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Exploring Alexandria’s African American Heritage

By Mary Gallagher

More than 250 years of American history started in Alexandria, hometown of George Washington, in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Still retaining much of the character and charm from its early days, this port city holds a prominent position in the chronicle of African Americans.

After 25 years of study, investigation and research into Alexandria’s African American history by community organizations, staff and concerned citizens, all of whom are continuing to this day, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association has produced a brief but thorough free guide “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey” that exemplifies the spectrum of black experience in the United States, as lived and developed in Alexandria.

The handy guide is divided by 18th century sites, 19th century sites, neighborhoods and features a clearly marked map. We enhanced our visit with additional information and resources from the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, Alexandria Archaeology Museum, The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum and the Office of Historic Alexandria, in addition to, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Bureau. All have exhibits, programs, special events and guided walking tours to further your experience and knowledge.

Touring all 23 historical sites at once would require a car and more than one day or one can choose to break the guide into several visits examining one neighborhood at a time on foot. The area located within a few blocks of the Ramsay House Visitors Center at 221 King S., in the heart of the current commercial district, provides 11 historic sites within an easy waking distance.

The Ramsay House visitors center, located across from City Hall directly on King Street, is also an excellent starting and stopping point for lunch, boutique shopping and gallery browsing when your history limits are full!

The city of Alexandria tries very hard to maintain that “history” image with narrow streets, limited parking, strict zoning laws, historic districts and uneven brick paved sidewalks. Parking is always at a premium and you are well advised to use a lot or the underground parking at Market Square in the center of the historic area. The short time limit for most street parking is fanatically enforced. Old Town is accessible by two metro stops King Street and Braddock Road neither providing the ideal starting point for following this guide on foot.

The brick sidewalks are a challenge and can provide quite a workout to those pushing strollers, wheel chairs or even a slight balance problem. Best to wear flat walking shoes. Visiting many of the shops and restaurants requires climbing irregular outside stairs to enter with show rooms and dining rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors.

The Bottoms

We started with a smaller area known as Neighborhood C on the map or “The Bottoms” and will explore the others throughout the year. Begun in the 18th century, and the first black neighborhood in Alexandria, the Bottoms rests at a lower elevation than surrounding streets, hence the name.

The first free black families moved into the low-lying area in Alexandria’s southwest quadrant known as the Bottoms in 1799. In 1979 archaeologists from the City of Alexandria and the University of Maryland excavated portions of several blocks slated for urban renewal.

One important discovery was a well made of three wooden barrels with metal hoops, found at 916 Gibbon Street. Once used as a privy, the well was full of domestic trash, such as broken plates and food remains, discarded by the family of Moses and Nancy Hanless. These artifacts, discarded in the 1840s, are the only ones found in Alexandria from a well on a free black property.

The Hanless family’s trash was quite different than that discarded by the slave, Harriet Williams. The Hanless’ well had fewer serving dishes, and fewer of the expensive imports found in the Williams’ well. Their dishes were similar to those used by middle class white families, but with more inexpensive hand painted and plain wares, and without matched sets of dishes

In the early 1800’s, the Lawrason family signed long term ground rent agreements with several free blacks on the 300 Block of South Alfred Street which became the nucleus of the Bottoms. The Colored Baptist Society, later the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and the Odd Fellows Joint Stock Company, the oldest know African American association, were located in the Bottoms. Many of these structures and a number of townhouses are still visible on the 300 block of South Alfred Street today.

Sometime prior to 1803, a group of slaves and free persons of color met in what is believed to have been a “bush harbor” along the banks of the Potomac River. Information indicates that prior to this, George Washington allowed his slaves to worship in a “bush harbor” on the Potomac. We have not been able to connect the two. Although recent excavations at Washington’s Mt. Vernon home have revealed new information about the slaves and their life with the president.

During this time coloreds were invited to join an organizing group known as the Alexandria Baptist Church. However, in 1806, coloreds formally established a Colored Baptist Society of Alexandria, creating the first black Baptist church north of Richmond, Virginia.

During 1818 several members of the Colored Baptist Society rented the property at 313 South Alfred Street to have their meetings. In 1842 the property was purchased and the name was changed to African Baptist Society. It has been owned by the church since that time, even though possession was interrupted by the Union troops for an indefinite period during the Civil War. It is believed to have been used as a hospital and recruiting station for the Union Army.

The following information from an article by Pamela Cressey, Alexandria City Archaeologist, presents even more detail on the church history.

“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.”

The church’s history lists the first known building constructed by the congregation as built in 1855. A larger edifice was constructed, without foundation, between 1881 and 1884. This building stands today as the “old church.” A basement was dug and a foyer added in 1897. A pipe organ, stained glass windows and hardwood pews were added in 1926, 1928 and 1941 respectively. The name was changed sometime during the late 19th century to First Colored Baptist Church of Alexandria and then Alfred Street Baptist Church.

Former pastors of Alfred Street were Rev. Sampson White (during the Civil War), Rev. Samuel Madden (1866-1896), Rev. Alexander A. Truatt (1896-1913), Rev. W.H.R. Powell (1914-1919), and Rev. Andrew Warren Adkins (1920-1963). The current pastor since 1964 is Rev. John O. Peterson, Sr.

Alfred Street was the first black church in Virginia to license women to preach, and also among the first to ordain women as deacons. In 1984, the church embarked on a “Sister Church” relationship with Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa. This relationship has been a spiritual exchange with fellowship, pulpit exchanges, correspondence and other shared experiences.

A congregation with an active membership of over 2,000 and celebrating its 200th Anniversary this year, the church works in the community through many programs including their Sunday School, Scholarship committee and ministries for Boarder Babies, Prisons, Sports/Athletics and HIV/AIDS. Sunday Services are at 7:55 a.m. and 10:55 a.m. and guests are welcome.

Dr. Albert Johnson (1866-1949) Residence

On the next block at 814 Duke Street, now a private residence, is the Mid-19th century home of Dr. Albert Johnson (1866-1949). Dr. Johnson graduated from the first black medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC in 1892.The 1900 Alexandria City Directory listed Dr. Johnson as the sole African American doctor practicing in the city.

This two story brick home with its cast iron porch is significant in the historic context of residential development because it illustrates the range of professions and people who lived in the Bottoms neighborhood.

The Odd Fellows Hall

At 411 South Columbus Street, the Odd Fellows Hall is a late 19th century brick structure that was a major gathering place for African Americans following the Civil War. A number of organizations such as the Odd Fellows, Rising Star and the Daughters of Zion, provided social associations for both men and women.

According to one historian “Secret in principle and benevolent in purpose, these societies afforded unique opportunity for community effort, the promotion of racial consciousness and the development of leadership.”

The hall has served as an important part of the Bottoms neighborhood through its role in the developing of community identify the promotion of racial consciousness and leadership skills. The stories and lives of African Americans whose lives and contributions to Alexandria, the state of Virginia and American history are told through these neighborhoods and sites are truly remarkable.

Information from the following Sources were used for our walk and this story.

For a free copy of the guide “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey” and other visitor assistance contact:
Alexandria Convention and Visitors Bureau
800 388 9110

Ramsay House Visitors Center
221 King St
899 388 9110

Alexandria Black History Resource Center
703 838 4356

Alexandria Archaeology Museum
703 8384399

Alfred Street Baptist Church
301 South Alfred Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
703-683-2222 (office) 703-683-1718 (fax)

The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum
(703) 838-4994

Office of Historic Alexandria
703 838 4554

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