Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Alexandria, Virginia, a center of the domestic interstate slave trade in the 19th century, was the next stop on our recent women’s landmarks road trip (see previous post). Our goal was the Edmonson Sisters Memorial, located at Edmonson Plaza, 1701 Duke Street, in Old Town Alexandria. Sculpted by Erik Blome, the memorial was
dedicated on June 25, 2010. It was paid for by a developer who built a five-story office building on the site of a slave jail that had belonged to Joseph Bruin, a partner in a very profitable business—buying, warehousing, and transporting enslaved people to the Deep South. In 1848, Bruin bought and traded the Edmonson sisters—Mary, age fifteen years old and Emily, age thirteen. Their dramatic story inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her anti-slavery-consciousness-raising book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Mary and Emily Edmonson were among the seventy-seven freedom-seeking enslaved people who, on the night of April 15, 1848, clandestinely boarded the schooner Pearl, an escape plan organized by white abolitionists and free black men, and financed in part by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin, Gerrit Smith. With the escaping slaves hidden, the Pearl started its journey down the Potomac River from Washington and up the Chesapeake Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and up the Delaware River to New Jersey. Slowed down by a shift in the tide and then bad weather, the Pearl was soon overtaken by an armed posse of slave owners aboard a steamboat, towed back to Washington, and met by a pro-slavery mob that would riot for several days. The fugitive enslaved people were put in jail. When someone in the proslavery mob had called out to Emily Edmonson, asking if she was ashamed, she replied that she would do it again! (The two white captains who were initially taken to safety were soon tried, convicted, and jailed for four years before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.)
Joseph Bruin sent Mary and Emily to New Orleans where they were on display for sale. Because of their age and light complexion they were undoubtedly destined to be sold as sex slaves in a brothel. The outbreak of yellow fever, a highly contagious disease, prompted Bruin to bring Mary and Emily back to his slave jail in Alexandria. Meanwhile their father Paul, a free Black man, had been desperately trying to raise money to free his daughters. Bruin’s price for their release was $2, 250 (worth about $84,000 today). Abolitionist supporters connected Paul with Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. The charismatic preacher and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s brother, enlisted the congregation to raise the money. On November 4, 1848, Emily and Mary were freed. “Jubilate!” celebrated an newspaper reporter.
Supported by funds from the church and by working as cleaning servants, Mary and Emily studied at various schools. In 1853, they enrolled at the integrated Young Ladies Preparatory School at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Soon after arriving, Mary died of tuberculosis. Emily retuned to Washington D.C., where she completed her education, worked as a teacher, and continued doing anti-slavery work, attending rallies, conventions, and participating in “mock slave auctions” to raise public awareness and outrage. In time, Emily married and had free-born children. She died in 1895.
Although their story is not well known today, it was a widely known at the time. To counter slave-owners criticism that she exaggerated and falsified the treatment of slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe compiled a nonfiction book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work (available to read online). Chapter VI is devoted to the Edmonson’s story. It opens with Stowe’s account of talking with the Amelia “Milly” Edmonson, the enslaved mother of Mary and Emily. “Her eyes and smile are still uncommonly beautiful, but there are deep-wrought lines of patient sorrow and weary endurance on her face, which tell that this lovely and noble-hearted woman has been all her life a slave,” Stowe wrote. She reported that Milly did not want to marry because she knew that under the law her children would be slaves. But she “loved Paul” and she knew she had no choice but to bear children who were enslaved to profit her owner. She and Paul had fourteen children, most of whom were eventually able though their efforts and the support of others to buy their freedom.
Stowe witnessed a reunion between Milly and Emily and Mary, who had been away for four years at school: With a daughter on each side of her Milly exclaimed: ’O, these children,—how they do lie round our hearts!”
First image: Always eager to share my enthusiastic interest in women's landmarks, I spontaneously called out to the couple who walked by without stopping: "Have you seen this memorial?" That is how I met Joann and Al Walker from Jacksonville, Florida. The Edmonson's story was new to them and we had a wonderful time talking together! They are standing beside an illustrated and highly informative marker. The memorial is behind them. Second image. Two over-sized bronze statues representing Emily (left) and Mary (right) jut out from an large bronze outcropping. A raised image of the schooner "Pearl" is on the back. Bottom images: Close-up: Mary, Mary's hand (top) clasping Emily's, Emily, me (I don't usually touch sculptures but the clasped hands were compelling.)