It may not seem very significant that a yarn shop should close on June 19th, known in the United States as Juneteenth. Juneteenth dates back to the arrival of Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, after the end of the civil war. Upon arriving to Texas, he announced the end of slavery in the north, effectively freeing the remaining enslaved individuals in the south.
So what does all that have to do with a little yarn shop? fibre space is located in Alexandria, Virginia, a little known but extremely significant early port town on the Potomac River. Due to Alexandria’s important placement between the mouth of the Potomac and the heart of Washington DC, it became a hub for the export of tobacco and the import of goods; most notably enslaved Africans.
Between 1751 and 1775, British ships dominated the inter-colonial and the transatlantic slave trade, bringing upwards of 900,000 African men, women, and children to the colonies. (1)
Many of those people were trafficked right through the old streets of Alexandria. Duke street runs parallel to Prince Street, where we are located. Duke begins at the waterfront and charges right up to where the train station now resides -the entirety of this street is rich with Black History.
Most of the slaves who were trafficked up Duke Street made the trip by foot from the boat to the plantations they had been sold to in Mississippi, the Carolinas and Texas.
1315 Duke Street is less than a block from the shop. Now called the Freedom House Museum, this old building was once the headquarters for the largest US slave trading firm, Franklin and Armfield. This firm was responsible for exporting thousands of kidnapped Africans across the US colonies. Later other slave trading firms took up shop at 1315, notably Price, Birch & CO. The Freedom House was purchased by the City of Alexandria in 2020 for historic preservation, and it can be toured today!
A few blocks away from the shop and the Freedom House, at 1707 Duke Street, is the Bruin Slave Jail. Founded by slave trader Joseph Bruin, a “holding facility” or prison was used to house enslaved people awaiting sale and export to the sugar and cotton plantations further south. It also imprisoned refugee slaves who had once escaped.
At the site of the Slave Jail is the beautiful statue of the Edmonson Sisters. Mary and Emily Edmonson were once in bondage in the Alexandria area. They were held at and trafficked through the Bruin Slave Jail after an attempt at freedom in 1848. Their statue was cast and erected in 2010.
As the 19th century wore on, slave trading became less of a major economic venture for Alexandria. Once belonging to DC, Alexandria was given back to Virginia and the political pressures of the Civil War changed the shape of the city again.
As escaped slaves fled the Confederate South, they found a relative safe haven in Alexandria, now protected by the Union North. Enslaved and freed people worked side by side close to the Potomac catching and processing fish.
In the years of the Civil War; wounded Black union soldiers got medical care at L’Ouverture Hospital at 219 South Payne Street, also just 2 blocks from our shop. Named after Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, the building still stands as a private residence but is marked with a historic plaque.
As those wounded soldiers died, a cemetery was founded for their burial. You can still visit that site today at 1001 S. Washington Street. A powerful memorial was erected in 2014 in memory of all those buried there and so many more unnamed Black Americans who lost their lives here in Alexandria.
Alexandria’s Black history extends so much further past the transoceanic slave trade between the 1740’s and the end of the Civil War in 1865. Alexandria was a little known battlefield for the Civil Rights Movement of the early 20th century. Alexandria remained a segregated town until well into our lifetimes.
In the summer of 1939 Lawyer Samuel W Tucker sent 5 young Black men to stage a peaceful protest at a library at 717 Queen Street. As Black people were still not able to visit the city’s public libraries, this became the first “sit-in” protest of the movement.
James and Margaret Lomax became the first Black children to attend a formerly all-white elementary school in Virginia February 10, 1959 after a federal judge ordered the city of Alexandria to admit black students.
In 1965 TC Williams High School (now known as Alexandria City High School) was one of the very first integrated schools in the country.
At 110 North Royal Street, the Lawyer Bernard S Cohen’s office still remains. Cohen was the pioneering lawyer who represented Mildred Delores Loving and Richard Loving in the historic Loving V. Virginia case in 1967 that found preventing interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Loving Day was just celebrated on June 12th and is particularly special to our city.
From the very beginnings of Alexandria history in 1749 to today in 2023, we are in a city entrenched in Black history and in the history of the transoceanic slave trade. There’s so much more than we can fit into any single blog post!
We implore you to discover all of this incredible history for yourself next time you are in town!
There is an incredible Black History Museum located at 902 Wythe Street, it is the perfect place to start your historical journey of Alexandria. We implore you to take a Manumission Tour as well, where you can visit all of these sites in person.
Thank you endlessly to Councilman John Chapman (found of Manumission Tour) who has been at the forefront of uncovering so much Black history in our community. He went on a mission to make sure none of this history was lost to the years, and he has made so many resources available to us to learn about our community.
- * direct quote from https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic-sites/african-american-heritage-trail-north-waterfront-route
- Researched heavily from https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic-alexandria/alexandrias-african-american-community-online-resources
- Research about tobacco https://media.alexandriava.gov/docs-archives/historic/info/history/waterfronthistoryfirstwharf.pdf
- Contrabands and Freedom Cemetery Memorial https://www.alexandriava.gov/FreedmenMemorial#PhotographicTour
- L’Overture Hospital https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic-sites/louverture-hospital
- Loving Vs Virignia Marker https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=156847