Home Voting Rights Legislative Action The Slave Trade and Retrocession to Virginia
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http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803209_pf.html

John Kelly's Washington

The slave trade and Alexandria's withdrawal from D.C.

By John Kelly
Sunday, September 19, 2010; C03

Was Alexandria returned to Virginia to facilitate the slave trade?

-- Henry Bruhl, Annandale

A slave dealer's establishment in Alexandria during the Civil War era. (Alexandria Archaeology Museum)

Well, that depends. If you'd asked a white Alexandrian back then, he probably would have said, "Of course not." If you'd asked a black Alexandrian, he might have given you a different answer.

In fact, here's what two African American residents wrote to a Boston abolitionist not long after the day in 1846 when Alexandrians (white, male) voted to approve the return of their city to Virginia, an act called retrocession: "[The] poor colored people of this city . . . were standing in rows on either side of the Court House, and, as the votes were announced every quarter of an hour, the suppressed wailings and lamentations of the people of color were constantly ascending to God for help and succor, in this the hour of their need."

They knew they would no longer have the protection of Congress, however scant that was.

Some background: When the new capital was created from scratch, it included two existing cities, each a thriving port: Alexandria, in Virginia, and Georgetown, in Maryland. Over time, they didn't thrive equally. The law creating the capital limited the construction of federal buildings to the formerly Maryland side of the Potomac.

"This stricture meant both that Alexandrians did not receive the advantages of being a part of the District that they anticipated and that Congress neglected the federally barren southern side of river," said historian Ted Pulliam, author of the forthcoming "Historic Alexandria."

It was difficult to get Congress to focus on things such as chartering banks and funding canal construction in Alexandria, things the Alexandrians couldn't do on their own. These were some of the points raised by R.M.T. Hunter, a Virginia congressman, in a speech he gave before the House.

If you overlook the fact that he was a racist, Hunter's arguments made sense. Alexandria was languishing. Furthermore, if our country stood for liberty, for the right of free men to vote, how could anyone be happy that some citizens were denied representation in Congress or a voice in presidential elections?

Said Hunter: "Mr. Chairman, [Alexandria] has been treated like a child separated from the natural, and neglected by the foster, mother. After a long and bitter experience of the fruits of a connection with us, she asks to return to her ancient allegiance. She asks to be restored to right and privileges, the very names of which are sacred to American feeling, and dear to every American heart."

Convincing, right?

Not so fast says A. Glenn Crothers. "This was political subterfuge of a high order," said Crothers, a professor at the University of Louisville and author of "The 1846 Retrocession of Alexandria: Protecting Slavery and the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia."

In the 1840s, there were three slave-trading firms in Alexandria. Alexandria had a surplus of slaves. The Deep South had a deficit. There was money to be made shipping slaves from Alexandria to New Orleans. Of course, slavery and slave-trading also were legal in Washington.

As early as the 1830s, abolitionists were petitioning Congress to end slavery in Washington. The issue became so heated that a gag rule was put in place to prevent the issue being discussed in the House. It was all too clear to Virginians what could happen next. Congress might not be able to end the slave trade nationwide, but it could end it in the one place it controlled: Washington, including Alexandria.

"This is a hot topic," Crothers said, so hot that supporters of retrocession rarely referred to it directly. "You try to slip it through," he said.

Virginia state law forbade the education of African Americans and so when Alexandria retroceded, their schools in the city were closed. And when Congress ended the slave trade in Washington in 1850, slaves in Alexandria could only look across the river in anticipation.

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