Free black population here soared before the Civil War

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Free black population here soared before the Civil War

February 24, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

While the majority of African Americans living in Alexandria before the Civil War were slaves, the town was also home to a growing free black population. The 1790 U. S. Census recorded 52 free blacks living in Alexandria. This small number represented only nine percent of the total African Americans. Yet, in just 20 years the free population jumped to 836, which equaled 36 percent of blacks in Alexandria.

What accounted for this increase? There were several factors operating around the turn of the 19th century which produced the largest increase in free African Americans until the Emancipation Proclamation. First, a spirit of freedom prevailed after the American Revolution and some whites freed their slaves. There was also a pragmatic explanation. The lands around Alexandria became overworked and less productive. Agriculture turned from tobacco to wheat, a less labor intensive crop. As a result, fewer slaves were needed. Many slaves hired out their skills for cash and purchased themselves from their owners.

Newly freed peoples flocked to Alexandria, since urban areas offered greater economic opportunity and anonymity to carry on life. The few free black households we can find in the 1790s quickly expanded to neighborhoods by 1810. One of the first neighborhoods to form was called "The Bottoms." It was located between Duke and Franklin, South Columbus and South Henry streets. Today the area is referred to as "The Dip."

Moses and Nancy Hanless first appeared at 916 Gibbon Street in the 1816 tax records. Their one story house was assessed at $250, one of the lowest values in the City. According to the census, Moses was "engaged in manufacture." He died in 1826, but Nancy continued living in the home for two more decades. Eventually her daughter Sara and husband, Nathaniel Clark, inherited the property in 1852.

The City archaeologists and volunteers discovered a well made from three barrels, stacked on top of one another, in the Hanless backyard before the property was redeveloped. The well's contents provide the most complete artifacts from any free black household in Alexandria. The variety of seeds, shells and animal bones excavated from the well also give a glimpse into the diet of a free black family before the Civil War.

The family had a diet drawn from several sources, which have been identified by volunteers Peggy Weiss and Richard Wheeler. Marine foods included oyster, turtle, sturgeon, white perch and catfish. Meats were primarily pork cuts (jowl, hock, feet, roast and rib), and some beef (ribs, tail, and roast). Additional variety came from chicken and turkey. The Hanless family was also eating many different fruits and vegetables. They may have purchased them from a nearby market garden, or grown their own foods as shown by the earthenware seed pot. The well contained hundreds of persimmon, watermelon, and peach seeds. Blackberry, grape, walnut, almond and even coconut seeds were found. Thousands of cherry seeds were also discovered. Was Gibbon Street once graced by groves of cherry trees?

Visit the current exhibit at the Alexandra Archaeology Museum, Studio 317, Torpedo Factory Art Center to see the Hanless artifacts. Call 703-838-4399 for information.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.