The Journey to be Free: Self-emancipation and Alexandria's Contraband Heritage.
On view in the Parker-Gray Gallery, which has a continuing roster of rotating exhibitions.
The news spread quickly by word of mouth. Freedom was within reach. Facing the threat of recapture, harsh punishment, or death, the enslaved came from miles around — men, women, and children. Many had only the clothes on their backs, and a determination to be free. During the Civil War, thousands of African Americans escaping slavery sought refuge behind Union lines in Alexandria, Virginia. First, they were runaways. Then, they were called “contrabands.” By the end of the war, they were freedmen who had fought for their own liberation and built communities and lives afresh—the first step in a long and difficult road to full equality.
The fugitives found freedom in Alexandria, but they also found a city under siege. The influx overwhelmed Alexandria, and rampant disease and deprivation took their toll on the freedmen. A cemetery was created for those who had survived slavery, but did not live long in freedom. By the end of the 19th century, the cemetery fell victim to neglect and desecration. Its story—and that of those laid to rest there—was all but lost. A chance discovery by researchers launched a decades-long campaign by local activists to reclaim the sacred ground. Today, the
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial honors the freedmen’s contributions to the City of Alexandria and the legacy of freedom personified by their descendants.
Securing the Blessings of Liberty: Freedoms Taken and Liberties Lost
Securing the Blessings of Liberty seeks to document how the area African Americans survived slavery, helped to destroy it and eventually helped shape the community that we know today. Much of the built environment and the agriculture of Virginia was created and maintained by enslaved blacks. A brutal institution with old and deep roots in Virginia, slavery still haunts the American consciousness and affects our attitudes toward race, class and equality in the United States.
The first phase of an intended three-part permanent exhibition, Securing the Blessings of Liberty: Freedoms Taken and Liberties Lost covers the establishment and development of African cultures in Virginia and Alexandria to about 1810. Early African cultural traditions, the devastation wrought by the transatlantic slave trade, and the harsh life of slaves in colonial Virginia are among the themes explored. A story without a happy ending – it is a story of preservation, rebellion, and faith.
Through African tools and weapons, dioramas, a registry of free blacks, a model of early Alexandria, and various other artifacts, Securing the Blessings of Liberty sheds light on the experiences of African Americans, both enslaved and free, in early Alexandria. The exhibit discusses the routines and labors of African Americans on Virginia's tobacco plantations; the lives and careers of famous area planters such as George Washington and George Mason; and the unique experiences of African Americans in urban settings, as well as numerous other facets of African American life in Alexandria. Finally, this exhibit is a testament to the will of and perseverance of a people in their ability to endure, survive, and eventually overcome the horrendous and degrading institution of slavery.
The Kingdoms of Africa
The story of Alexandria’s black community begins in Africa. The lush African continent was home to many ancient cultural groups, speaking thousands of different languages, long before the transatlantic slave trade developed in the Americas. Among the ancient kingdoms of Africa were Kush, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Zulu, and Ashanti. History lists kings and queens of Africa who reigned over these powerful kingdoms earlier than 3000 B.C.
Africa had been home to many cultural groups, speaking many languages. A form of slavery existed in Africa as early as 1400 A.D. In this form of slavery people were treated as human beings, adopted into families, and were allowed to work off their enslavement. They could later own slaves themselves, and even inter-marry into the families of the slaveholder forming relationships that were unthinkable in European lands.
Europeans came first to Africa as friends to trade goods such as hardwoods, diamonds, gold and copper. After many wars among the African kingdoms and empires, Africans became easy targets for invasion and rule by armies from other continents.
Transatlantic Slave Trade
Africans feared the newer form of slavery that began to work its way through Africa in the fifteenth century for so many reasons. First it was an unbelievably inhuman cruelty forced on human beings by other human beings. Then, it separated husbands from wives, parents from children, often through kidnappings. Those enslaved people were made to walk for miles to ports where they were packed on ships and sent across the Atlantic Ocean never to see their loved ones again.
The African slave trade was part of a three-point larger trading system transversing Europe, Africa and North America. Ships from Europe would sail to Africa where they traded their cargo of guns, alcohol, and metal goods for slaves to be sold in North America. This transatlantic journey from Africa to England to the West Indies and the Americas was known as the Middle Passage, and took six to twelve weeks.
During the long and dangerous sea voyage from Africa to the Americas, the terrified Africans were chained together so they could not move. Lack of fresh air and disease created a noxious environment. Africans resisted the will of slave traders and many eluded capture or escaped before being placed on the ships. During the course of the slave trade, over 300 rebellions took place on slave ships. Insurrections like the one aboard the schooner Amistad in 1839 have become part of slavery’s lexicon.
The horrors of the Middle Passage continued as the survivors were shipped to the United States to work on farms and plantations, mainly in the southern regions of the United States, including Virginia and finally to Alexandria. Slavery became a 244-year-long part of Virginia’s history, beginning in 1619 when slaves first set foot in Jamestown and ending with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Alexandria, Virginia had the dubious distinction of having the largest slave trading business on the east coast.
Virginia Plantation Life
The typical slave experience centered on a Virginia plantation, where tobacco was the major cash crop. To make tobacco profitable, cheap labor was a necessity. To keep a plantation productive, a never-ending cycle of work evolved. Work began at dawn, when the work horn sounded and continued to dusk, six days a week, and seven days during tobacco harvesting. Sunday was a day of rest and Christmas was the only holiday. Field slaves did back breaking labor from early morning to late at night, while house slaves were often at the “beck and call” of their masters around the clock. Numerous slaveholders and overseers used the enslaved women as sexual partners whenever they chose. Thousands and thousands of those mixed race children were born to white slave holders and overseers.The unhappiness with the life of servitude led many of them to try rebellionand escape. The unsuccessful attempts were met with cruel punishments, rape, or being sold away from their children or parents, and even death.
Most Africans were a spiritual people. They brought with them religious traditions and secret ceremonies kept their traditions alive. Slaveholders imposed individual rules on plantations and informal laws were enacted to restrict the enslaved Africans’ religious gatherings. Africans continued to maintain some of the identities, customs, traditions, music, foodways, religions and speech patterns from their diverse homelands. Some of the African traditions that slave families passed down, called Africanisms, remain with us today. Instruments including the banjo and drums are indigenous to Africa. Familiar food preparation draws upon African cooking traditions such as gumbo, cornmeal bread, black-eyed peas, yams and other southern cuisine, which actually originated in parts of Africa. Africanisms are very much a part of American culture. Remnants of African culture are found in architecture, instruments, food, music and whimsical art. All of these traditions are part of slavery’s legacy. Africanisms highlight the ways enslaved Africans held on to their culture in the midst of unbearable circumstances, and lent their rich African traditions to the creation of a new American culture.
African American Life in Urban Alexandria
While there were large tobacco plantations throughout Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Northern Virginia, Alexandria began as an urban center for port activities. Originally a commercial outpost on the edge of the British Empire, it was founded mostly by merchants, giving them a port at which to gather tobacco and other products from the countryside for shipment to England. Enslaved Africans comprised a significant portion of the population, working at a variety of skilled and unskilled labor. African Americans played critical roles in creating and nurturing this community, from clearing the land, to housekeeping, to raising livestock and their master’s children.
Europeans taste for sugar was on contributing reason for the development of European slave trade. Despite employing fewer people than other industries, Alexandria’s sugar refining factories made the city one of the largest American producers of sugar during the early 19th century. Most of Alexandria’s sugar was grown in Cuba and imported here in a semi-refined state. Seven enslaved men and boys processed the sugar in two local refineries, working long hours in close proximity to scalding hot liquid sugar.
When Alexandria was founded in 1749, about one in every four people in the county was black. Just 33 years later in 1782, the black population had doubled; almost one out of every two people in Alexandria was of African descent.
While blacks in towns like Alexandria had fewer restrictions then field workers watched over by an overseer, they were also subject to controls and punishments. The slave owners who dominated Virginia and Alexandria governments used a variety of legal means to increase control over people of African descent. By the end of the 18th century, laws made it illegal for a Black person to own weapons, travel, congregate with other blacks, or gain freedom. A slave owner had the right to buy, sell, bequeath, hire-out, and physically abuse enslaved persons, as well as to control their daily activities, clothing, food, and religion. Alexandria’s Market Square was used to sell foods as it does today, but it was also used to sell slaves to people who transported them to other southern states. This meant that children were taken from their parents, husbands from wives, and separated brothers and sisters without regard for their feelings. In most cases they never saw each other again. Blacks survived though numerous strategies, which gave them the power to resist and manage their own labor to some degree. In the process, blacks forged an African American identity and kept white control of their lives from being absolute.
Most enslaved people lived within the homes, businesses, or outbuildings of their owners or those to whom they were “hired-out.” They lived where they worked, often in the same kitchen or stable in which they did their daily work. Some lived in the homes of free blacks. These small urban spaces were cramped and without any privacy.
It was tragically ironic that so many of the Founding Fathers, who wrote such moving words about the rights of men, who led a generation of patriots through revolution and nation building, were themselves slave holders. In fact, the issue of slavery was purposely ignored in order to keep the new United States together in a fragile alliance that survived until 1861.Two of Alexandria area’s most famous residents, George Washington and George Mason, condemned slavery, but both based their family’s income on the labor of enslaved Africans.
An African American with ties to Alexandria, Benjamin Banneker was actually born in Baltimore in 1731 as a free Black man. He was unique among African Americans of his time in that he had been taught to read and write and was known for his special knowledge of math and astronomy. He served as a scientific assistant to Major Andrew Ellicott in surveying the new Federal District of Columbia, beginning at Jones Point in Alexandria. His job at Jones Point included tracking the movement of the stars in the observatory tent and maintaining the astronomical clock.
- Sit Down and Take a Stand: Samuel W. Tucker and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In. (2014). Samuel W. Tucker was one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Tucker represented African Americans in civil and criminal cases in Alexandria and Southside Virginia. On August 21, 1939, Tucker sent five young African-American men to stage a peaceful protest at the whites-only library at 717 Queen Street in Alexandria, VA. The five men were arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges against the men were dropped. In September, the court heard Tucker’s petition and agreed that African-Americans should have access to a library. In 1940, the Robert H. Robinson Library was constructed for the African-American citizens of Alexandria.
For more information, see our
Samuel W. Tucker Lesson Plan .
- Living Legends of Alexandria: African American Activists. (2014-2014). Living Legends of Alexandria is an ongoing, not-for-profit photo-documentary project that was created in 2006 by artist-photographer Nina Tisara to identify, honor and chronicle people making current history in Alexandria. Over the years, 13 African Americans have been chronicled as part of the project. The African American Legends included in this exhibition are: Ferdinand Day, 2007-08; Lillie Finklea, Carlton Funn Sr., Eula Miller, Melvin Miller and Bert Ransom, 2008-09; Nelson Greene Sr., 2010; Lynnwood Campbell, 2011; Lillian Patterson, Gwen Menefee-Smith and Dorothy Turner, 2012; and Willie Bailey Sr. and Rosa Byrd, 2013.
- African Encounters: Coast to Coast. (2013).>Through this exhibition of watercolors and collagraph prints, artist Kathleen Stafford explores the landscape, architecture, and people of Africa, providing a kaleidoscope of variety and color for the eye. Painting and printmaking in Africa for about 20 years, Kathleen Stafford has been enriched by working with African artists and by her immersion in African cultures from one side of the continent to the other. She currently resides in Khartoum, Sudan, one of the most ethnically diverse countries on the continent. Kathleen Stafford has had the opportunity to travel and live in various places as the wife of a United States diplomat. In 1979, during the Iranian revolution she and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Stafford, were able to escape from the American Embassy with four other Americans. The dramatic story of them being sheltered by the Canadians and their subsequent escape from Iran is told in the film Argo which opens on October 12, 2012. Through traveling the African continent with her diplomat husband and through every new post he has assumed, Kathleen’s life has been continually enriched by new aspects of African life and culture. The wild life, markets, textiles, language and even hairstyles provide a plethora of compelling sights and sounds to excite and inspire a visual artist. From the stunning monuments of Cairo, the regal ceremonies crowning the village chief in the Ivory Coast, the fleeting expression of the kora maker in the Gambia, or the posture of the "Obioma,"itinerant tailor in Lagos, Nigeria -- Kathleen has cataloged them all in her watercolors and prints.
Stafford’s paintings and prints have been acquired by American and foreign embassies, museums, centers of art and culture, and private collectors around the world Her work will be featured in an Africa Green Conference in Lagos, Nigeria in 2013.
The Spirit of a Neighborhood Revisited: The Parker-Gray Community, 1985 -1986, Photographs by Carol G. Siegel. (2012). Originally shown at the Alexandria Black History Museum in 1989, The Spirit of a Neighborhood was the first exhibition to open in the museum after it became part of the City of Alexandria. The exhibition highlights people and places in Alexandria’s Historic Parker-Gray District. In the 23 years since the photographs were first shown, many changes have occurred in the community - children depicted are now adults, some adult subjects have passed away, and many old homes and buildings were lost to development and gentrification. Thus revisiting this collection of photographs in the 21st century allows us to comment on the change in the community as well as appreciate the continuities. In 1986, Ms. Siegel wrote: …in this small community, my presence with a camera was quite apparent. Yet it was obvious as Metro came and redevelopment started, that if I didn’t begin to document the area, it would soon be too late to capture what was there… At first, the camera was an intrusion, but as I began to bring photos back, my photographing became accepted, and the camera became an entrée, helping me overcome my initial hesitancy… Undoubtedly, the neighborhood is being gentrified, but within its diverse population a solid group of black citizens remain who have deep roots here and who care about each other and their community.
In Black and White: Photography by Nina Tisara and Peggy Fleming (2011). This exhibition brings together two friends whose work explores African American culture. Nina Tisara of Alexandria and Peggy Fleming of Washington, D.C., present their findings in the medium of black and white photographs. “In Black and White” highlights two very different aspects of African American life and culture. Tisara’s series “United in the Spirit” focuses on worship in Alexandria’s African American community, while Fleming’s work “Crown Me!” looks at the social life of one group of African American men and a traditional American pastime.
Style and Identity: Black Alexandria in the 1970s. Portraits by Horace Day (2010-2011). Rediscovered after thirty years, 29 intriguing portraits by Horace Day are featured in the exhibition Style and Identity: Black Alexandria in the 1970s. Ricky McNeil, J.C. Chase, and Walter Hollis are among the young African American Alexandrians who were portrayed in the 1970s by the artist and educator. This distinctive body of work provides us with a unique view into a moment in the history of black Alexandria from the perspective of an important artist and compassionate chronicler of American life.
Serving with Distinction (2006). Serving with Distinction is an exhibition that highlights and honors the African American men and women of the Fire, Police and Sheriff’s Departments who put their personal safety on the line every day to protect the citizens of Alexandria, Virginia.