Women's History in Alexandria
Women's History in Alexandria
Throughout the centuries, women have made significant contributions to Alexandria. While these stories are important throughout the year, the City has officially observed Women’s History Month in March since 1998.
The observance had its origins as a national celebration in 1981, when Congress authorized and requested the president to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” After being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”
Celebrate in 2023
Civil War Women’s Day
Fort Ward Museum
4301 West Braddock Road, Alexandria
Saturday, March 25, 2023 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, Fort Ward Museum is presenting Civil War Women’s Day. This living history program is free, and interesting for all ages. The event is weather dependent.
Historical interpreters will present on-going talks, displays and demonstrations that illustrate the contributions of women during the Civil War period on the home front, in camp, and on the battlefield. Learn about soldiers’ aid organizations and relief efforts, often led by women, and explore the challenges experienced by hundreds of women who disguised themselves as soldiers to serve in the army. See examples of women’s clothing and accessories, which were often clues to a woman’s status and role in the mid-nineteenth century. Kids can make a ladies fan or a cockade ribbon, an ornament often worn by men, women and children to express patriotism during the Civil War period.
Out of the Attic
In honor of Women’s History Month, we invite you to read our series on women’s history in Alexandria throughout the month of March. The Out of the Attic column appears each Thursday in the Alexandria Times.
- Nursing education at Alexandria Hospital , March 3, 2023
- Lillie Finklea: modern Alexandria preservationist , March 9, 2023
- Alexandria and the Silent Sentinels , March 16, 2023
Honoring the Suffragists
Alexandria honors Suffragists with flags and illumination in the colors of their banner, to recognize the women who bravely endured imprisonment and brutality in their efforts to gain the vote for all American women. In 2021, Alexandria honored the Suffragists tortured at the Occoquan Workhouse with a historic marker at the site of the courthouse on St. Asaph and Prince streets where their landmark case was decided. See more below.
Walking Tours of Women's History
Alexandria Women's History Walking Tour (brochure)
Discover where Alexandria’s women of the past and present have lived, worked, and made history. The extensive self-guided journey is designed to enable history seekers to explore as little or as much as you like at your own pace. The Walk includes an optional extended tour.
We suggest allowing at least two hours for the complete three-mile Walk. This is an outdoor walking tour created to encourage you to enjoy the beauty and ambiance of Old Town at your own pace. Should you wish to enter any of the public sites, please check museum, library, City Hall and Torpedo Factory admission hours. The Walk includes an optional extended tour.
This tour is provided courtesy of Alexandria Celebrates Women (2021) and was updated in 2022.
Women's History Walk (MP3 audio)
Download the audio tour of your choice, for walks ranging from six blocks to four miles.
- 6 block MP3 Audio Tour: This tour takes 30 minutes. Begin at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union Street.
- 1 mile MP3 Audio Tour: Begin at Lyles Crouch School, 530 S. St. Asaph Street.
- 1.5 mile MP3 Audio Tour: Begin at Lyles Crouch School.
- 4 mile MP3 Audio Tour: Begin at Lyles Crouch School.
A Few Alexandria Women
Mary Louisa Slacum Benham (memoirs, ca. 1802-1840)
Mary Louisa Slacum Benham’s memoirs, written circa 1880, reflect back on her life in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as her marriage and her travels throughout the United States. The reminiscences transcribed here focus on her time in Alexandria, ca.1802-1840.
Mary Louisa Slacum Benham, Antebellum Reminiscences
Margaret Brent (17th-century landowner)
In 1654, Margaret Brent obtained the first patent (land grant) for a 700-acre tract north of Great Hunting Creek, now the site of Alexandria.
Margaret Brent, landowner Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, March 8, 2018
Sarah Gray (African-American educator)
In 1861, Jane Crouch and Sarah Gray opened the St. Rose Institute to educate free black girls. They also both taught at the Hallowell School for Girls on Alfred Street and years later, when it opened in 1920, the Parker-Gray School would be named in part in honor of Sarah Gray.
Hannah Griffith (18th-century coffee house)
Hannah Griffith used her status, experience, and industriousness to make a new life for her and her eight young children in the late 18th century. Although her husband was a Church of England pastor, life changed dramatically in 1789 when she became widowed. Using her experience while serving as a "deputy husband" during the American Revolutionary War, she operated the prestigious Alexandria Coffee-House, which is one of the buildings that today are part of Gadsby's Tavern Museum.
Watch a lecture presented by Historic Alexandria Museum Educator Kristy Huettner, and read about her below.
- Hannah Griffith: The making of a businesswoman, Part I, Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, March 4, 2021
- Hannah Griffith: The making of a businesswoman, Part II, Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, March 11, 2021
The Edmonson Sisters (escaped enslavement on the schooner Pearl)
Mary and Emily Edmonson, the teen daughters of a free Black man and an enslaved woman from Maryland, made the decision to escape enslavement on the schooner Pearl in April 1848. Mary (15) and Emily (13) were captured, along with all 75 others on board, and held at Joseph Bruin’s slave jail on the 1700 block of Duke Street to await transport to the New Orleans slave market. Their story and their father's efforts to free them became a call to action for the abolitionist movement.
Paul Edmonson's efforts to free his daughters brought him to New York City in the fall of 1848 and eventually to the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, led by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Rev. Beecher took up the Edmonson's cause, preaching about the fate of the Christian, light-skinned Edmonson sisters should they be sold down south, and quickly raised Bruin's asking price of $2,250. By November 1848, Mary and Emily were free. The girls attended school, and Emily became an important member of the Anacostia community until her death in 1895.
To learn more, see the Heritage Trail Sign in front of the building that formerly housed the Bruin Slave Jail at 1707 Duke Street. A bronze sculpture of the Edmonson sisters by Erik Blome was dedicated on this site in 2010.
The Female Stranger (a mystery from 1816)
The story of the Female Stranger has enchanted locals and visitors in Alexandria for more than 200 years. While there are very few facts, two city locations are connected to the story: Gadsby's Tavern Museum, where the story claims the lady passed away, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery, where the Female Stranger’s tomb remains today. No one knows the true identity of the woman buried here, but many theories have been suggested over the years.
The Female Stranger, a Gadsby’s Tavern Museum mystery
Shirley Lee (first African American female scuba diver)
Shirley Lee taught many fellow Alexandrians to swim at the local Johnson Memorial Pool. While lifeguarding in Washington, D.C., she discovered scuba diving and became the world’s first certified African American female scuba diver. Diving in diverse and exotic locations, she also explored the Henrietta Marie slave ship off the Florida coast. A founding member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, she was the first female in the Underwater Adventure Seekers, also receiving PADI’s 1,000 Olives pin for logging more than 1000 dives!
Learn about the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.
Alice Morgan (initiated Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Program)
Alice Morgan joins a legacy of African American women in Alexandria whose volunteerism and dedication fostered change and inspired others. For many, she is remembered for working with the City’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Service. Initiated in 1973, before the holiday was officially recognized, Alice volunteered as chair of activities for 34 years, retiring in 2008. She strove to provide opportunities for all ages to be involved, feel included, and learn the value and reward of public service.
Learn about the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Program
Mary Muir (created 19th century sampler)
Mary Muir (1805-1881), daughter of Alexandria cabinetmaker John Muir and his wife Mary Lang, was 12 years old when she worked this sampler. As preparation for taking on adult responsibilities, it was important for girls of every social and economic level to learn how to sew. Girls from more well-to-do households were also expected to have skills in fancy needlework and create pieces suitable for framing and display such as this one. Likely taught by a needlework instructor, Mary used decorative elements similar to those found in other samplers of this time. The distinctive arcaded border of strawberries, the imposing house with blue columns flanked by quivering trees, extravagant cornucopias, a verse entitled “Religion” and a signature executed in four-sided stitch are all characteristic elements identified in a group of six schoolgirl samplers.
Learn more about this sampler.
Annie B. Rose (civic activist who helped preserve African American history)
Historic Alexandria owes much to Annie Beatrice Bailey Rose. A committed and vocal advocate, she was as passionate about preserving the history of African American Alexandria as about improving the lives of its current residents. A founder of the Alexandria Society of the Preservation of Black Heritage, she helped to open the Black History Resource Center, now the Alexandria Black History Museum. She also worked tirelessly to achieve National Historic Landmark status for 1315 Duke Street in 1978. Rose’s father, Rev. Lewis Henry Bailey, who had been trafficked through the building, inspired the name Freedom House Museum.
Image: Annie B. Rose at 1315 Duke Street, with two unidentified children (1970s)
Annie B. Rose served where needed, Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, March 12, 2020
Julia Wheelock (nurse during the Civil War)
Julia Wheelock worked as a nurse at the Lyceum Hospital during the Civil War. Wheelock gave a vivid account of Alexandria during the war in her book, Boys in White, Experiences of a Hospital Agent in and Around Washington based on her diary entries. Wheelock’s career intersected new opportunities for women during and after the Civil War. She originally came to the Washington area to nurse her wounded brother, but after learning of his death Julia remained in the city and became an agent for the Michigan Relief Association. After the war, Julia stayed in the area for eight years, working for the Treasury Department.
Read more about Julia Wheelock:
- Julia Wheelock: teacher, sister, nurse, author The Zebra, March 2021
- Julia Wheelock: teacher, sister, nurse, author Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, March 22, 2018
Julia Wilbur (Freedmen's aid worker)
Julia Wilbur was a Quaker abolitionist from Rochester, New York, who came to Alexandria as a Freedmen's aid worker. She lived in Alexandria, Virginia, from October 1862 to February 1865. keeping a diary of her work and observances.
Julia Wilbur, Diaries of abolitionist and relief worker Julia Wilbur, March 1860 to July 1866.
In Her Honor: Remembering the Women Behind Alexandria’s Building Names
Remarks of Amy Bertsch to Alexandria Business and Professional Women (BPW), March 10, 2009, reprinted with permission.
In looking at Alexandria facilities named for women we see that City leaders tried to honor their service and their specific field. City facilities that are named for people usually reflect that person’s specific contribution to Alexandria.
When we consider the incredible service of these women, it’s not surprising to see schools, libraries and other facilities named in their honor. But it’s somewhat sad that their stories, their individual accomplishments, have been forgotten. While these facilities were named in honor of Alexandria women, we can spread that honor by remembering their life stories.
Vola Lawson (Animal Shelter)
For example, those of us who know Vola Lawson were not at all surprised that Council chose to name the animal shelter in honor of the retiring City Manager because Vola is a true friend of animals and a longtime supporter of the Animal Welfare League.
Helen Miller (City playground and park)
In looking at the facilities named for women we see that City leaders tried to honor their service and their specific field. A city playground and park at the corner of Queen and Fayette streets is named in part for Helen Miller, who worked for years to improve the Parker-Gray community and the very park that would later be named for her. She was a community activist who was involved in the civil rights movement, school and church programs, the police department’s Community Action Team and the Hopkins House Board. She lived down the street from the park and whenever she saw suspicious activity in the park, she called police and complained to city officials. In spirit, the community and city leaders considered the park Helen Miller’s park long before it was officially named in her honor in the early 1990s.
Read oral history transcript for Helen Miller.
Kate Waller Barrett (Queen Street library)
Two of the earliest sites named in honor of women date from the 1930s. The son of physician and humanitarian Kate Waller Barrett offered to fund the cost of a new public library that would be named in his mother’s memory when it was built in 1937.
Jane Solomon Crouch (Lyles-Crouch elementary school)
In 1933, a new public school for African-American students was named Lyles-Crouch, in honor of two teachers, one of them a woman named Jane Solomon Crouch. Jane was born in 1835 to a free mother and an enslaved father who later purchased his freedom. She was one of eleven siblings and she and her sister Sarah attended a Catholic school in Baltimore especially for African American girls.
Sarah Gray (Parker-Gray School)
In 1861, Jane and another woman of color, Sarah Gray, opened the St. Rose Institute to educate free black girls. They also both taught at the Hallowell School for Girls on Alfred Street and years later, when it opened in 1920, the Parker-Gray School would be named in part in honor of Sarah Gray.
Cora Kelly (Cora Kelly elementary school)
Two other Alexandria public schools are named for women. Cora Kelly, the daughter of Alexandria police chief James Webster, taught for more than 50 years. She was born in 1869 and spent much of her early career at the Washington School for Boys, first earning $250 a year. She later taught at the Jefferson School when it opened in the early 1920s and was remembered as being strict. She was a believer in the traditional teaching and encouraged her students to go to church and be good citizens. Many did, with some becoming Alexandria mayors and council members themselves. Cora Webster Kelly had married but didn’t have children and she identified very strongly as a teacher, with her tombstone reading, “Beloved teacher who trained the hearts and minds of Alexandria youth through 53 years of dedicated service.” When a new elementary school was built in 1955, it was named in her honor, though two years after she had died.
Minnie Howard (Minnie Howard middle school)
Minnie Howard is now a school for ninth graders but when it opened in 1954, it was an elementary school and one of the first in the West End of Alexandria that had just been annexed two years earlier. Minnie Stansbury Howard wasn’t a teacher but she devoted much of her life to the welfare of children. Minnie Stansbury was born in 1869 and lost her parents before she was 15. She lived with her brother and his family before marrying Thomas Clifton Howard. As she raised seven children to adulthood, Minnie Howard founded a children’s home and served as Alexandria’s first juvenile probation officer. She was founder of the City’s first PTA, president of the Alexandria playground association and helped establish Alexandria’s first public playground at the Washington Street school. She used to sell cherries during George Washington’s birthday to help raise money for playgrounds. Like Cora Kelly, Minnie Howard’s namesake school opened just a few years after her death in 1950.
Nannie Jane Carrington Lee (Recreation Center)
Another passionate supporter of programs for young people was Nannie Jane Carrington Lee. A resident of South Payne Street, Nannie and her husband General supported athletic and recreational activities for children. They had four children of their own and Nannie was very concerned about the apparent lack of recreational facilities on the south side of town. She formed the Lee Southside Parents’ Club and appealed to City Hall for support. She was given a box of playground supplies, like balls and jump ropes, which she would hand out to children after school at the old Robert E. Lee school. Her husband organized athletic teams and raised money to support the teams through bake sales, cocktail parties and banquets. They also successfully campaigned to keep a City swimming pool in their community. The Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center was later named in her honor.
While efforts for children certainly comprise a large number of these women, several are recognized for other improvements to our quality of life.
Ellen Coolidge Burke (library)
Ellen Coolidge Burke was very active in civic causes, including the League of Women Voters, Human Relations Council, and the Urban League, in addition to her service with the City libraries. She received two degrees from Catholic University and worked for many years as a cataloguer and reference librarian before being named director of the Alexandria Library in 1948. She served in that capacity until she retired just over 20 years later. During her tenure she greatly expanded library services to support the growing population of the City. She opened two branches and organized a bookmobile, and the branch on Seminary was named in her honor while she was still working. She died in 1975, five years after she was honored for her innovation with a “Ellen Coolidge Burke Day.”
Dora Murphy Kelley (City park)
Dora Murphy Kelley, native of Massachusetts, lived in the West End community of Dowden Terrace. She was an avid nature lover and encouraged the City to acquire a preserve of woodlands once known as “Rolfs Tract.” She saw the property’s potential as a park and wildlife sanctuary and the City agreed, purchasing the parcel in 1973. In 1976, the park was named in her honor, and in the years that followed, she volunteered there, educating visitors about the variety of animals and plants before her death in 2001.
Annie B. Rose (housing for low-income seniors)
Annie Rose, the daughter of a slave who had been sold from an Alexandria slave pen, was an advocate for seniors and Annie B. Rose House, a high-rise for low-income seniors, was named in her honor. Annie Beatrice Bailey Rose, born in 1893, retired in 1945 after working for the federal government. She spent the rest of her long life trying to improve housing and home nursing for Alexandria’s elderly and helped to establish the City's Commission on Aging. “Miss Annie,” as she was known, also educated young people about African-American history and preservation, becoming a founding member of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage and working to establish the Alexandria Black History Museum. She died in 1989 at age 96.
Flora Krause Casey (public health clinic)
Finally, we’ll look at a public health advocate. Flora Krause was born in Georgia in 1905, and first worked in Alexandria as a librarian. But it was Flora Krause Casey’s volunteer work with the Alexandria Kiwanis that led to the establishment of a public health clinic around 1938. She started off by simply getting kids physicals to go to the Kiwanis camp, but soon her efforts expanded when she saw the need for a clinic. The clinic was supported with donations and grants and dependent on volunteers, and it provided medical services for those who could not pay. The clinic grew from space over an ice cream shop to a clinic attached to the hospital, and each year, patients had more than 12,000 medical visits. Casey retired from the clinic in 1971, and the City took over its operation three years later. Today, the Flora Krause Casey Health Center is named for the longtime executive director of Alexandria’s community health center. Casey died in 1991 at age 86 and was survived by her son.
Learn about Alexandria’s first Girl Scout troops and the important role youth organizations have played in supporting girls in their formative years. “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts” is an online exhibit The exhibit is provided by Alexandria's History Museum at The Lyceum during Women's History Month in 2021.
Oral Histories of Alexandria Women
More than 75 Alexandria Women have been interviewed as part of the ongoing Alexandria Legacies: The Alexandria Oral History Program. Find their stories here.
Out of the Attic Celebrates Alexandria Women
Historic Alexandria's celebrates of Women’s History Month includes the publication articles on women's history in “Out of the Attic,” published weekly in the Alexandria Times newspaper. These articles appear with the permission of the Alexandria Times and were authored by staff of the Office of Historic Alexandria and invited guests.
Below are this year's articles. Search for "women" in the Out of the Attic archive to see ten more articles from years past.
- Education pioneer Sara A. Gray , March 3, 2022
- The needlework sampler in women's history , March 10, 2022
- Women fundraise for healthcare , March 17, 2022
- A woman ahead of her time , March 24, 2022
Alexandria Honors Suffragists Tortured at Occoquan Workhouse
In 2021, Alexandria honored Suffragists tortured at the Occoquan Workhouse with a historic marker at the site of the courthouse on St. Asaph and Prince streets where their landmark case was decided.
The Office of Historic Alexandria and Alexandria Celebrates Women dedicated the historic marker on August 26, to recognize the women who bravely endured imprisonment and brutality in their efforts to gain the vote for all American women.
The tabletop marker -- designated as part of the Alexandria Heritage Trail -- was installed at the site which housed the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in the early 20th century. The third-floor courtroom was located in the old Customs House, which stood on the corner of South Saint Asaph and Prince Streets. The formal dedication included a reception and the inaugural guided tour of the new Alexandria Women’s History Walk.
In the News
- Alexandria Celebrates Women: Suffragists struggle against brutality in fight for voting rights. Upcoming local event aims to honor tortured American suffragists. By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller, Alexandria Times, August 19, 2021.
- New marker dedicated to Suffragists. Out of the Attic, Alexandria Times, August 26, 2021.
- Signage Dedicated to Suffragists. By Jeanne Theismann, Alexandria Gazette Packet, September 2, 2021.
Proclamation and Letters of Support
- Proclamation for Women's Equality Day, August 26, 2021
- Letter from Senator Mark Warner, August 26, 2021
- Letter from Congressman Donald S. Beyer, August 26, 2021
Watch the Dedication Ceremony
- 0:00 Intro from Gretchen Bulova, Director of Office of Historic Alexandria
- 1:06 Brief summary of History commemorated by the marker
- 2:07 History commemorated by the marker, presented by Laura McKie
- 10:58 Description of the event by Mrs. Robert Walker, as portrayed by Lynne Garvey-Hodge
- 20:18 Gretchen Bulova
- 20:55 Remarks by Anh Phan “AP”, representing Sen. Mark Warner and Congressman Don Beyer
- 23:15 Remarks by Mayor Justin Wilson
- 29:38 Marker unveiling
The Marker Text
Suffragists and a Courtroom Decision in Alexandria
Suffragist Prisoners at Occoquan: In November 1917, 32 suffragists were arrested in Washington, D.C. for allegedly “blocking traffic” on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. They were sent to the District of Columbia workhouse at nearby Occoquan, Virginia. The women were subjected to undue hardships and torture, resulting in the infamous November 14, 1917 “Night of Terror.” A number of women prisoners were threatened, beaten and hurled against walls and floors. A few days later, force feedings began. The suffragist prisoners were eventually freed from Occoquan following a hearing in Alexandria’s federal courthouse.