By Char McCargo Bah
Many former enslaved people made their way to Alexandria during the Civil War, and some of them decided to make Alexandria their home. For example, Friday and Sarah Lee, the second great-grandparents of Shirley Gilliam Sanders Steele settled right here in the Port City.
Steele learned about her family history through her grandmother, Annie Lee Wheeler. Wheeler talked about her parents a great deal to Steele. Her father, Senus, born in 1874, was the first generation of his family born in Alexandria.
Steele did not know that her grandmother and mother, Helena Wheeler Lindsay, had left her a 160-year-old road map of their family history.
Senus’ father, Friday Lee, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1843. When Union soldiers came to Westmoreland during the Civil War, he and others escaped. They followed the Union army until they reached Alexandria. When they arrived, Lee met a woman named Sarah Craig, who was from Loudoun County, Virginia. After getting married in Alexandria, in 1863, the now Sarah Jane Lee gave birth to a son named Major Lee. That son only lived for two and half years. They buried him in the Freedmen’s Cemetery on Washington and Church streets.
In 1870, Friday and Sarah Lee lived in Ward Three in Alexandria. They had several children as shown in federal records. Friday Lee’s occupation was a farm laborer. The city directory of 1876-77 showed that Friday Lee lived on Henry Street near Princess Street. One of his children was Steele’s direct line, Senus Lee, who married Melvina Craig in 1895 and then lived at 318 N. Henry St.
On June 7, 1896, Sarah Lee died at the age of 55 from pneumonia. According to her death notice, her father’s name was Edward Massy and her occupation was a laundress.
On May 27, 1900, Friday Lee died at the age of 65 and was buried at Bethel Cemetery in Alexandria. His son, Senus, lived with his father-in-law, Daniel Craig (Craney).
Senus Lee lived with Craig at 312 N. Henry St. and worked with him as a day laborer. For Senus Lee, job stability improved after 1900 when he started working at the local lumberyard. Senus’ daughter, Annie Lee, married Joseph Wheeler. She gave birth on Nov. 8, 1922, to Helena Wheeler, Steele’s mother. Helena’s father, Joseph Wheeler, was in the military in 1904 and was listed as a musician in the 24th Regiment United States Infantry.
For more than 100 years, Friday Lee and his descendants lived at different locations in Alexandria, including Sickle’s Barracks during the Civil War, the 300 block of North Henry Street, the 400 North Patrick Street and 812 N. Alfred St. Annie Wheeler lived at 312½ N. Henry St. where she died on March 7, 1965.
Shirley Gilliam was the granddaughter of Joseph and Annie Wheeler. She was born in 1940 to Felton Gilliam and Helena Wheeler. Shirley Gilliam married her first husband, Lalon Sanders, on Sept. 5, 1955, and they had three children: Tyrone, Angela and Kirk. She worked at the Hopkins Furniture Store in Alexandria for a number of years.
In 1977, she obtained a clerical job at what was then called C&P Telephone Company, where she worked for 24 years before she retired. By the time she retired, the company had become part of Verizon. Two of her children also made a career with the telephone company. Her son, Kirk, retired with 30 years and seven months of service. Her daughter, Angela, is still an employee at the telephone company with more than 45 years of service.
On March 22, 1995, Lalon Sanders, Shirley’s first husband, died, and in 2000, Shirley married for a second time to Lee Roy Steele.
Today, Steele, now twice a widow, spends time with her children and grandchildren.
She has fond memories of her grandparents, Joseph and Annie Wheeler, who were members of Third Baptist Church. Steele shares those same stories she heard from her grandparents with her own children and grandchildren.
One hundred and sixty years later, Friday and Sarah Lee still have descendants living in Alexandria. Steele’s ancestors would be proud to know that their decision to make Alexandria their home has been carried on by their descendants for more than a century.
The author is a freelance writer, independent historian, investigative researcher, professional genealogist and a Living Legend of Alexandria. You can visit her blog at www.theotheralexandria.com to learn more about “The Other Alexandria.”