By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007
An almost forgotten but triumphant saga in black history is coming to light in Alexandria as Carr Properties pushes the development of a five-story office building in Old Town on the site of a notorious slave pen that housed two African American girls who helped change the course of U.S. history.
The building, which has been approved for construction by the City Council, will be named Edmonson Plaza, after Emily and Mary Edmonson, two Maryland teenagers who were held in a pen on that site in 1848 after they and 75 others attempted to escape slavery in a daring flight aboard a schooner called the Pearl.
The girls, ages 13 and 15, fled captivity to avoid being sold to brothel owners in New Orleans. The schooner was soon caught, but the girls were ultimately purchased out of slavery. They traveled North to tell their stories to abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a blockbuster serialized novel that was adapted into a play, electrifying audiences worldwide and helping cause a shift in attitudes toward slavery in the United States.
At a series of city meetings, Alexandria officials and executives of Carr Properties have been debating the type of memorial to place on the site to recognize the Edmonsons' lives. The District-based development firm proposed creating the memorial and has agreed to pay for it. Carr, city planners, residents and civil-rights activists are conferring about what the memorial should look like. A plan will be unveiled this week and will be reviewed by the city's Board of Architectural Review in December.
"The site is seminal for Alexandria history, and we shouldn't forget the terrible hardships that people endured," said Michael Miller, a research historian with the Office of Historic Alexandria. "I hope it's well-marked, with accurate historical information."
Jonathan Rak, a zoning lawyer for Carr Properties, said the company decided to emphasize the site's history instead of ignoring it, particularly once officials realized that many people were unfamiliar with the Edmonsons' story.
"People were aware it was a slave jail, but most people were unaware of the connection to the Edmonson sisters and 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' " Rak said.
In a city best known for its famous slaveholders George Washington and Robert E. Lee, the construction of an office building, on Duke Street across from a Whole Foods grocery store, is providing an opportunity for its first monument to slaves.
"It will be the first external interpretation of slavery in Alexandria," said Pamela Cressey, city archaeologist.
The discussion on the memorial is also highlighting Alexandria's role as a major slave-trading center, a place where slaves from Maryland, Virginia and the District were transported for shipment to the Deep South. After 1808, the international slave trade was banned in the United States, which had the effect of making the slaves already in the country more valuable.
Slave-holding farmers in the D.C. area began needing fewer workers when they started growing wheat instead of more labor-intensive tobacco. But cotton-growing states farther south needed more workers, so farmers began selling their slaves to traders there. The slaves were transported through Alexandria, where they were held in pens similar to the one that housed the Edmonsons.
"It's a black eye for the city," Miller said.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," a fictional account of the lives and travails of Eliza and her baby, Uncle Tom, Topsy, Eva and cruel-hearted slave owner Simon Legree, was published in 1851, and drew both passionate applause and vehement criticism. Abolitionists said it underscored the barbarity of the slave trade, particularly the way families were being broken up and sold off like so many spare parts, but Southerners, embarrassed and embittered, said that Stowe was exaggerating and that most slaves were treated kindly by their masters.
To combat the criticism, Stowe wrote another book, "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," that described the extensive research she had done in preparing the book, which included a long account of the Edmonsons' ordeal. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, had helped raise money to purchase the girls, who were offered for sale at $1,125 each, equivalent to about $24,000 today, or 25 percent more than their equally well-favored brother could fetch on the market.
The reason for their higher market value was the booming trade for "fancy girls" in New Orleans. Beecher had helped the Edmonsons' father, who was free, buy the girls from Alexandria slave trader Joseph Bruin, who had bought the girls after they were captured on the Pearl.
The book "Escape on the Pearl," written by Mary Kay Ricks and published this year, includes much new research. It describes the escape attempt, the political background in Washington that set the stage for the events and the story of the Edmonson family, who lived on a farm in Montgomery County near today's Leisure World. Both Edmondson sisters attended college; Emily became an educator who taught at a school that became part of the University of the District of Columbia.
The remaining structure on the site of the former Bruin slave pen is a brick building nearly 200 years old. It houses the Charles R. Hooff real estate firm. Hooff, whose family bought the property more than 50 years ago, obtained a National Register of Historic Places designation to protect the building. The new office building, which will also include retail space, will cut across the back of the parcel and have a central plaza that will be an urban park.
Hooff has done much to protect the property over the years, and he still owns the land, with Carr Properties intending to build and operate it under a ground lease. The design of the memorial will require his approval as well.
Soon the site's obscurity will be history.
"People walk past that building today and don't know anything about it," Cressey said. "Now there will be some real information for them."