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Local historians profile former slave in Alexandria who struggled to rescue his family

As the city work to prepare the new Freedom House Museum for opening this fall, local historians are working to put together the stories of families that were trafficked through the slave trading hub at 1315 Duke Street.

Primary sources for the biographies range from ship manifests that show newborn babies taken from their families to newspaper articles from the time. One of the stories highlighted is that of Burdette Washington, who was born into slavery and whose life was cataloged in the pages of advertisements in the Alexandria Gazette and other sources.

“The ads are for hiring out his labor,” the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) said in a biography. “This was a common practice, where ‘owners’ made additional income by ‘hiring out’ some enslaved individuals to other households. A similar ad in June 1830 notes he is a ‘good drayman and carpenter.'”

The OHA’s biography says Washington gained his freedom in 1834.

“Quaker William Stabler purchased Washington from William Bell of Culpeper,Virginia for $100 and manumitted (legally freed) Washington,” the OHA wrote. “Stabler, an apothecary with a shop on Fairfax Street in Alexandria, was a prominent member of the local Quaker community. Quakers in Alexandria were active in helping enslaved people purchase their freedom.”

Once he was freed, the OHA wrote that Washington worked to free other members of his family. He was given only three months to raise $100 to purchase his 10-year-old son William Henry, but the son was taken on a slave ship along with 201 others for sale in New Orleans. In 1835, Washington was eventually able to raise the needed funds to save his son.

“Having secured his young son’s freedom, Washington began raising money to purchase his wife and other children’s freedom,” the OHA wrote. “Newspaper accounts from 1838-1840 from Massachusetts and New York recount Washington’s testimony to church groups and Abolition Societies, describing the horror of having his children taken from him. In Nathaniel Southard’s 1838 publication, ‘Why Work for the Slave?’ the author quotes Washington’s reaction to having an 18- year-old daughter taken from him to be sold away: ‘I have not seen or heard of her since. Oh, it hurts me every time I think of it.'”

The fate of his wife and other children are unknown. Washington eventually remarried and was listed as living in D.C. in the 1850 census with her in Ward Seven at the age of 85.

The story of Washington is in keeping with a shifted-focus in the museum that highlights the lives of those who were enslaved rather than emphasizing the stories of their captors.

“Washington’s family story, with its horror of separation and the fight to care for family, captures the experience of thousands trafficked through Alexandria,” the OHA wrote. “Through continued research, more about these people and their lives will come to light.”

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