Thomas A. Foster is a professor and associate dean at Howard University.
The news that Amazon will build its secondary headquarters in Alexandria presents obvious and not-so-obvious opportunities for enhancing the region. The announcement included a newly defined neighborhood named National Landing that extends over parts of Pentagon City, Crystal City and Potomac Yards and speculation about a strong supply of consumers for area businesses.
But renderings of the collection of proposed buildings indicate the extraordinary opportunity we have to memorialize and acknowledge the history of enslavement at the site.
Abingdon Plantation was situated for generations on a large tract of land that today includes Reagan National Airport and the future Amazon HQ2. [Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.] In the 17th century, Abingdon was 8,000 acres. By the late 18th century, it was reduced through sales but was still a sizable 1,000 acres. Over the years, more than 100 African Americans were enslaved at Abingdon and its owners’ other properties, sustaining life, fishing, managing livestock and producing corn and other profitable staples.
By 1850, Abingdon was down to about 650 acres, with formal gardens, terraced lawns, orchards, walkways to the river and a large number of outbuildings, barns and structures where enslaved people lived. The main house at Abingdon had been enlarged and had become more refined, with additional rooms and mahogany and walnut furnishings. Enslaved people ranged in age from just 2 to 50 years old.
As preparations for HQ2 groundbreaking ceremonies commence, preservation efforts at an African burial ground discovered in New York City and at Abingdon offer lessons for us. In 1991, when construction crews first came upon human remains at the site of a new federal courthouse in Manhattan, they ceased work — briefly. It took community outrage, including protests, marches and a small army of academics and engaged community members to force the city and federal government to recognize the need for properly memorializing the dead and educating the public about the history of that location and the role that slavery played in the growth of New York City.
Around the same time, in the D.C. area, when National Airport expansion plans suggested that the ruins of Abingdon Plantation might be destroyed, local preservationists and community members, also seeing the importance of preserving history, urged the Metropolitan Airports Authority to reconsider. The Airports Authority ultimately conducted archaeological digs, preserved the ruins and modified designs for parking structures to save the site of the main house. (The history that was recognized at the airport, however, was not one that included enslavement at Abingdon — exhibits instead focused on the families who owned the property and the longer history of the site.)
Both examples teach us that it takes community action to begin a dialogue — and that engagement with those with power over such sites can succeed.
A generation of scholarship on slavery and public history since the controversies in New York City and at National Airport has deepened our understanding of the importance of memorializing and more fully recognizing our history.
The area of HQ2, away from the ruins of the main house that stood at Abingdon Plantation, covers the acreage where so much enslaved life took place. Although tourist sites often highlight the main house of the enslavers as indicative of life at a plantation, enslaved people lived much of their lives in other areas doing backbreaking work — at Abingdon in those same fields, woods and streams that once made up the landscape that will soon become HQ2. Most of the labor of a plantation like Abingdon happened there, sunup to sundown. In addition to work, socializing, spiritualizing, courting, studying and memorializing the dead often took place in such areas away from the enslaver’s house. As such, the Amazon site for HQ2 affords us the opportunity to recognize and memorialize the lives of those enslaved there.
To state the obvious, Amazon should recognize this history if for no other reason than enslaved people made possible the economic development of their site. Indeed, enslaved people and their labor would be subjects of statues, public squares, street and school building names if we truly recognized their forced accomplishments — having their lives taken, cut short and molded to serve the financial interests of the system.
Acknowledging this history and memorializing those who were enslaved on the site of Amazon’s HQ2 is a moral imperative. We are called on by our national desire for justice and for the integrity of our understanding of our history to remember slavery — for those once enslaved but also for ourselves.
In their state-of-the-art HQ2 urban campus, perhaps Amazon could set aside a small patch of green space to memorialize the ancestors who, as enslaved Founding Mothers and Fathers, developed the region. Amazon should lead the way in recognizing our history as it continues to shape our future.