Report details life of Black Alexandrians post-Civil War in home slated for redevelopment

506 N. Overlook Drive (image via North Ridge Citizens’ Association)

A new report from the Office of Historic Alexandria outlined the fascinating and tumultuous lives of the Black residents who carved out a life for themselves in the city after the Civil War — and whose home (506 N. Overlook Drive) could soon be faced with demolition and redevelopment.

There were a lot of unanswered questions and urban legends about the Hampshire Fractious house in North Ridge when redevelopment of the property started working through city bureaucracy, starting with approval of a plan to subdivide the property. Walt Whitman, for instance, was rumored to have worked at the house, but there’s no evidence to support this claim.

The true story pieced together by Garrett Fesler and the Office of Historic Alexandria weaves the story of Hampshire Fractious and other residents of the house with the city’s involvement in the slave trade and the lives of contrabands in the city after the war — though some of this is based on reading between the lives on census data and historical context clues.

The first documentation of Hampshire Fractious, who would go on to own the property, is in 1865.

According to documents, his mother Page Fractious arrived in Alexandria in 1864 at the age of 90 years old from Winchester, Virginia,” the report said. “Freedmen’s Bureau records indicate that Hampshire was caring for his elderly and infirm mother a year later in 1865. Fractious may well have accompanied his mother to Alexandria in 1864, possibly as contrabands. If so, then his absence in federal censuses and other primary documents may be because he was born into slavery.”

Records indicate that in 1870, Fractious lived on Cameron Street near the intersection with N. West Street with Cyrus Fractions. It’s possible that this could be the same Sy Fractins that appears in records from Alexandria slave traders Franklin and Armfield in 1834 before he was shipped to New Orleans.

“Rather remarkably, a Black man named S. Fraction is listed as living in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1838,” the report said. “If this is the same man who was taken to New Orleans in 1834, he may have somehow escaped enslavement and made his way to Nova Scotia, a well-known enclave for escaped slaves. Some 35 years later, according to an 1870 Alexandria city directory, a Cyrus Fractions resided with Hampshire Fractions at a property on Cameron Street near its intersection with N. West Street, an indication that the two men were related, possibly as brothers, and further suggesting that Hampshire may have been enslaved as a younger man like his possible brother Cyrus/Sy.”

This possibility is complicated, though, by records of a Sirus Fractious in Baltimore and a Cyrus Fractions in Illinois on the 1880 federal census, so it isn’t guaranteed that the Cyrus Fractions was the same S. Fractins who was taken from Alexandria to New Orleans as a slave in 1834.

The 1870 census indicates that Fractious was a plasterer who lived at Cameron and Queen street with several members of his extended family.

“Before his 1878 purchase of the 13 acres near Four Mile Run, Hampshire Fractious resided in the City of Alexandria,” the report said. “According to an 1865 tax list Fractious owned a house and lot on Queen Street valued at $2,100, placing him among the wealthiest Black property owners in Alexandria.”

Fractious purchased the 12-acre empty lot in North Ridge in 1876.

“Fractious paid $264 for the property and within two years he had built a dwelling house on the land,” the report said. “This is the house that stands at 506 N. Overlook Drive in Alexandria. A map drafted in 1878 marks the first time the Fractious house appears on a map. Historic maps of the area prior to 1878 show the area in and around 506 N. Overlook Drive as vacant and undeveloped.”

As a plasterer, the report says it’s likely that Fractious had a hand in the construction of his home.

“Indeed, plasterers were skilled craftsmen who not only plastered walls, but also created decorative plaster molding on walls and ceilings, something of an art,” the report said.

There, the Fractious family kept a modest farm. Fractious died in 1888 at the age of 70. By 1889, the family began to rent the property out to other tenants and eventually sold the land.

Owners of the property today say much of the interior was gutted and overhauled roughly 10 years ago and little of the original house inside remains intact.

The subdivision of the property was approved earlier this year, but demolition of the home and future redevelopment will require future approval. By oversight, the property was never added to the 100-year-building list, despite the building being at the top of the list on the Master Plan for Historic Preservation’s list of buildings constructed before 1900, which could complicate public arguments for preserving the home on historical preservation grounds.