An Inside Look at Alexandria’s African American History

To walk through African American history, walk through Old Town Alexandria. From colonial times, to the Civil War, to civil rights, Alexandria has seen Black history being made, and today you can discover the stories of African Americans who shaped Alexandria and America at our many sites steeped in African American heritage.

Did you know a nonviolent sit-in protest occurred in Alexandria decades before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? Ever wondered about Alexandria’s role in the Civil War? We spoke with Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, to get an inside look at Alexandria’s Black history sites and heritage.

 

How do different sites speak to different aspects of Black history in Alexandria and the United States?

alexandria-va-black-history-freedom-houseImage credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

Start your journey through history at the western end of Duke Street in Old Town, Audrey says: “This was a block that before the Civil War, if you were African American, would hold a lot of fear for you.” Here you’ll find the sites of two former slave pens, one of which has been converted into the Freedom House Museum.

At Freedom House, originally home to one of the largest slave trading companies in the country, “You can get an idea of the claustrophobia and fear slaves would have felt, you can see the original bars, see the original doors.” Many enslaved people were marched from this  pen down to Alexandria’s bustling waterfront, a major harbor for the exporting of the enslaved to the South. (Click here to find out about Freedom House’s connection to Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave and the real-life Solomon Northup.)

Just next door to Freedom House is the former site of L’Ouverture Hospital and Barracks, a Union military hospital for African American soldiers as well as escaped slaves (called “contrabands”) and freed slaves during the Civil War. Also in that same block is Shiloh Baptist Church, formed in 1863 by 50 contrabands, as well as the former slave pen owned by Joseph Bruin.

alexandria-va-black-history-heritage-parkImage credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

Now, next to the Bruin pen, two women in bronze stand larger than life, holding hands, almost mid-stride. They are the Edmonson sisters, Mary and Emily, two young women who joined an escape attempt from the slave pen, were caught, and then later purchased their freedom.

The Edmonson statues look down Holland Avenue towards Alexandria’s African American Heritage Park, which preserves a 19th century African American burial ground. Adjacent to the park you will find Alexandria’s National Cemetery, established by Abraham Lincoln to serve as military burial grounds; more than 200 headstones there belong to members of the United States Colored Troops. These soldiers were initially buried at Alexandria’s Freedmen Cemetery, but their surviving comrades petitioned the Army that the men be re-interred alongside white soldiers in the National Cemetery. The petition was signed by over 400 men and approved in 1864, making it one of the earliest civil rights acts for African Americans.

 

What makes Alexandria stand out as a site of Black history?

alexandria-va-black-history-freedmen-cemetery-panelImage credit: Lafayette Barnes for Visit Alexandria

Most personal information about America’s enslaved populations has been lost to history, according to Audrey. But in Alexandria, we have extensive records that give us a glimpse into the lives of Alexandria’s Black residents. Historical documents such as the letters of relief worker and former enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs and the Gladwin Record of deaths and burials among freedmen in Alexandria provide us with the first and last names of African Americans who died, their age, residence, cause of death and what their living conditions were like. This has allowed genealogists to uncover living descendants of these contrabands.

Alexandria also stands out because of the many early civil rights actions by African Americans that happened here, including the 1939 sit-in at the segregated public library on Queen Street in Old Town—“long before what happened in the sixties at the lunch counters”—and the L’Ouverture soldiers’ petition for integrated burials at the National Cemetery in 1864.

 

What are some stories from these sites that are most compelling for you personally?

alexandria-va-black-history-library-sit-inImage via Alexandria Black History Museum

In 1939, Black attorney Samuel Tucker led a sit-in at the Alexandria Public Library to advocate for desegregation of public libraries. Tucker recruited five Black men to go into the library’s reading room and refuse to leave. The men were arrested and charges were later dropped, as the story made headlines across the country and influenced public accommodations court cases that followed.

That story is well-known to many Alexandrians, but for Audrey, her “unsung hero” of the sit-in is a young man named Robert Strange. Only a teenager at the time, Strange was the lookout for Tucker and the other five men. “It proves you’re never too young to make a stand,” Audrey points out.

The story of the Edmonson sisters and the sculpture that represents them in Alexandria is also important to Audrey. Mary and Emily Edmonson were only 15 and 13 respectively at the time of their escape from the Bruin slave pen on Duke Street. After the girls were caught, their father was able to purchase their freedom with the help of northern abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used their story as research for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mary and Emily went on to attend Oberlin College and later campaigned alongside Beecher for the end of slavery.

“There are few sculptures that tell not only African American history, but also African American women’s history,” Audrey says. “Alexandria is unique in that.”

 

What do you find most remarkable about Alexandria’s notable black history sites, respectively?

alexandria-va-black-history-contrabands-muralImage credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

Audrey starts with the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery: “I think the most remarkable thing is the fact until 2007, an office building and gas station stood over the burial ground for more than 1,700 men, women and children—and so many people were not aware of it. When I first came to Alexandria, I stopped many times to get gas at that mobile station and never knew.”

For Audrey, this is personal, because she is a contraband descendant. “Often when I lecture, I talk about how just as I was discovering my own contraband heritage in my family, I was discovering Alexandria’s contraband heritage for my job. Through the years they’ve paralleled.”

Now, with the dedication of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, the people who were “denied dignity in life and most of their death can have that dignity restored.”

alexandria-va-black-history-freedmen-cemetery-wideImage credit: Lafayette Barnes for Visit Alexandria

What stands out to Audrey about the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Public Library, where the 1939 sit-in occurred, is simple: “You can walk through the door that those men walked into not knowing what was going to happen to them. Which was a very brave stance to take in 1939 in a Southern town.” In addition to the library site, there is also a historic marker at the corner of Washington and Queen streets that acknowledges the sit-in and its role in our culture.

At Alexandria’s Black History Museum, where Audrey is the director, the most important part of the building to her is the Robert Robinson Gallery—what was originally the Robert Robinson Library for African American Citizens. Created in 1940 in response to Tucker’s sit-in, this library held programs for children and kept records of Alexandria’s African American communities.

“While the library wasn’t the outcome Tucker wanted, it did become a hub,” according to Audrey. “Sure, it didn’t have the best collection, and it was really small, but it was a place for African Americans in this community to go, to expand their minds. It was part of the fabric of so many people’s lives in Alexandria. And now it’s a historic anchor for the museum, and now we can tell a fuller story of the sit-in and the aftermath.”

In Audrey’s words, “history is everywhere” in Alexandria. “There’s enough history that everybody can find something they can relate to.”

 

To discover more about Alexandria’s African American heritage, click here.

Header image credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria