Eighteenth-century back yards reveal black family life
March 24, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
Buttons found in an African American archaeological site on South Royal Street reflecting women's work. Alexandria Archaeological Collection.
The backyards in Alexandria's historic African American neighborhoods were busy work places. From extensive archaeological excavations by the City of Alexandria we know that 19th century black families used their backyards for a variety of purposes. The yards were not landscaped, nor would you have seen a host of outbuildings or even a well. From oral history, we know that the dirt yards were swept frequently. Girls took great pride in the swirling broom patterns they created from their labor. Water was carried several blocks from the closest well.
Without plumbing and City trash pick ups, much of the broken debris and food remains from daily life were deposited in the yards. Over the years, these materials mixed with soil and leaves to build up cultural layers totaling more than three feet in the backyards. It is from the excavation and study of these soil strata that our interpretation of the past is derived.
The dig at the Brooks home site at 420 South Royal documents that George Brooks, purchased out of slavery by his wife Harriet, had a small frame building at the back of the yard. He probably stabled one or two horses and carts here from 1832 to his death in 1867. As with other free blacks in the "Hayti" neighborhood, George was independently employed as a carter, or drayman.
Originally a mystery, the many postholes ( remnants of post locations left in the soil) found on the Brooks site and neighboring property have shed light on the Hayti women's employment. More than 200 buttons were archaeologically recovered near the postholes. Analysis showed that most of the buttons were made from porcelain, wood or bone which can be associated with particular types of clothing. Bone four-hole buttons were used on trousers or underwear, while four-hole porcelain buttons were on shirts.
But why would so many buttons have been discarded when they could have been reused? Many of us still remember our grandmothers' button boxes which carefully saved old ones for later use. I discovered a clue to this mystery at a Market Square antique show when I observed that old shirts and underwear usually were missing their buttons. The vendor remarked that she rarely saw old buttons on everyday clothing, because they were laundered by scrubbing on washboards. The strong action weakened the thread and loosened the button.
I then quickly studied the relationship between where the buttons and postholes were discovered in the backyards. Eureka! Most of the everyday clothing buttons were found near the postholes. Could the holes be the remnants of the laundry poles and lines? By reviewing the census data for black families, I found that several of the women were washerwomen by trade, and many others had the occupation "keeps house" and may have taken in laundry as well. Thus, both men and women in Hayti were self-employed. All that remains from their labor are these simple artifacts which reflect their independent means and autonomous homes.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist. The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday. Call 703-838-4399 for times and special event information.