The highly anticipated Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall on September 24, 2016 to powerful reviews from visitors. Then, beginning October 1, 2016, another thread in African American history began being told at Mount Vernon with the opening of the ground-breaking exhibition called “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” focusing on the personal stories of Mount Vernon’s enslaved people.
Nestled between the two sites on the Potomac River waterfront is historic Alexandria, a city steeped in African American history since its founding in 1749. This historic city has even served as inspiration for the PBS Civil War medical drama “Mercy Street.” Alexandria is an ideal home base for visitors hoping to explore the new Smithsonian museum and Mount Vernon exhibit as well as other historically rich sites we’ve rounded up that tell the stories of African Americans who shaped Alexandria and America.
“And so this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes of the president, but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the optimist seeking to overthrow that status quo, the teacher, or the cook, alongside the statesman.
And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”
–President Obama during the dedication ceremony for the Museum of African American History and Culture
Image Credit: Mount Vernon
The new “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” exhibition will span 4,400 square feet and feature more than 350 artifacts, objects and historic records in addition to interactive displays. Artifacts, ranging from tools used in the field to buttons used as adornments, provide insights into the lives of these men, women and children. Visitors will gain a better understanding of Washington’s evolving views on slavery, with opportunities to see original manuscript pages from his will including a provision to free the slaves he owned. The exhibition also profiles 19 individuals enslaved at Mount Vernon with interactive displays and Washington’s own records.
Alexandria Black History Museum
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch (center, black shirt) and his senior staff from the Smithsonian NMAAHC and Audrey Davis (center, pink shirt) and Alexandria Black History Museum / Office of Historic Alexandria staff. Image Credit: Audrey Davis
Originally the segregated library for Alexandria’s African American residents, the Alexandria Black History Museum documents the local and national history, culture and contributions of Black America. Start at this museum for an overview of African Americanhistory in Alexandria and the region.
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
Mercy Street actor L. Scott Caldwell at the memorial. Image Credit: L. Barnes for Visit Alexandria
Between 1864 and 1869, the Contrabands and Freedmens Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria to escape from bondage, but did not live long in freedom. Visitors can experience a memorial park that commemorates the free African-American men, women and children interred on its grounds. Based on the Gladwyn Record, the name and age of each freedmen buried in the cemetery is poignantly etched into bronze panels, similar to the concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Memorial also features artist Mario Chiodo’s sculpture “The Path of Thorns and Roses,” an allegorical depiction of the struggle for freedom. The Memorial’s bas-reliefs depicting the flight to freedom were done by local sculptor Joanna Blake, and tell vivid stories of what life was like for the freedmen.
Washington, D.C. Southern Cornerstone at Jones Point
The Washington, D.C. boundary stone is protected underneath this glass casing at Jones Point Lighthouse on the Potomac River. Image Credit: W. Connett for Visit Alexandria
The southern cornerstone of Washington, D.C. marked the original boundary for the city and was located by surveyor Andrew Ellicott’s team, including Benjamin Banneker, a free black self-educated mathematician and astronomer considered the “first black man of science.” Banneker fixed the exact position of the first boundary stone in part by studying the movement of the stars in an observatory tent near present-day Jones Point Park. Visitors to Jones Point Park can see the original boundary stone and learn more about the surveyors through informative panels.
Site of 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In
Police remove sit-in participants from the library. Image Credit: Alexandria Black History Museum
One of America’s early sit-ins was at the Alexandria Library in 1939, organized by African American attorney Samuel Tucker two decades before the Civil Rights movement. Tucker grew up two blocks away from the library but was not allowed to use the public service as an African American. At 26 years old, after passing Virginia’s bar exam at age 20, Tucker organized a group of young African American men to visit the library to apply for library cards. One by one the young men were turned away, and each time they would sit down with a book and begin to read. The police were called for civil disobedience and the peaceful protest is still remembered today. Audrey Davis, Director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum said to The Washington Post, “If he hadn’t staged that demonstration, it would have taken far longer before black Alexandrians could use a library card.”
Courageous Journey Self-Guided Tour
The Edmonson Sisters Statue and Bruin “Negro” Jail are included in the self-guided tour. Image Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria
Visit Alexandria’s self-guided tour and history brochure “Courageous Journey” features 25 historic sites, profiles of significant figures in Alexandria’s African American history and more including some of those listed in this post. Ten of the sites are also featured on a new self-guided Driving Tour of 10 African American Historic Sites in Alexandria.
To learn more about Alexandria’s African American history, click here.
Header Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons