Discarded pottery holds clue to slave life

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette Packet.

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Discarded pottery holds clue to slave life

February 3, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

Before the Civil War, most African Americans living in Alexandria had the status of slaves. They labored in factories, taverns, homes and also made bricks, houses, wharves and ships. Yet, it seems as if little survives to study the lives and contributions of these African Americans. Research has increased with the continuing work by the Alexandria Black Heritage Resource Center and the coalition of 16 cultural institutions in the City called PACT (Preserving Alexandria's Cultural Traditions). A new exhibit has recently opened at the Carlyle House on domestic slavery in the 18th century.

One of the few ways to understand the lives of people who are poorly documented in written records, such as urban slaves, is by examining artifacts which do survive. But where can artifacts of slave life be found? Alexandria's slaves lived primarily in the same households as their owners. They may also have hired out to other whites and lived in their work places, such as sugar factories. How then can we distinguish the artifacts left by slaves from those of their owners or employers?

The artifacts discarded between 1850 and 1860 in one brick shaft associated with a house at 112-114 South St. Asaph Street relate to the occupancy of a domestic slave, Harriet Williams. Little is known about her from written records. The tax records provide her name and show that she lived in a one story frame house three doors away from her owner, Samuel Lindsay. Prior to her residency, the house was occupied by another slave, Maria McDella, and eight others. The McDella household contained four to six children, but we do not know the composition of the Williams home.

Hundreds of artifacts were discovered during the Alexandria Courthouse archaeology project in the shaft which was once behind Harriet Williams' house. The ceramics and glass are different from those discarded by the Lindsays and other white middle class families on the block. The artifacts are unique when examined as a group, rather than as individual objects. The slave household artifacts were older when they were discarded--some as old as 80 years. Many ceramic tablewares are elaborately decorated with a variety of unmatched floral transfer prints, unlike the matched wares discarded by the whites. A very high number of serving pieces, such as platters, pitchers and soup tureens were also discovered. The tablewares are a hodgepodge of colors and designs, but predominately are blue and white.

Several fine examples of the blue and white "willow" pattern were found among Harriet Williams' serving pieces. One large platter measuring 18 inches long is currently on exhibit at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. The willow pattern was designed by Josiah Spode from a Chinese pattern called Mandarin, according to Robert Copeland in his book Spode's Willow Pattern & Other Designs after the Chinese. Spode was a Staffordshire, England, potter and may have originated the willow pattern in the 1790s for his locally produced white earthenwares. Although Spode used Chinese design elements, there does not appear to be a Chinese pattern will all the details in Spode's willow: a willow tree, a bridge with three people crossing to an island, a tea house with three pillars and an orange tree, a boat on the lake, two birds, and a fence in the foreground. Borders around the central design vary. Many other English potteries produced willow pattern wares over the years. Today, willow continues on different white ceramic materials and even plastic.

There is a legend attributable to this design, but it cannot be authenticated. In the story, two lovers flee from an outraged father who follows them over a bridge away from his home. The boat awaits the lovers to ferry them to the young man's island. But when caught, the lovers transcend their earthly problems by changing into doves destined for eternal happiness.

We do not even have a legend about Harriet Williams' fate. But the artifacts ascribed to her household demonstrate a finer material culture inside the house than its exterior's unpainted boards. Fortunately, William Smith has preserved this photograph which appears in his book, A Seaport Saga, coauthored with T. Michael Miller. Along with the tablewares also were found a brass bedpost, porcelain candlestick, essence bottle, decorated clay pipe, lead wine glass, a French wine bottle seal, nine porcelain tea cups and an ink bottle.

Harriet Williams' artifacts provide new insight into home life of an urban domestic slave. They also provoke many more questions.

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:

A whiteware platter with a blue and white willow pattern made in England, ca. 1830-1860, and discarded between 1850 and 1860. Other willow and blue and white ceramics were discovered by City archaeologists and linked to slave Harriet Williams.