Photographs of former slaves in the Virginia Piedmont are a rarity. Rarer still is information linking the former slaves with traits, children or an owner.
Such a connection came about recently through chance and perseverance. The former slave was Mary Mallory, and she was owned by Thomas Swann, who lived at Morven Park in Leesburg from 1834-61. Swann was governor of Maryland from 1866-69.
Last spring, Teckla Cox, a volunteer at Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, suggested to historian Deborah Lee, a member of the history and genealogy library's black history committee, that she speak with her housekeeper, Alberta Lee Anderson. Anderson, 73, was "fascinating to talk to," Cox told me recently.
The interview, part of an oral history project with Loudoun old-timers, was in August. Toward the middle of their conversation, a comment by Lee that "a lot of people have Indian blood in the African American community" triggered Anderson's memory. Her older brother Charles Johnson recalled their great-grandmother Mary Mallory as "looking like an Indian woman."
Anderson said "Grandmother Mallory" died at age 108 or 112. She had 14 children, "and that's where all the Mallorys in Loudoun County come from," she said.
Anderson's father, Daniel William Johnson, had said Mallory lived with her mother and grew up on a plantation. Anderson did not know which plantation. Her father died when she was 14 of the effects of nerve gas inhaled when he was in the Army fighting the Germans in World War I.
Anderson picked up a little more information about Mallory's mother from her brother Charles and other relatives.
"It was really something in those days, because if you were a pretty black girl, now you could eat at the dining room table, after the master and his family [had] eaten," Anderson told Lee. "After a while, she became his girlfriend, whatever you want to call it, you know. And then, before you knew it, children were born, and it was quite a thing back in those days."
Anderson told Lee that Mallory's mother "didn't have a lot of choice. . . . So that's why I guess we blacks are every color there is."
Lee did not ask whether Mary Mallory's father was her mother's owner. This month I did, but Anderson said she did not know.
After the interview, Anderson gave Lee a photograph of Mary Mallory, and Lee made a copy for the library. Anderson did not know exactly when it was taken or how old Mallory was at the time.
The saga of Mallory might have ended with the interview and the photograph, the questions of where she lived and who her master was unanswered.
But a few weeks ago, while leading a group of teachers through Mount Zion Cemetery in Leesburg, a predominantly black burial ground, I noticed a gravestone in the rear of the cemetery with the words: "Mary Mallory: Born 1813, Died Sept. 13, 1921."
That would have made her 108, a long lifespan for the time. I called the class over and said I'd bet if someone checked local newspapers from after her death there would be an article about her on the front page.
Ken Fawcett, a member of the class and a social studies teacher at J. Lupton Simpson Middle School in Leesburg, took up the task. Mallorys are among his ancestors.
Fawcett checked www.ancestry.com, www.cyndislist.com and www.rootsweb.com, which list more than 500 million names, but after an hour he found no Mary Mallory matching or coming close to 1813-1921.
The next day, Fawcett went to Thomas Balch Library and checked the 1850, 1860 and 1880 Virginia and Loudoun censuses but again found no Mary Mallory. Fawcett then checked the library's Leesburg newspaper holdings on microfilm for 1921. The Loudoun Mirror reel appeared complete, but for a two-month period, including the month in which Mallory died, the issues were missing. Various records of slave holdings and freed slaves turned up nothing.
Fawcett went to the courthouse to check deeds, wills, marriage and death records, and chancery suits but found nothing relevant to Mallory. He then crossed the street to the Loudoun Times-Mirror offices to see whether there were 1921 newspapers that had not been sent to Thomas Balch Library. An employee mentioned that some papers had turned up recently and had been given to the library.
Fawcett returned to the library on the fourth day of his quest, remarking to librarian Lee Catlett that he was "still trying to crack the case of Mary Mallory." Catlett replied that the name sounded familiar. She thought there was an oral history that mentioned Mallory. First she showed Fawcett the newly acquired 1921 newspapers, which had not been catalogued or microfilmed.
As I had expected, an article titled "Good Colored Woman Dead, Said to be 108 Years Old" was on the front page of the Sept. 15 Loudoun Mirror.
The article said that her age had not been authenticated but that she was supposed to have been "the oldest person in Virginia." It said "she belonged to Governor Swann, who owned the Morven Park place . . . was sold to the Brown family, of Waterford, but never left the near neighborhood of Leesburg, in which she was born."
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the few local blacks who were afforded obituaries were usually long-lived former slaves, and they were described in terms of what the white community expected of them. Thus the tribute to Mallory continued: "All the older white people who knew her had for her sentiments not only of affection but of very high respect. She was unusually intelligent and of unblemished character and raised a family of respectable and useful children."
The appreciation concluded: "Her faculties were good to the last. Three weeks ago she was picking peas in her own garden . . . she heard, saw and talked well and had a hearty appetite. . . . She was entirely sensible until the moment of death, said she knew she was about to die and passed away with pious expressions of faith and resignation."
After Fawcett read the obituary, Catlett returned with the oral history, a copy of Mallory's photograph tucked inside. The three documents had been linked. But Fawcett's curiosity was not stilled.
Why didn't the name Mary Mallory appear in the 1880 Loudoun census? The obituary stated she had never left the county. Was she really 108 when she died?
Fawcett looked at the 1870 Loudoun census, which he hadn't had time to check on his previous visit to the library. There she was, on Page 81, age 43 and "Keeping House" with seven children, three born when she was a slave. The census also listed four Mallorys, ages 17 to 21, who Fawcett later determined to be Mallory's children. Three were noted as mulattoes, implying a white or American Indian parent or grandparent.
Fawcett told me recently that he had uncovered data on 11 of Mallory's 14 children and that by 1875 she had a husband named Richard.
Slave censuses of the Swann family in 1850 list five black women all in their twenties. The 1900 census listed Mallory as single and a "Housekeeper." It gave her birth date as November 1829 -- 16 years later than the date on her tombstone.
Had Mallory's birth date been correct on her headstone, I would have mused "a long life." But I would not have called my class over. And Fawcett would not be spending part of his summer vacation in Annapolis, searching through the uncatalogued Swann family papers.
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.