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17.9.11

Abingdon Plantation

When Central Park was created, in the middle of Manhattan, it was not an already empty space. One of the losses was an African-American village, currently being excavated and researched. There have been similar discoveries of this long-ignored part of American history only now receiving this sort of historical protection. Purely by chance, while returning a rental car to National Airport last month, I happened on a historical monument to what used to occupy most of the land of that airport, Abingdon Plantation, the birthplace of Nelly Custis Lewis, the adopted granddaughter of George Washington. In an easily missed space between two parking garages are the ruins of the main plantation building, which during the course of its history was owned by members of the Alexander family, for whom Alexandria is named. On the various markers placed there by the airport authority, the lineages of the owning families are displayed, but there is no mention if slaves lived there or not. One assumes that slaves were part of this plantation: the owner at the time of the Civil War served in the Confederate Army, although the Union occupied Alexandria and used it a base to take in slaves escaping the south. Alexandria was one of the farthest points north in the American slave trade before that. The Library of Congress has chilling photographs, available online, of slave pens in Alexandria, on the property of slave dealers Price Birch & Co., in the 1300 block of Duke Street.

American society (and government at all levels) needs to take steps to make sure that we save and protect as much historical information as we can about the history of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend highly enough the work that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done, in programs aired on PBS, to help African-Americans learn about the history of their families going back into slavery -- and sometimes not. The Virginia Historical Society has recently taken a step in the right direction by launching a new database, called Unknown No Longer, "to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent." It is a work in progress at the moment, containing around 1,500 names, but there is much more information to be gained from scouring historical documents. More slaves were reportedly held in Virginia than in any other state.

Photo: "J. J. Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, S.C." (photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan), showing a group of black men and women in front of the slave quarters, Library of Congress

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