Exploring Alexandria’s African American history

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"Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies," from artist Olalekan Jeyifous, will open in Waterfront Park in late March. (Rendering/Office of the Arts)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

February is Black History Month, but for city historians and black residents, every month is an opportunity to tell stories about the history of African Americans in Alexandria.

This year, the Office of Historic Alexandria and members of the black community are expanding the interpretations and representations of that history through new programming, including tours, lectures and even public art.

The most significant addition to the city’s historical portfolio is Freedom House, the former site of a series of slave trading operations. The city announced that it would be purchasing the National Historic Landmark from the Northern Virginia Urban League on Jan. 6.

“[It] will definitely encourage greater understanding of the domestic slave trade, which I’m looking forward to learning more about myself because it’s one area we’ve touched on, but we haven’t really delved deeply into that area,” Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, said.

Freedom House, located at 1315 Duke St., served as the headquarters for five different slave trading firms between 1828 and 1861. Notably, Franklin and Armfield, one of the largest slave trading operations in the country, operated out of the building. It’s estimated that about 50,000 enslaved adults and children passed through Freedom House, often on the way to markets and plantations farther south.

Photo/Visit Alexandria

Outside of the Freedom House acquisition, the Office of Historic Alexandria has plans to expand African American history offerings throughout the city.

“We also want to explore the African American history along the Duke Street corridor because there’s a lot of African American history there that people pass by every day,” Davis said.

The Edmonson Sisters Sculpture and Historical Marker at 1701 Duke St. memorializes two notable abolitionists who passed through Alexandria. The Edmonson sisters, along with 77 other enslaved people, tried to escape Washington D.C. on a ship known as the Pearl, but the effort was thwarted.

The sisters were held in Alexandria, Davis said, and later became abolitionist icons after they gained their freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe would eventually use the details of their story in her book “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The city is also looking to expand its African American historical interpretations to the West End. Davis hopes to tell the story of Fort Ward, a former Union Army base built to defend Washington D.C. during the Civil War, and the vibrant African American community that lived on the site until it was displaced during restoration.

The Office of Historic Alexandria will also be organizing a self-guided tour along the African American Heritage Waterfront Trail.

As part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, the city is involved in ongoing conversations to receive a steel pillar from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. There are 800 such pillars, each meant to note a county where a racial terror lynching occurred.

Alexandria’s Equal Justice Initiative pillar. (Photo/City of Alexandria)

Alexandria’s pillar will memorialize the lynchings of two men, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy. The Office of Historic Alexandria aims to use that history as an opportunity to expand social justice efforts and talk about issues that still impact the African American community. The city has not yet determined where the pillar will be located.

“Things that happened in the 18th century certainly still have an impact in the African American community today, and so we want to make sure we’re exploring that in all areas of racial justice, restor- ative justice,” Davis said.

As part of that effort, there will be a screening of the documentary film “The Rape of Recy Taylor” at the Lyceum on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The film investigates the perils faced by African American women in the South. Two African American therapists with expertise in sexual assault and trauma will speak after the screening.

(Read more: Black History Museum’s Audrey Davis discusses “Contrabands” in Alexandria)

Although the city still doesn’t know when it will receive its EJI pillar, Davis said she hopes the process of racial healing and reconciliation isn’t one that stops with the arrival of the monument.

A research committee is hoping to find more information about Thomas and McCoy and the events surrounding their deaths, including information about their descendants and anyone involved in the lynching.

“I think it’s a time that you can bring people together over this,” Davis said. “It’s a difficult history to embrace, and it’s not something that we will do in a cavalier manner. If people don’t want to be recognized, we totally understand that, we totally get that. But we want to have the opportunity to have reconciliation.”

Outside of city-led efforts, some residents are also using this year to expand what stories are being told about African American history.

Manumission Tour Company, founded by Councilor John Chapman, is going to offer a new tour focused on Alexandria’s connections to the Underground Railroad.

The tour is based on information pulled from “The Underground Railroad,” a book written by abolitionist and conductor on the railroad William Still.

“You had individuals that were able to escape from Alexandria on the Underground Railroad,” Chapman said. “There are also notations that people came through the city, and so it was a known place for runaways.” 

For Chapman, a lifelong Alexandrian, this was a new side to the city’s African American history, one that needed to be told.

Councilor John Chapman founded Manumission Tour Company, which runs curated tours on the city’s black history.

“Me growing up here, I had never heard that story,” Chapman said. “I never knew that that was the case, and so being able to put my hands … on a first person source that says, ‘Hey, we had the Underground Railroad here and we have these examples of people who were able to use it to get out of the city and work their way up north,’ is an amazing set of stories that need to be told, need to be understood.”

The tour will tell the stories of a number of enslaved people who passed through Alexandria on the Underground Railroad, as well as delve into Still’s history, his work and how the local Quaker influence manifested in this period of history.

Next month, the latest installation in the city’s public art series at Waterfront Park will also address the city’s complicated racial past.

“Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies,” designed by artist Olalekan Jeyifous, is set to open on March 21 and bring with it a very different energy than “Mirror Mirror,” the series’ initial high-tech installation.

The piece will be composed of four metal figures that evoke the city’s African American history and a mural based on African quilt patterns.

Prior to making his design, Jeyifous led several focus group sessions with members of the Office of Historic Alexandria, including Davis. He met with members of the African American community, visited Freedom House and came away moved by the city’s history, Diane Ruggiero, deputy director for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said.

The piece is meant to remind people of the significant role African Americans have played in the city’s his- tory, as people and commodities, Davis said.

“Even though they may not have had a voice in their own lives, they were contributing to the production of the city and to the growth of the city, to our exports,” Davis said. “And so we wanted to talk about them, but then also talk about them being a product themselves and being a commodity themselves and that the city was built on money made from, in some cases, the lives of these men, women and children being transported here to other places.”

(Read more: Alexandria Presbyterian Church expansion advances)

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