Free blacks acquired land, started church

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Free blacks acquired land, started church

March 2, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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Depiction of the Alfred Street Baptist Church during the Civil War on the United States Military Railroad map shows that it was enclosed by the stockade built by the Union forces to protect the roundhouse and engine house.
Those most have been amazing days! What would it have been like to purchase yourself out of slavery, lease land, build a house for your family, and live an independent life? The families on South Alfred Street made a transition from slavery to freedom which they accomplished on their own and through the goodwill of some whites.

From studying the written legacy of these early free people from the 1790s to the 1820s, it appears that they established priorities. After first purchasing their own freedom, they entered into agreements with whites to lease, and in some cases, eventually purchase land. Although the tax records are not as specific as we might wish, there is a strong suggestion that they also erected houses on their leased properties.

Next, newly freed blacks encouraged or actively sought to emancipate other African Americans. First they focused upon the freedom of their own family members, and then they provided opportunities and means for others to obtain independence. The free men sometimes entered other property transactions for places of business. They purchased cows, dogs, horses, and carts. Many of them were artisans, such as carpenters or coopers.

But there were also elements of life which needed attention; beyond providing for the material, free black Alexandrians also provided for the spiritual well-being of their community as a whole. As early as 1818, on the 300 block of South Alfred Street, Alice and James Lawrason leased a lot adjoining eight free black homes to the trustees of the Coloured Baptist Society.

Three men acted as the trustees of the Society--Jesse Henderson, Evan Williams, and Daniel Taylor. They agreed to pay the Lawrasons $32.50 annually on November 1 for the 26 by 100 foot lot. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Williams both signed their name, however, Mr. Taylor used an X as his mark.

We do not know very much about those three African American men. All three were heads of their respective households, which appear to be composed of a nuclear family. Each had a skilled occupation, which was associated either with agriculture, commerce or manufacturing.

Henderson and his wife were both more than 45 years old. Eliza Taylor was also more than 45, while Daniel's age ranged from 26 to 45. The Taylor household also consisted of two males and females 14-26 years and three younger children. Evan Williams' household had two adults age 26 to 45, and two younger males who were probably their children. These three men set the stage for an institution that has flourished from 1818 until the present day. Called the African Baptist Church by 1842, it continues today as the Alfred Street Baptist Church. Next week's column will provide more about Alexandria's early Baptists.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.