History of Alexandria’s African American Community

Alexandria's African American history includes a vibrant free black population dating to the 18th century, one of the largest slave trading operations, and America's first Sit-Down Strike in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

Page updated on Feb 24, 2020 at 6:51 PM


African Americans working on fishing boats on Alexandria shore, late 19th century

In 1790, when the first federal census was taken, 52 free blacks were recorded as living in Alexandria. This population increased dramatically to 836 by 1820 and continued to expand until 1846 when Alexandria retroceded to the Commonwealth of Virginia from the District of Columbia. Alexandria's black population began increasing again after 1860 and reached 5,300 by 1870. Prior to the Civil War, Alexandria was also home to one of the largest slave-trading operations in the country. In the 20th century, American’s first Sit-Down Strike took place at the Alexandria Library, ushering in the very early days of the Civil Rights movement. 

Resources for Alexandria's African American Community includes books, brochures, oral history transcriptions, archaeological site reports and lesson plans, to help you to learn more about the history of Alexandria's African American community. 

    Free Black Neighborhoods

    Map of African American Neighborhoods and Tour RouteMap of African American Neighborhoods, from the brochure “African American Historic Sites: Self Guided Tour. 
    The Uptown Neighborhood, 1021 Oronoco Street

    Early Free Black Neighborhoods: The earliest free black neighborhoods in Alexandria began between 1790 and 1810. This first community of free blacks formed at the southwestern edge of the city and became known as “The Bottoms.” By 1810, this neighborhood had extended to the southeast and a new community, “Hayti,” sprang up to the east. In mid-century, “Uptown” began in the northwestern section of Alexandria. Around this time also, a community known as “Petersburg”, also called “The Berg” or “Fishtown,” developed in an area just back from the north waterfront.

    Black Neighborhoods after the Civil War:  The early black neighborhoods expanded and new settlements began in the post-bellum period. New settlements included “The Hill,” south of “Hayti;” “Cross Canal,” located on each side of the Alexandria Canal locks on the north end of town; “The Hump” to the west of “Cross Canal,” and “Colored Rosemont” south of “The Hump” and east of the railroad.

    By 1910, there was almost a continuous band of African American neighborhoods surrounding the city’s center and edging Alexandria’s boundaries. “Uptown” and “The Berg” are still viable 21st century neighborhoods.

    A neighborhood known as The Fort grew up around Fort Ward following the Civil War. Many of the residents were moved in the 1960s, when Fort Ward became a City park. Oral Histories were conducted of some former residents of this neighborhood.

    Oral Histories 

    Read transcripts of Oral History interviews with residents of two African American neighborhoods, Seminary Hill and "The Fort" (Fort Ward)

    The Slave Trade

    The Slave Pen at 1315 Duke Street, 1861 The Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen at 1315 Duke Street was one of the largest slave trading companies in the country. The Franklin and Armfield building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now the office of the Northern Virginia Urban League. 

    The three-story brick building with mansard roof was built as the residence of Robert Young, Brigadier General of the second Militia of the District of Columbia. By 1828, it was leased by Isaac Franklin and John Armfield and used as a "Negro Jail" or slave pen for slaves being shipped from Northern Virginia to Louisiana. Franklin and Armfield were active until 1836, exporting over 3,750 slaves to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. Later, other firms continued trading in slaves here. A sign seen in Civil War period photographs has the name of Price, Birch & Co. During the Civil War the building and its surrounding site were used as a military prison for deserters, the L'Ouverture Hospital for black soldiers and the barrack for contraband-slaves who fled the confederate states and sought refuge with Union troops.

    • Archaeological excavations took place at the site in the 1980s, and the site report includes additional history.
    • Slaves in the Alexandria Jail, 1861. This article, from the National Republican of January 20, 1862, was taken from a letter addressed to Massachusetts’ anti-slavery Senator Henry Wilson. It expresses outrage at the poor conditions and inhumanity of treatment of slaves in the Alexandria Jail, even under federal occupation. Courtesy, Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery. 

    Edmonson PlazaThe Bruin Slave Jail at 1707 Duke Street, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and featured on the National Park Service website  " Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom." The building is not open to the public. 

    Joseph Bruin, a slave dealer in Alexandria, Virginia, used this brick Federal-style dwelling as his holding facility, or "slave jail" for slaves awaiting sale to individuals and other dealers. Bruin purchased the large house in 1844. Bruin had been a slave dealer in the Alexandria area since 1840, and with the purchase of the Duke Street house and its adjacent two acres (used as an exercise area), he had sufficient space in which to conduct his trade. In December 1845, he and partner Henry Hill advertised in the Alexandria Gazette: "NEGROES WANTED: All persons having Negroes to sell will find ready sale and liberal prices for them by calling at the new establishment of BRUIN & HILL."

    Harriet Beecher Stowe, in The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854), described how she employed her knowledge of Bruin's slave jail as background for her explosive 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. In The Key, she described the escape of a number of slaves from Washington, DC, on April 15, 1848, in the ship Pearl, who were later captured and returned for eventual sale in New Orleans. Bruin & Hill purchased a slave family known as the Edmondsons, and brought them to the slave jail. According to Stowe, Bruin's daughter begged that Mary and Emily Edmondson be excluded from the group that was eventually sent to New Orleans for sale there, a group that included other Edmondson siblings. Their father, Paul Edmondson, traveled north to try and raise funds for the purchase of two of his daughters. He eventually met Reverend Lyman Beecher, Stowe's father, who raised the sum overnight. Bruin and his "large slave warehouse" are mentioned approximately 20 times in The Key. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bruin fled Alexandria but was captured and then confined in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC, until the end of the war. In his absence, his slave jail was used as the Fairfax County courthouse until July of 1865.

    A statue was erected in 2010 as a memorial to the Edmondson sisters and others who passed through the Slave Jail.

    Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery

    Phot Gallery image 3 largeAlexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage during the Civil War. They found a safe haven in Alexandria because of the Union occupation, but their large numbers resulted in a refuge crisis. While many found employment, other contrabands, as the freedmen were officially known, were destitute after fleeing slavery, and arrived hungry and in ill health. Many were housed in barracks, and disease was rampant. In 1864, after hundreds had perished, the Superintendent of Contrabands ordered that a property on the southern edge of town, across from the Catholic cemetery, be confiscated for use as a cemetery.

    In the first year, burials included those of black soldiers, but African American troops recuperating in Alexandria’s hospitals demanded that blacks be given the honor of burial in the Soldiers’ Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery. The soldiers’ graves were disinterred and moved to the military cemetery in January 1865. The last burial in Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery took place in January 1869.

    The cemetery fell into disrepair, and a brickyard and railroad cutting encroached on its edges. The cemetery appeared on maps until 1939, but by then there would have been little remaining above-ground evidence of the burials. In 1955, a gas station was built on the property, followed by an office building.

    More than 30 years later, historical research revealed the presence of the long-forgotten cemetery, and plans for rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the cemetery’s southern edge focused attention on it. Archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to confirm the presence of graves on the site, and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery was formed to advocate for preservation of the site as a memorial. Additional archaeological excavations identified the location of graves to minimize impact of park construction. The layout of the cemetery, revealed by the archaeological work, will be reflected in design of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial park. 

    Black Soldiers in the Civil War

    Alexandria National Cemetery, 1876

    On March 2, 1863, eminent abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass sent out this powerful message in his newspaper, Douglass Monthly. Titled "Men of Color, to Arms!" it urged black men to support the nation's war and the crusade to end generations of slavery. Approximately 180,000 African American soldiers took up the call to fight for the Union, comprising more than 10% of all Federal forces.

    The Union Army built L’Ouverture Hospital for African-American soldiers at Duke and West Streets, in the city block surrounding the old Slave Pen. Black soldiers were buried at Freedmen’s cemetery until convalescent soldiers at L’Ouverture Hospital protested. In response to their letter in which "We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our countries flag...." , the soldiers gained the right to be buried in Soldiers’ Cemetery, now the Alexandria National Cemetery.

    Black Soldiers in the Spanish-American War

    Black Virginians were part of “Immune” regiments that were raised throughout the South to provide troops who were allegedly immune to the tropical diseases that prevailed in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and which proved to be much deadlier than Spanish bullets. The first of Virginia’s four Immune companies was organized in Alexandria in 1898, at the Braddock House Hotel.

    Black Education and Parker-Gray School

    The Hallowell SchoolThe Snowden and Hallowell Schools were the first black public schools in the City of Alexandria. In 1915, the Snowden School for Boys was destroyed in a fire, but the students were allowed to attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church School which was located at the time on Wolfe and Royal Streets.

    In 1920, the Snowden and Hallowell schools were consolidated, and the resulting school was named the Parker-Gray School. Parker-Gray School is named for John Parker, principal of the Snowden School for Boys, and Sarah Gray, principal of the Hallowell School for Girls.  

    Parker-Gray and Lyles-Crouch Schools: The first Parker-Gray School, located at 900 Wythe Street, opened in 1920 for children in grades one though eight. It had nine teachers and the barest necessities. Members of the community provided chairs and basic equipment. The school was named for late educators John Parker, Principal of the Snowden School for Boys, and Sarah Gray, Principal of the Hallowell School for Girls. For many years, African American students had to travel to Washington, D.C. to receive an education beyond the eighth grade.

    By the early 1930s the school was overcrowded. A new school was established in an old silk factory at the corner of Wilkes and South Pitt streets for Negro children who lived south of Cameron Street. It was named Lyles-Crouch to honor Jane Crouch and Rozier D. Lyles. Mrs. Crouch was a principal at Hallowell School; Mr. Lyles taught at Snowden School and at the first Parker-Gray School.

    Parker-Gray was soon overcrowded again, so classrooms and a library were added. The first students attended Parker-Gray for grades eight through eleven graduated in 1936. (Virginia required only 11 years of public education then.)

    When the Parker-Gray High School was built in 1950, the original Parker-Gray School was given the name of Charles Houston, the NAACP lawyer who helped the community in their quest to have the High School built. During the desegregating years, Charles Houston Elementary School closed and the building eventually burned down. This site is now home to the Charles Houston Recreation Center.

    Parker-Gray Basketball TeamParker-Gray High School: The community realized that a separate high school building was needed. The Hopkins House Men’s Club and other groups asked the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP lawyers, headed by Attorney Charles Houston, conferred with city, state and federal officials. Eventually, the Parker-Gray High School was built at 1207 Madison Street. It was dedicated on May 31, 1950 and remained the black high school until 1965.

    In the fall of 1964, all sectors of the Alexandria school system – students, faculty, and staff – were integrated. Parker-Gray High School was closed in 1965 and black students attended the city’s other high schools--George Washington, T.C. Williams, and Francis C. Hammond.

    From 1965 until 1979, the building served as a Middle School. The property was sold and a portion of the funds was used by the City of Alexandria to renovate and extend the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, now the Alexandria Black History Museum. In the early 1980s the building was demolished, but a plaque marks the location of the old school.

    Before the last home football game on October 29th, 1983, the stadium at T.C. Williams High School was dedicated as the Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium. The School Board’s decision to name the stadium The Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium was an acknowledgment of community pride associated with a high school that served this city well. A history of Parker-Gray School, published in 1976 states, "During the 1950s, the pinnacles in the evolution of Negro education in Alexandria were achieved." Many Parker-Gray alumni have excelled in the arts, in professions, in government and military service, in athletics, and in other endeavors.

    America’s First Sit-Down Strike 

    1939 Sit-Down Strike

    Becoming the trademark tactic of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the first sit-in occurred well before the era of social unrest that would characterize the decade of the 1960s. Prior to the famous Woolworth counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, five courageous African-American youths staged the first deliberate and planned sit-in at the Alexandria “public” Library on August 21, 1939.

    On March 17, 1939, attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker and retired Army Sergeant George Wilson, walked through the doors of the segregated Queen Street Library in Alexandria, Virginia and requested an application for a library card. Library policy was to not issue library cards to persons of the colored race. Tucker passed the newly erected Alexandria library on a daily basis, yet as an African American he had to travel to the District of Columbia to have access to library facilities. Unsatisfied with the unequal access to educational facilities, Tucker decided to battle the system of Jim Crow through the courts. 

    A lawsuit was filed in the local court to force the librarian to issue a library card to Sergeant Wilson as a taxpaying citizen of the City of Alexandria. When the case was eventually heard on January 10, 1940, the judge rejected the petition for a library card for technical reasons, but  affirmed that “there were no legal grounds for refusing the plaintiff or any other bona fide citizen the use of the library.” The Virginia Public Assemblages Act of 1926 stated that both races were to be segregated within the same facility, therefore according to the law African Americans were unlawfully barred from the Alexandria Library. Within two days of the judge’s decision, two African-Americans applied for library cards. Yet they were refused by being informed that a new colored branch of the Alexandria library was under construction and that their application was under consideration. This was an obvious tactic to appease them until a separate colored branch could be opened. The colored branch was the Robinson Library, now the site of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

    Although this first act of defiance against the system of Jim Crow did not garner the media attention, this was the first step towards the City of Alexandria seriously considering a colored branch for its African-American citizens and facing the issue of accessibility, however unequal, for all of its citizens.

    On October 18, 2019, the Alexandria Circuit Court dismissed all charges against the sit-in participants. After recent research by Alexandria Library staff determined that the original judge in the case never issued a ruling and the charges were technically still outstanding, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter asked the Court to dismiss the charges. Although the five African American residents were charged with disorderly conduct, the Court has now found that they were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech and to petition the government to alter the established policy of sanctioned segregation at the time of their arrest,” and that “sitting peacefully in a library reading books … was not in any fashion disorderly or likely to cause acts of violence.” The Court determined that no laws had been broken and no criminal charges should have been filed.