Cup helps open door to history for ‘Dip’
February 9, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
The artifact I discussed last week, the Lawrason Lafayette presentation cup, opened the door to the past in several ways. Through its history we can see the cast of characters who shaped Alexandria: the silversmith-a man known to form and engrave the finest commemorative fights; the French visitor-celebrated in America as a hero to freedom; the prosperous Lawrason family living on St. Asaph Street who provided lodging for Lafayette, married into the Riggs banking dynasty, imported fine goods into their warehouse still standing at 100 Prince Street.
But who indeed were the Lawrasons? Beyond the fine brick houses at 301 and 305 South St. Asaph Street, the hipped roof Prince Street Warehouse, and their daughter-in-law’s hospitality to Lafayette, James and Alice Lawrason play roles in a fascinating story of unfolding African American freedom in Alexandria.
We have not rediscovered the entire plot yet as we attempt to piece together archaeological excavations in "the Dip", early documents of the First Baptist Church, the first tax assessment rolls, censuses, extensive courthouse deeds, and one amazing will. Just as surely as if we were piecing together a lost Greek play, the story and its quest are dramatic.
In the midst of the American Revolution’s call for freedom, virtually all African Americans living in Alexandria were enslaved. Historic documents show the gradual pace of black freedom after the Revolution. By 1790, 52 African Americans living in town were free people. This small number represented only 9 percent of the black population. Then a massive increase in free blacks occurred in the following decade. In 1810, 379 free blacks lived here. Where did these people find housing?
Anna Lynch has documented the names of many of these people and traced some of them to ascertain how they obtained their freedom and property. The 1799 City Census is a valuable source for identifying independent black households, such as William Goddard and Pompey Porer who lived in neighboring homes with their wives.
To determine exactly where they lived, Anna turned to the Courthouse records. It is from these papers that the saga can be unraveled. In 1798 and 1799 Goddard and Porer entered into long-term ground rent leases with James and Alice Lawrason for 25 by 100 foot lots on the 300 block of Sough Alfred Street. This does not appear to be simply a standard relationship between owner and renter, nor a random occurrence.
James Lawrason had purchased Goddard from neighbor Benjamin Dulaney in 1795, and probably emancipated him by 1799. Lawrason freed Goddard’s son 2 years later. Then in 1802, Goddard purchased a relative, Jack, from Dulaney while Lawrason provided his signature as witness. The will left by Lawrason documents that he and Alice entered such property arrangements with free blocks 8 times on this Alfred Street block. The Lawrason’s land became the nucleus of the "Bottoms" neighborhood, more recently referred to as the DIP. Next week we will follow William Goddard’s 16 years as a free African American in Alexandria.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:
One of the African American homes in the Bottoms neighborhood before new housing was constructed on South Alfred Street. The Bottoms was one of the first free African American neighborhoods in Alexandria. Photo courtesy Alexandria Archaeology Collection.