Archaeology Sheds Light on Lives of Free African Americans
Archaeology of Free African Americans
So often, when we think of African American archaeology, we think of plantations, slave quarters and other locations associated with slavery. But African American history is about much more than slavery, and an increasing number of archaeological projects are bringing to life the diversity of the African American experience.
Freedpersons, or "Free People of Color," as free Africans were listed in census records, have played a vital role in our country's history from Colonial times onward. Archaeological excavations are helping to bring some of that rich history to life, by giving us a glimpse into the everyday lives of free Africans in America.
Photo: Freed Family, FL. With Kind Permission of the Florida State Archives
Early Communities and Neighborhoods
In Alexandria, VA, archaeologists have excavated portions of two of the city's earliest free African American neighborhoods. In both neighborhoods - the Bottoms and Hayti, white families rented and sold land to free African Americans as early as 1799. By 1840, there were 1,627 free African Americans in Alexandria.
In 1979, archaeologists from the University of Maryland and The City of Alexandria excavated portions of the Bottoms that were slated for urban renewal. A well, made of three wooden barrels, yielded many artifacts such as food remains, broken plates and other household items. The dishes were similar to those of Alexandria's middle class white families, but were not in matched sets.
Excavations at Hayti revealed the foundation of an 1832 woodframe duplex. Each home had two rooms downstairs with fireplaces, and one room upstairs. As many as ten people lived in each dwelling at one time.
Archaeologists and students from The University of Southern Mississippi have excavated several African American sites. Led by Dr. Amy Young, students investigated the site of Mound Bayou, one of the first all-black incorporated towns in the United States. Established in 1887 by former slaves Isaiah Montgomery and Benjamin Green, the town of Mound Bayou grew into a thriving community with schools, churches, a bank and other black-owned businesses. Dr. Young has also investigated Camp Dantzler, the site of an early African American logging town that was thriving by 1900.
Another fascinating and little known site is Virginia City, Nevada, where free African Americans joined others from throughout the world, seeking the opportunities that this wealthy mining town offered to both skilled and unskilled workers. Many black entreprenuers established thriving businesses within Virginia City's integrated neighborhoods.
Remnants of Virginia City's Boston Saloon, a thriving business operated by freedman William A.G. Brown, have amazingly survived 125 years of development. Brown, a free-born Massachusetts native, owned and operated the Boston Saloon from 1864 to about 1875. The Boston Saloon was an important and popular meeting place for African Americans in Virginia City.
Aside from a few brief newspaper articles, the written record of African Americans in Virginia City is sparse. Archaeological excavations here promise to add a new dimension to our understanding of African Americans in the development of the West.
Other archaeology projects have focused on individual dwellings. The National Park Service has investigated the Robinson House, the home of freedman James Robinson and his family. During the year 1861, the First Battle of Manassas raged around the Robinson House, which was situated in the center of the battlefield. Robinson sent his family to safety at a nearby dwelling. Unable to get there himself, Robinson concealed himself under a bridge until the fighting had ended, and emerged to find the bodies of 13 soldiers in his yard.
Despite the toll the War had taken on the Robinson home, the family rebuilt their lives, and Robinson and his descendants occupied the dwelling well into the 20th century. In 1993, the unoccupied dwelling was lost to an arson fire. The National Park Service conducted excavations at the property, as part of a restoration effort for the historical dwelling.
During the excavation, archaeologists found the Robinson family ledgers, letters and other documents wedged behind the insulation in a remaining attic wall. Some of these papers date as far back as 1830, and have provided a closer look at life in the Robinson family home.
The Betsey Prince Site, a late eighteenth to early nineteenth century free black domestic site in New York State, was discovered in 1989, during a cultural resources survey that preceded the widening of Rout 25A. Excavations revealed a small, two room dwelling with a fireplace, and a small cellar used for food storage. The dwelling was built in the late 1760s or early 1770s, and was occupied until about 1840. Archaeologists recovered ceramic fragments, clamshells, window glass and nails from the house and surrounding yard. Artifact analysis suggested that the use of the house and surrounding lands changed little in the 70 or so years that the house was occupied.
A Diverse History Emerges
Free African Americans have been a vital part of our society since Colonial times. The historical record captured little of the diverse experiences of freedpersons in America. Archaeological investigations such as these are providing a glimpse into the lives of free African Americans, and contributing to a new and deeper understanding of our shared heritage.
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This article was prepared for The USF Africana Heritage Project (www.africanaheritage.com) by Toni Carrier. Citation:
2004 "Archaeology Sheds Light on Lives of
Freedpersons." The USF Africana Heritage
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.