Saturday, February 9, 2008

Alexandria, Virginia and the Slave Trade

As busy as I am, I am attempting to recapture the activities of my pre-mom, pre-wife years. One activity that I engaged in quite regularly was freelance writing. Recently, I signed on to freelance write for the local weekly paper, The Alexandria Times. One of the stories that I covered this morning was a walking tour, "Black History Above and Below Ground."

Under the blustery sky and with the chilling winds slapping my face, I stood on the corner of Duke street and Reinkers Lane as I listened to Dr. Pamela Cressey, an archaeologist, explain to the predominately white crowd, how Alexandra was the largest slave trading city on the east coast. She pointed out the former Bruin "Negro Jail," which was the location of one of many slave traders in Old Town Alexandria.

Dr. Cressey retold the story of the Edmonson family. The father, Paul Edmondson, was a free man. However, he married Ameila Edmonson, an enslaved woman; therefore, all 14 of their children took the legal status of their mother.

But in 1848, some of the Edmonson children while being hired out to work in Washington D.C. Along with 70 other enslaved African Americans, some of the Edmonson children attempted to escape from Washington, D.C. aboard the schooner Pearl. The escaped slaves, along with the Edmonson children, were captured and placed into bondage in the Bruin "Negro Jail." Paul Edmonson, in conjunction with white abolitionists, eventually raised enough money to purchase his children's freedom.

I glanced up and looked at the green neon signs of the Whole Foods Market across the street. Up and down Duke street and throughout Old Town Alexandria, more high-end townhomes and condominiums are springing up to add to the already condense and crowded landscape that has obliterated vestiges of the slave past. No where did I get a glimpse of any evidence that human beings were coffled and driven up Duke street like cattle. Directly across the street from the former Bruin "Negro Jail," a slaughter house and tannery were once located; slaves and animals traded and slaughtered within feet of each other.

Despite the lack of visual evidence of the city's involvement in the slave trade, I appreciated the candor and truthfulness with which the archaeologist relayed the early Black history of Alexandria. I must say when I visited Mount Vernon about ten years ago with my son, I had a much different experience as the docent attempted to explain to the predominately white crowd how benevolent George Washington was as a master. For my son's own benefit, I stopped the docent and set the record straight. His benevolence is irrelevant, he held human beings against their will. Period. And when he had an opportunity to manumit his slaves, he did not. However, this time I could listen intently as a white Ph.D. set the record straight.


Judy said...

Michele, this is so interesting! I had no idea about this part of Alexandria's history! I love how you spoke up to the docent at Mt. Vernon.

E. said...

Peace Michele,


I am sure that there are so many hidden, lost, forgotten or needing to be re-told stories of the souls sold on these shores.

I wish there was more diversity at these events and in the lecturers.

I respect anyone who takes the time to advance in hurts that its a rare to see black history and culture being taught at higher levels by black people. At least in my teachers are exceptions at all levels.

M. L. Simms said...


Yes, in fact, the tour is only done during Black History Month. I intend to contact the tour guide on Monday and offer my services to train and lead the tours throughout the year.

E. said...

I will come out 2 Virginia 4 that!!

Bundle Brent said...

Hello Michele;

I found this post while I was doing some research on the Bruin Slave Jail. I'm an archaeologist currently working on the research and excavation of the jail's yard area, and I agree completely that this should be presented during tours year-round. You should stop by between May 19th and early June,we'll be back at work digging!