Fans of PBS’ Mercy Street, based on real events of Civil War Alexandria, Virginia, can explore the real history behind the show by visiting Alexandria, located just outside of Washington, D.C. The city is presenting 50 Mercy Street-inspired tours, exhibits and events.
The drama continues to unfold on season 2 of PBS’ Mercy Street, and in episode 3 we got a deeper glimpse into the varying statuses and struggles of African-Americans – contraband and free – during the Civil War. In this post, we explore some of these varied experiences and some of the real people who inspired their characters in Mercy Street, including Harriet Jacobs. Keep reading to learn more about these histories and how you can visit the real sites that inspired the series in Alexandria, Virginia, just minutes from Washington, DC.
What Did it Mean to be a “Contraband”?
In episode 2, Caleb, an escaped slave, arrives in Alexandria looking for his wife, Aurelia Johnson. “They call us contraband here,” Caleb says to Sam with contempt, “Contraband, what’s that? It’s a thing, ain’t it? Not a person.” Contraband was a term taken from property law applied during the war to enslaved people who had run away from Confederate states to seek freedom behind Union lines. Alexandria’s contraband population swelled dramatically during the war, creating a refugee crisis. Mercy Street actors and historical advisors, including Alexandria’s own Audrey Davis, Director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum, speak about this powerful storyline from Alexandria’s history in this PBS video—check it out to learn more:
Harriet Jacobs: The Real Woman Who Inspired Mercy Street Character Charlotte Jenkins
Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
“I am full of hope for the future. A Power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last.”—Harriet Jacobs
One of the best new things about season 2 of Mercy Street is the introduction of Charlotte Jenkins, played by Tony award-winning actor Patina Miller. Charlotte Jenkins is based on Harriet Jacobs, a real abolitionist from Boston who courageously came to Alexandria during the war, inspired by the racism and sexism she had endured in her own life, to educate and empower contrabands and freedmen. Jacobs herself escaped from slavery after hiding in her grandmother’s attic for seven years, and eventually published an autobiography, “Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl,” considered to be the first book to show a first-person account of an enslaved woman’s experience. In Mercy Street, Charlotte is sent to Alexandria by the New England Freedmen Society, while in real life, Harriet Jacobs was sent to Alexandria by the New York Society of Friends, where she made an immense impact that can still be felt and seen today.
In episode 2, Charlotte says “Somebody helped me learn to be free for once, now I aim to do the same for others.” Like the character she inspired in Mercy Street, Harriet Jacobs came to Alexandria and spent years teaching, setting up schools including the Jacobs Free School and advocating for African-Americans. Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur helped push for a hospital for African-Americans, similar to the way we see Charlotte advocate for a treatment tent for sick African-Americans in Mercy Street. To learn more about Harriet Jacobs and her impact on the character of Charlotte Jenkins, read this awesome interview in Essence with Mercy Street stars Patina Miller (Charlotte Jenkins) and McKinley Belcher III (Samuel Diggs).
Self emancipation was the driving force for the contraband community during the Civil War, but in season 2 of Mercy Street, we also see the character of Belinda, formerly enslaved by the Green family and based on a real woman, navigating the new world of freedom in the occupied city of Alexandria. In this video, Mercy Street co-creator and producer Lisa Wolfinger speaks about emancipation, and actor L. Scott Caldwell, who plays Belinda in Mercy Street, speaks about the evolution of her character as well as her visit to Alexandria while researching her role.
Explore the Set of Mercy Street!
Check out these 360 degree Behind the Scenes photos of PBS’ Mercy Street—press “Click to Enter,” then go to “Contraband Life” to learn more:
Exhibits & Places of Interest:
Mercy Street actor L. Scott Caldwell, who plays Belinda Gibson, visits Alexandria’s Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
1001 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314
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. In the picture above, the cast of Mercy Street visits the cemetery and is moved by panels that are structured similarly to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Based on the Gladwyn Record, the name and age of each freedmen buried in the cemetery is poignantly etched into bronze panels. 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.
The Alexandria Black History Museum is a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in a comprehensive overview of African-American history in Alexandria, including new exhibits in 2017 that help tell the full story of Alexandria’s history, from before the Civil War to today. Mercy Street fans can find similarities to the show and learn more about the role of African-Americans in Alexandria’s history.
Before the Spirits Are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings by Sherry Z. Sanabria
Continuing through May 29, 2017
Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This exhibition features over 20 paintings, including large scale works, of former slave dwellings that dot the landscape across the region and state by artist Sherry Z. Sanabria (1937-2014) who worked in the D.C. metro area since 1975. The poignant yet beautiful works are accompanied by panels that highlight Alexandria’s local slavery to freedom story.
L’Ouverture Hospital Historical Marker
Historical Marker on 217 S. Payne St., Alexandria, VA 22314
L’Ouverture Hospital opened in February 1864 for African-American troops and contraband civilians and was named for Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. The site was located in what is known today as South Old Town, but during the Civil War it was part of the “Hayti” neighborhood, “an island of relative security for free blacks” with “established businesses, churches, and civic organizations that sustained the city’s black population from the early days of the republic through the Civil War and into the 20th century.”
L’Ouverture Hospital Interpretive Panel
Intersection of Duke and Payne Streets, Alexandria, VA 22314
An interpretive panel near the site of the Freedom House Museum includes discussion of how L’Ouverture Hospital was built, who was served there and other stories from the hospital.
Image Credit: C. Davidson for PBS and Visit Alexandria
Former Site of Contraband Hospital
321-323 S. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This historic building in Alexandria, Virginia was used as a residence and Contraband Hospital during the Civil War. The building housed former enslaved people who made their way to freedom in Union-occupied Alexandria. Mercy Street character Charlotte Jenkins is based on Harriet Jacobs, a relief worker and well-known author who lived in the south house from 1863-1865 with aid worker Julia Wilbur. After the Contraband Hospital closed, the building had several uses, including a school for African-Americans. The photo in the foreground, believed to have been taken by Matthew Brady circa 1865, features a diverse group of different ages and races. Posing in the photo are Jacobs and Wilbur as well. It was believed to have been taken on a parade day in April in Alexandria. It is now a multi-family residence with retail space on the ground floor, presently occupied by an antiques shop and pet store. The retail conversion and show windows came in the 1960s.
Freedom’s Fight in Alexandria Walking Tour
Sundays beginning February 11, 2017
Presented by Manumission Tour Company
Tour begins at the Kate Waller Barrett Library, 717 Queen St., Alexandria, VA 22314
This 75-minute guided walking tour on the streets of Old Town will give participants insight into Alexandria’s pre-Civil War history of urban slavery, and highlight runaway slaves, like Oscar and George Ball, and abolitionists, such as pharmacist Edward Stabler, who fought back against the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery within Alexandria.
Ten historic sites from Visit Alexandria’s self-guided tour and history brochure “Courageous Journey” are featured on this driving tour to get you started on your exploration of Alexandria’s wealth of African-American historic sites. Included in the driving tour are Civil War-era exhibits, parks and memorials including the Alexandria Black History Museum and Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, which help deepen the stories told on PBS’ MERCY STREET.
This special tour interprets the Lee-Fendall House from the perspective of its enslaved inhabitants, exploring the unique experiences of slavery in the city. Hear the true stories of “contrabands,” as seen in the PBS drama MERCY STREET. The tour will include special access to areas that are not regularly open to the public.
Lectures and Events:
Susan Benjamin, candy historian and author, will give a talk about the historic origins of candy based on her most recent book, “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” The theme of Ms. Benjamin’s talk will be the role African-Americans played in the production of sugar and the candy making business in the 19th century. The talk includes a tasting, where participants sample candy made from period recipes and even get some to take home.
Lecture and Book Signing: Dr. Psyche A. Williams Forson, “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women Food and Power”
March 25, 2017 at 11 a.m.
Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Join us for a lecture with Dr. Psyche A. Williams Forson whose book, “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women Food and Power,” examines the ties between African-American food culture, entrepreneurship, travel, and racism, from slavery to the present.
U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) Living History Encampment
April 8, 2017 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site, 4301 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA 22304
Reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Co. B., and the 23rd U.S.C.T. will stage a military encampment that portrays the history, training and soldier life of African-American units associated with the Civil War defenses of Washington. Visitors will learn about the role of the U.S.C.T. in the Union war effort, and about specific units that were trained and stationed in the local area. Historical figures such as Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th U.S.C.T., a Washington resident and civic leader after the war, will be portrayed. The program is free and is weather dependent.
For more on Mercy Street-inspired events in Alexandria, click here.
Header Image Credit: Erik Heinila for PBS
Special thank you to Audrey Davis for her input on this post.