About Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850s

Preliminary findings show Alexandria as a remarkably concentrated commercial city, with the center isolated in a pool of closely-held and undeveloped urban property. The city featured a centralized business district, a center, market system, very limited home ownership and almost no neighborhood formation. Standing within sight of Washington, Alexandria was a major headquarters for the national slave trade. The city was about one quarter African American, divided almost equally between enslaved and free; slaves for whom we have discovered names and all free blacks are included in the database. Blacks and whites lived parallel existences, connected yet fundamentally separate.

We will uncover the social networks that bound together the white, free black, and, to the extent possible, the slave populations of Alexandria. There were also small German and Irish immigrant groups, each with limited institutional development. The governmental and cultural elites of Alexandria were politically inclined toward the Opposition party. In the late 1850s, a surging and populist Democratic party committed to the cause of Southern rights threatened not only the survival of those elites, their party, and party competition, but also, in its rejection of compromise and its advocacy of Southern rights, threatened to ignite a conflict devastating for both city and nation.