Step back in time: simple artifact tells much

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

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Step back in time: simple artifact tells much

March 17, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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 This ceramic fragment is imprinted "Manufactured (for) Robt. H. Miller" and was unearthed from an African American archaeological site in Haiti, one of Alexandria's historic neighborhoods. The Miller family rented and then sold lots to blacks and assisted in the formation of this neighborhood, 1815-1840.
As an archaeologist, people often ask me what my most significant find has been. I always want to answer with some exciting story about the discovery of an ancient tomb, a cache of coins, or even George Washington's trash pile. But for me, a simple artifact can be so symbolic and evocative of a particular time that it is far more spectacular than conventional treasures.

This was the case with a small ceramic plate fragment unearthed on the 400 block of South Royal Street in 1980. Excavated about three feet underground at the back 420 South Royal Street, the artifact bears the imprint, "Manufactured (for) Robt. H. Miller Alexandria D C." On the surface, the artifact might look rather plain and tiny. But as you study its different layers of meaning, it becomes one of the most symbolic items in the City of Alexandria Archaeology Collection.

The plate was manufactured for Miller after 1822 when he first established his china shop at 311-313 King Street, and before 1846 while Alexandria was a part of the District of Columbia. Miller was one of five sons of Mordecai and Rebecca Hartshorne Miller, prominent Quakers in town. Upon his marriage to Anna Janney, Miller and his wife moved to 312 Wolfe. This house stands on the same block in which the ceramic fragment bearing his name was excavated.

Robert Miller continued his china business and became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Alexandria. By the 1850s he had been involved with the first water company, the Alexandria Canal Company, the Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, the Female Orphan Asylum, the Lyceum and served on the Common (City) Council. Miller, as his father Morcecai before him, also made another contribution--one which is not as prominently recorded as a corporate directorship.

Robert Miller's grandmother had owned the northwest quarter of the block bounded by Wolfe and South Royal streets. Her son, Mordecai, inherited the property and began renting small frame houses to free blacks by 1815. When newlyweds Robert and Anna moved onto the block at 312 Wolfe Street in 1823, their neighbors included seven black families renting from Mordecai. After Robert inherited the quarter block he built more homes and sold all the properties to the renters. By 1840, 10 black families owned their homes in this quarter block and formed the core of the Haiti (pronounced Hay-tie) African American neighborhood.

The story of this neighborhood's formation must be pieced together from documentary tidbits and broken pieces of everyday objects, and then woven together with the lives of the black families who inhabited the block. The Miller plate fragment is a tangible remnant of this Quaker family's commitment to humanitarian issues and African American freedom.

The name of the neighborhood, Haiti, itself is an expression of freedom. Once the name of the island of Haiti, Haiti was the scene in the early years of the 1800s of the first successful slave revolution. The name evoked a sense of freedom that the early free people of Alexandria's Haiti must have felt as they embarked upon home ownership, skilled careers, and church formation. Robert Miller opened the doors to black occupancy in Haiti for more than 150 years. As the Alexandria Gazette obituary stated, "What he thought right that he did with his whole heart."

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist