself was not without some serendipity.

By chance, Blome met two 30-something Eritrean men at an art show who were looking for work. Like the Edmonson sisters, the two African men had themselves escaped political persecution and spent five months traveling through 14 countries sometimes on foot from their native land to the U.S.

Light on assistants for the final stages of the public art project, Blome hired them on the spot.

I could tell they really needed work, Blome said. As Im working on the piece, theyre recounting their journey to me and its just an amazing story.

It was so parallel to the Edmonsons. They escaped at night, they hid it was the same thing these two could relate to the story I depicted.

The fruit of their labor is a decidedly more positive historical marker than many of the slavery-era sites that line upper Duke Street in Old Town.

It kind of embodies the possibility of being enslaved and reaching and achieving freedom, Davis said. In that whole block you have Freedom House, the Franklin&Armfield slave pen, you have Bruins [slave pen], you have this corridor with all of this sadness and their story is one of hope.

The bronze landmark, a joint enterprise between city planners and Carr Properties, which redeveloped the property behind the statue into a glass-and-steel commercial building, will likely be dedicated toward the end of June.