Study of city’s history is far from trivial pursuit

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Study of city’s history is far from trivial pursuit

February 23, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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City archaeologists and volunteers seeking evidence of the earliest free black homes of Sampson Sumby, William Goddard and Dr. Pompey Porer at South Alfred and Wolfe streets in 1978. Photo credit: Alexandria Archaeology.
Archilles Richardson, Sampson Sumby, Limmey Johnston, William Gordon (Goddard), Pompey Porer, Henry Johnston, John Colbert, William Beckley--what do these men have in common? If you guessed that they were all neighbors on South Alfred Street in 1817 you would win the Alexandria Historical Pursuit prize.

Their names are left to us on Plat map number 2 in James Lawrason will dated 1820. The map documents in careful script nine lots which Lawrason owned near the corner of South Alfred and Wolfe streets. While accurately setting forth the measurements of each lot at 25 or 26 feet, the plat also recorded these men's names as leasing the lots.

Even more helpful for those who enjoy historical pursuits, the plat contains the annual ground rent to be paid to Lawrason by each renter. Wouldn't you like to rent a one or two story house in Old Town today for the 1800 rates-from $18.75 to $25 per year?

These are interesting economic facts of life nearly 200 years ago. They also are the stuff from which real history is made; in this case, Alexandria's African American history. While these men and their families may not have written books, made scientific discoveries, or led revolts, they are the people that formed Alexandria's past and its vital black neighborhoods.

They are far from invisible in the written record, but you have to deliberately seek out and cross-reference their facts from the will book, the tax assessor ledger and the census page. By placing their names together house-by-house as Alfred Street neighbors, we can gain a geographical perspective and witness the formation of the Bottoms free black neighborhood.

In 1804, Sampson Sumby leased one of the Lawrason lots with a one story house for "20 silver dollars and 83 cents U.S. money" per year. His agreement was not an ordinary rental; he entered into a ground rent arrangement which could be perpetuated through a will. We know little about the man, except about how he obtained his freedom:

I, Mordecai Miller for 200 dollars paid to me by Sampson Sumby who formly a slave unto Sarah Ann Boggess for life & by me purchased of her for the purpose of enabling him to procure his liberation from bondeage Do manumit & liberate said slave. January 25-1801.

Doctor Pompey Porer (Poorer)lived two doors away, similarly leasing his land from the Lawrasons. This may be the same man called Negro Pompey manumitted in 1799 by Joseph White Harrison "for diverse good causes,...more especially for and in consideration of the sum of forty pounds current money of Virginia." Both Porer and Sumby's heirs continued their leases at least until 1850, although the lots were vacant by then. The Johnstons, Beckleys, Coberts, and Gordon/Goddards resided on their family lots, providing neighborhood continuity for 50 years. Their other neighbor to the north provided a focal point for the area until the present day. Can you answer this Historical Pursuit question?

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist