I recently spent a few nights in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a pleasant place on the banks of the Potomac River, just south of Washington DC. There are boat trips, gift shops, waterside bars, art galleries and they used to buy and sell black people in the market square.
This still shocking fact, which of course is true of many other places in the US, isn’t entirely air-brushed from local history, but it isn’t foregrounded either. Maybe that’s unsurprising if you’re trying to sustain a tourist economy. But some of the things I saw in Alexandria suggest how and why the US continues to struggle with its racist past and present.
It would be entirely possible to visit Alexandria without knowing that it used to be the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, one of the biggest slave trading companies in the antebellum US. There is a historic marker outside one of their former offices and human warehouses (1315 Duke Street), but it’s not on the main tourist drag (King Street), so takes some special finding. Similarly, the market square has a bit of easily missed information about what used to happen there, but the slave trade is referred to alongside other commercial enterprises, like selling fruit. Elsewhere, at 515 North Washington Street, the official history of Alexandria’s first cotton factory makes absolutely no reference to how the raw material for that industry was produced. Around the corner is a new, large corporate-sponsored mural allegedly providing “a point of discovery for all things Alexandria” that makes no reference to slavery. My friend, David Rotenstein, is an expert in this field and I can hear him pulling his hair out!
By contrast, I saw several references to the arrival of Union troops in Alexandria at the start of the Civil War as an “occupation”, a significant choice of word to imply that North and South were (are?) separate places. At the junction of South Washington Street and Prince Street is a prominent statue commemorating the Confederate dead.
How we chose to remember or ignore history is a vexed subject, but often the official version gets it wrong. With a legacy as disgusting as slavery, it’s perhaps understandable that the Alexandria authorities don’t want to have their city defined by some of the worst things that ever happened there. I’d say the same about Bristol. It’s a balance. But a visit to Berlin or Vienna, where awareness of the Holocaust is woven, sometimes quite subtly, into the city’s fabric, shows how it can be done. It’s not an example most places in the US feel ready to follow because in truth, the country hasn’t come to terms with its past.
In a small effort to redress Alexandria’s historic balance, I’d like to share an episode that stands in the canon of the struggle for civil rights, but is less known than others. On 21st August 1939, five local black men (William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker) entered the city’s segregated public library, took books from the shelves and began reading, in breach of written and unwritten Jim Crow laws. They were arrested (see photo below), but as with other such sit-ins, this was a deliberate tactic to challenge discrimination in the courts. No legal conclusion was reached, but the city did build a new, but separate, library for the African-American community.
To be fair to Alexandria’s authorities, this important struggle is given proper recognition. But the selective erasing of history continues. Next door to the library won in the 1940s were some early – and structurally unusual – homes built as public housing for African-Americans working in Alexandria’s armaments industry. I first saw and photographed them in June 2017. In June 2019 they were gone, part of the unrelenting assault not just on public housing, but the places and past of black people.