History is buried under parking lot pavement

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

Page updated on Dec 11, 2015 at 11:03 AM
Alexandria Gazette Packet Logo

History is buried under parking lot pavement

May 12, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

GAZ9416 image
Joseph Bruin's home and slave trading buildings depicted on 1850 map by Mutual Assurance Society, which insured properties against fire damage. The "Negro Jail" was insured for $3300, the Wash House for $500, Bruin's dwelling for $1600, and the Dining Room/Kitchen for $800.
When people hear that I am an urban archaeologist, the response sometimes is "Oh, how frustrating for you--all that asphalt and no where to dig!" Actually the reverse situation is true. There is a lot of asphalt, and it is a perfect preservative that protects the top of archaeological sites after the historic buildings are long gone. Rather than walk corn fields looking for archaeological sites, city archaeologists drive around looking for asphalt parking lots and relating them to historic activities determined from old maps, tax records and photographs.

Some of our very best archaeological sites in Alexandria have been found under parking lots. The courthouse site on the 500 block of King Street yielded about 2 million artifacts associated with the homes and businesses of Alexandrians spanning 150 years. The Moore-McLean Sugar House at Cameron and North Alfred provided the first glimpse at sugar refining in America.

Many more parking lots still protect archaeological sites. The small church lot on the corner of South Fairfax and Duke streets may in the future give archaeological evidence of the first free Black homes in Alexandria associated with Trinity Methodist Church and Chapel Alley. The lot at Cameron and North St. Asaph could one day tell us about the Civil War hospital which occupied the house at this corner.

Most people know about the Franklin and Armfield slave trading business at 1315 Duke Street. But another slave trading establishment was located farther west on Duke Street in the 19th century. The ground under parking lots near the main building, the "Negro Jail," may hold the last remaining clues to Joseph Bruin's business. Located in "West End Village" just beyond the western boundary of Alexandria, the "jail" building still stands. But the land which once had the slave wash house, dining room and kitchen, as well as Bruin's dwelling now has modern office buildings.

Slave traders had been operating for many years in Alexandria before Joseph Bruin purchased 1707 Duke Street in 1844. The firm Bruin and Hill operated between 1843 until 1852, and then Bruin continued alone until the Union occupation of Alexandria on May 24, 1861. Bruin fled and was captured a year later in Loudoun County.

The U. S. Marshall confiscated Bruin's property for federal use. Disorderly soldiers were kept here, and it was even used for the Fairfax County court when proximity of southern lines made the established courthouse too hazardous. The Fairfax Sheriff also used the old Bruin home as his office in 1864.

Little is known about Bruin's slave business except as recorded through his Alexandria Gazette advertisements and ship manifests. One account, however, does highlight the personal nature of the slave trade which took slaves from the upper south and transported them to the deeper south for resale.

In 1848, fugitive slaves highjacked the ship Pearl and sailed from Washington to a northern free port. They were captured, returned to Washington and sold to area slave traders. Bruin and Hill bought the Edmundson family composed of four brothers and two sisters for $4500. The girls were considered valuable and were shipped via Baltimore to New Orleans to gain the highest price. But Mary and Emily Edmundson were not sold and came back to Alexandria after their father, Paul, vowed to raise the $2250 purchase price. By November of 1948, the girls were set free.

The next time you drive on Duke Street by Reinekers Lane or eat at the Table Talk restaurant, think about Mary, Emily and the thousands of others once held here. I wonder if their stories await telling under those parking lots.

Histories about slave trading can be found at the Lloyd House Library (703-838-4577) and the Black History Museum (703-838-4356).

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.