Slavery Confronted: Using Digital History to Understand the Complexity of Slavery in a Nineteenth-Century Commercial City, Alexandria, Virginia
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:50 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
In the mid-19th century, Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from the nation’s capital, sought to combine a veneer of gentility with its harsh reality as one of the largest slave trading cities in the US. The economic relationships that underpinned slavery were complex: an investment to be hired-out or in, a capital base on which to secure loans, wealth to transmit to rising generations, a labor force. This paper explains how those many, often conflicting, economic functions of slavery were related to the social and political structure of the city. Conceiving this as a digital history project enhances those opportunities, allowing the integration of the narrative of slavery with the archaeological evidence of slave lives collected by Alexandria’s Urban Archaeology Program. Creating an interactive digital resource around this material allows the story of slavery to be knit into the fabric of a Southern commercial city in ways never before possible. This project, supported by the NEH, reconstitutes the population of Alexandria on the eve of the Civil War: a population of 12,000, including a black labor force of 1400 free blacks and 1200 slaves, the central element of the city’s commercial aspirations. Resting on a database of linked individual level information from city directories, census records, and municipal tax records combined with individual church membership records, the paper also reports from its most extraordinary feature: the individual political choices of all voters in the 1859 general election, the last state election before Virginia’s secession. Virginia voted by voice prior to Reconstruction but Alexandria is perhaps the only city of the South for which a complete set of poll books, required by the state-mandated use of viva voce elections, survives. This unique information reveals the political relationship of the white population with the slave system underpinning the city’s economy.