Alexandria, Virginia: You might think of the Revolutionary War, historic architecture, the Civil War, a lively arts scene, a reputation for great food and great shopping.
All those things are true. Threaded through them are stories of African Americans in Alexandria.
This place was a crossroads, a place of connection and change long before it settlers from across the sea decided to make a town.
Someone broke a spear point here more than ten thousand years ago. Across the centuries, First Peoples visited and settled, made homes, built fires, created pots of clay. Archaeology tells us this about them; they left no written records.
As European settlers explored and then came to live in this part of Virginia, written records began to kept. Those records tell that the some of people who lived in the town named Alexandria were free, some were enslaved, some were indentured.
African Americans made up the enslaved people. Even in the early days — Alexandria was founded in 1749 — there were free people of color, too. When the first census was made in 1790. there were 52 free people of color, and about ten times as many enslaved. Both worked on building and maintaining the historic houses you see, and worked in them as servants.
Another thing enslaved and free blacks did in those early days: they reshaped the land and the harbour. The foot of what is now King Street was once mudflats. The rise you see as you walk up the street (which is now home to many boutiques and places to eat) is what remains of the banks which marked the edge of the original shoreline. It was reconfigured in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
That happened because Alexandria was a major port city. Tobacco cultivated, picked, and packed by African Americans was a big part of what was shipped through the port. So were enslaved people themselves.
In the period before the American Civil War, the firm of Franklin and Armfield, with headquarters on Duke Street, sold and transferred enslaved people from Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. At one time it \was the largest firm of slave traders in the United States, but it was by no means the only one in Alexandria.
Franklin and Armfield’s building has seen several transitions. It served as L’Ouverture Hospital for black soldiers during the Civil War, and as a place for housing those fleeing enslavement. Now it is the Freedom House Museum, where you can learn about what life was like in this place at that time. One imagines any ghosts who linger in the 1300 block of Duke Street must have interesting conversations.
During the Civil War, Alexandria was occupied by Union troops, which made it a place of refuge for people across the south fleeing slavery. It became a final resting place for many, as well, as often they arrived without resources and in precarious health. A cemetery was established, but in later years fell into disrepair and became overgrown. By the 1950s, the graves were disregarded and buildings built. Bridge construction several decades later revealed some of the graves and archaeological research skills were brought to bear to discover more.
The result of this is the Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. It is a place for exploration and reflection. The Contrabands & Freedmen sculpture, called the Path of Roses and Thorns, is part of a thoughtful evocation of the stories of those who made their ways from slavery to freedom. The sculpture is by Mario Chiodo and the design of the site is by Alexandria resident C.J. Howard. Learn more about the site:
The stories of African American hardships and African American contributions in this part of Virginia did not end with the Civil War, of course.
Two of the stories that stand out:
In 1939. a public library in Alexandria was the site of an early sit in. Lawyer Samuel Tucker and army veteran Sergeant George Wilson requested library cards, and were told they could not receive them because of their race, as required by Virginia’s then policy of segregation in public services. Later, when several African Americans came to the library to sit and read, they were arrested for disorderly conduct. Robert Robinson Library was built as a segregated library for blacks. Later it reopened, as it is today, as the Alexandria Black History Museum.
There’s a small sign at the corner of King and North Pitt Streets, near what was the location of the law offices of Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop in 1967. In June of that year the US Supreme Court decided the case Loving v Virginia in favor. of their clients, Mildred and Richard Loving. That decision effectively struck down all US laws against interracial marriage.
When it is again time to walk Alexandria’s streets, there is much to experience in person.
Visit Alexandria can point you to historic sites, as well as current black owned businesses you may enjoy visiting. Among those is Manumission Tour Company, which offers tours exploring Alexandria’s black history.
The City of Alexandria and the city’s Alexandria Black History Museum, as well as Visit Alexandria, the Freedom House, and the Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, have robust online presences. with There are maps, videos. stories, oral history recordings, images,,and much else to discover. Alexandria also starred in the two seasons of the PBS historical drama Mercy Street, whose characters black and white may give insight to life in the shifting fortunes of Civil War era Alexandria.
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