Remembering slavery in a city built on bondage

Remembering slavery in a city built on bondage
File photo Mary and Emily Edmonson were sisters held in Alexandria’s Bruin Slave Jail. After attempting to escape, the sisters would become strong voices in the abolitionist movement.

As Alexandria continues to explore and tout its rich Civil War history during the sesquicentennial, historians say the role of free blacks, slaves and slavery won’t be forgotten.

The Port City remains well known as home to two of the war’s early martyrs, but Alexandria’s infamy as a center of interstate slave trade and later as a destination for freed or escaped slaves will share the limelight with Union Col. Elmer Ellsworth and tavern owner James Jackson, said Lance Mallamo, office of historic Alexandria director.

“I would dare say we’re not shying away from this at all,” he said. “I think that there have been times in the past when [the feeling was] this is not a side of the city’s history we’re proud of at all and maybe there were attempts to downplay that [history]. We think it’s a very important part of the city’s history and continues to be.”

As Mallamo noted, the city hasn’t had the best reputation for remembering its role in slavery and black history. Freedmen’s Cemetery, the burial ground for black soldiers and “contrabands,” a designation given freed slaves, became home to a gas station and then an office building. Eventually, the city bought the site and demolished the structures. Plans for a memorial to those interred there are in the works.

More recently, the city council recognized the historical importance of neglected gravesites near Fort Ward Park, remnants of a prominent black community settled after the Civil War.

Now officials want to tackle the role of slaves in city’s history head on during the sesquicentennial. Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, hosted a public meeting with Professor Michael Blakey of The College of William and Mary in January to give residents a say in commemorating slavery in Virginia, particularly in light of next year’s anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Blakey, who is spearheading the “Remembering Slavery, Resistance and Freedom” project, hopes to add humanity to a population he argues history has objectified. It’s not that textbooks ignore the institution of slavery, he said, but slaves’ contributions to society, their desire to escape bondage and their efforts to resist subjugation have faded.

Municipal buildings, dating to the antebellum or colonial periods, are a perfect example of objectification, he said. Many owe their existence to slave labor, but the slaves didn’t — and don’t — get credit for the work.

“Building machinery and domesticated animals don’t deserve credit, we think, for what they produce and it is in that sense that slaves are perhaps objectified by that term,” Blakey said. “They are not seen as complete human beings who would be so credited.”

It’s not an issue limited to south of the Mason Dixon line. New Yorkers were surprised to find a burial ground for as many as 18,000 colonial era slaves in lower Manhattan in the early 1990s. Blakely worked on the subsequent excavation.

“From the discovery of that site, it became clearer to historians that at the time of the American Revolution that 20 percent of New York’s population was enslaved, but we’ve led to think that slavery simply an institution of the south,” he said. “[The discovery] has forced that story into public discussion and that’s been a good thing.”

Blakey’s current project is a joint effort between the General Assembly, William and Mary and historians across the state to craft memorial and commemoration events capturing the slave experience and their unsung contributions. Blakey also sees the proclamation’s anniversary as an opportunity to have an honest discussion about slavery.

“We hope we’ll find … that we can, as blacks, whites, Latinos and others, talk about the truth.” Blakey said.

In Alexandria, Hicks’ museum will offer lectures and exhibits focusing on the black experience during the Civil War. City historians will roll out a program — tentatively scheduled for 2014 — focusing on the lives and voices of Alexandrians during the war years, slaves included, said Mallamo.

“It’s a very complicated issue and we’re going to do our best to interpret it so that people can make their own judgments,” he said.