Cup came from site of slave household

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Cup came from site of slave household

February 22, 1996
by Pamela Cressey

Over the last several weeks I have written about a child's mug decorated with Franklin maxims and other ceramics made for children. I think it is fascinating to follow the changing role of children in society and child raising principles by examining the presence and purpose of these specialized ceramic artifacts. 

But who used this cup with Poor Richard's moralistic sayings admonishing hard work and frugality? We excavated the cup fragments from a brick well with hundreds of other domestic artifacts on the 100 block of South St. Asaph Street in 1978. Just across the street from Portner's restaurant, there was a small wood house before the Civil War. The well shaft was located in the backyard of this lot.

Dr. Phillip Terrie's research uncovered the occupants of the house during the 1850s when the artifacts were discarded. The tax assessment rolls provided the head of household--Harriet Williams--and a big clue to her life. The tax assessor had noted that she was the slave of Samuel Lindsay, an insurance agent living just three doors up toward King Street.

Although the census does not record the names of slave households, Dr. Terrie found a "strong suggestion" that Ms. Williams' household included five free blacks, including two boys and two girls. We not know what happened to Ms. Williams after she left the house sometime between 1855 and 1862. [The tax records are missing for these years.] Nor do we know the children's names or their futures.

We get many calls from people around the country researching their families' slave and free black ancestors. Fortunately, Anna Lynch's index chronicles the names of hundreds of free blacks before 1820, and Dorothy Provine's transcriptions of free black registrations is an immeasurable aid. Wes Pippenger's latest volume of the Gladwin Records lists more than a thousand African Americans buried in a contraband cemetery on South Washington Street in the 1860s.

Slaves are harder to find in Alexandria's documents. Their number in a household appears in census counts. First names, rarely surnames, are scattered through deed book pages at the Alexandria Courthouse now on the location where Harriet Williams family once lived. In some cases, though, we have an opportunity to find out more about certain slaves. The slaves at Mount Vernon recorded by name in 1799 have family identities.

In the weeks to come I will be exploring what we know of George and Martha Washington's slaves and their connection with Alexandria with the assistance of research conducted by Mount Vernon staff. February is set apart for celebrating both black history and George Washington, so it should be interesting to see the connections. It is also a good month to visit black history exhibits. The Franklin Maxim cup from Alexandria is currently on loan to the Octagon House in Washington, D.C. Visit the Alexandria Black History Museum for activities and information. Go to the Lyceum to see another archaeological maxim cup, and Mount Vernon for views of the slave quarters and work places. Call 703-838-4200 for information.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.