Alexandria Celebrates Women: A tale of four sisters

Alexandria Celebrates Women: A tale of four sisters
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.

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

Try to imagine being captured from an overloaded boat on open water and sold to a notorious Alexandria slave trader. For two young sisters, whose memory is honored in Alexandria, April 1848 marked the start of a seven month-long period of fear, abuse and uncertainty.

The stage had been set in the two decades preceding the American Civil War, when northern Virginia’s soil – depleted from a century of tobacco – caused the demand for enslaved labor to decline.

Plantation owners began to sell field hands and house servants to the Deep South, and Alexandria became one of the most infamous trailblazers in the slave trade.

The Edmonson sisters

Fifteen-year-old Mary Edmonson, 13-year-old Emily Edmonson and their 12 siblings had been born into slavery in Montgomery County, Maryland to a free Black father and enslaved mother. In the spring of 1848, after hearing they might soon be auctioned, the sisters decided to make a run for freedom aboard the schooner Pearl.

The small ship was spotted near the mouth of the Potomac as it tried to reach northern waters and liberty for its 77 passengers. Following their capture, the sisters were sold to Joseph Bruin, whose slave pen at 1707 Duke St. was part of the notorious Bruin & Hill complex. Bruin was eventually arrested, and his assets were commandeered by federal soldiers.

After weeks of imprisonment in Alexandria, Mary and Emily were sent to New Orleans for potential sale to a brothel. Due to a Yellow Fever outbreak, the girls were eventually returned to the Bruin Jail, where they worked as laundresses.

Following local efforts to free his daughters, Paul Edmonson traveled to New York City, where the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, helped raise $2,250 to purchase the Edmonson sisters from Bruin. Mary and Emily were freed by November 1848 and journeyed north.

While students at the New York Central College in Cortland, New York, they began their abolitionist work when they joined Frederick Douglass in publicly denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Edmonson sisters’ story became one of the inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

A statue abutting the former jail building honors the Edmonson sisters.

The Judge sisters

The same year the Edmonson sisters were captured and freed, a courageous woman who had belonged to George Washington’s household at Mount Vernon died as a fugitive – separated at a young age from her sister.

Fifty years earlier, Ona Judge Staines had escaped slavery when she fled then-President Washington’s Philadelphia house.

The child of a white father and Black mother, Ona Judge was born at Mount Vernon around 1774. At age 10, she was already a skilled seamstress and became Martha Dandridge Custis Washington’s personal maid. Ona and her younger sister, Delphy, actually belonged to the Custis estate.

When Washington became the first U.S. president, Ona’s sister Delphy stayed behind at Mount Vernon while Ona was brought to the country’s new capital cities of New York and later, Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania city became Ona’s first exposure to free Blacks and Quaker abolitionists.

One May evening in 1796, as the Washingtons sat at dinner, Ona quietly slipped away and boarded the “Nancy,” which eventually carried her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

According to the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, Ona stated that she wanted freedom but was also afraid of being passed down to Eliza Parke Custis Law, one of Martha Washington’s granddaughters who was reputed to own a “fierce temper.”

George Washington tried unsuccessfully for three years to have Ona returned to his wife’s service. Ona lived the rest of her life in New Hampshire, but the federal Fugitive Slave Act forced her to live as a fugitive. She married sailor Jack Staines in 1797 and had three children, one of them named Nancy after the ship that ferried her to relative safety.

Despite never securing Ona’s return, the Custis family retained many enslaved servants, including Ona’s sister Delphy, who was inherited by the ill-tempered Eliza Parke Custis Law.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebrates