Story by Liesel Schmidt
As part of the South, Virginia—and Alexandria, by extension—have a past that includes the ugliness of the slave trade. Look beyond the beauty of the cobblestone sidewalks and streets, the historic homes and the landscape that has kept up with the times, and you can just imagine a place where life was divided along the lines of color and rights were bought with blood, sweat and money.
For the countless slaves that were traded during those hundreds of years in American history, “freedom” was a word they only dreamed about. But for the brave individuals who went after that dream and made it a reality, they inspired others and incited a movement that would forever change the world.
Among them, Paul and Amelia Edmonson, a free Black man and his enslaved wife, sent their daughters, 15-year-old Mary and 13-year-old Emily, along with four of their siblings and 71 other blacks to escape and find their freedom. Born into slavery, the sisters worked as servants in Washington, DC. On the night of April 15, 1848, they planned to sail on the Pearl, using the Potomac River to reach the Chesapeake Bay, then travel on the Delaware River to New Jersey, where slavery was illegal. However, the Pearl was caught at Maryland and towed back to DC.
“What I find most inspiring about the Edmonson sisters’ story is their father’s persistence in doing everything he could to free his girls. I also find it inspiring that the sisters spent the next year after they were freed to travel the country with Quakers and abolitionists, telling their story and advocating for the end of slavery.” - John Taylor Chapman, Manumission Tour Company
Once the slaves, including the Edmonson sisters, were brought back, they were purchased by Joseph Bruin of Bruin & Hill, a successful slave-trading enterprise at the time. Destined for auction in New Orleans and a likely fate as “fancy girls” in the brothels, their attempted escape nevertheless made them more difficult and “riskier” to sell. As they awaited auction, the Edmonson sisters were held in a slave jail on Bruin’s property, which he purchased in the West End of Alexandria as part of a plan to build a two-acre complex from which he could conduct his slave trade.
While studying at Cortland, the girls also participated in anti-slavery rallies in New York state. In August 1850 both sisters attended the Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, New York to protest the Fugitive Slave Act, soon to be passed by Congress. Under this act, slave owners had unlimited powers to arrest fugitive slaves in the North and return them to slavery in the South. The convention, led by Frederick Douglass, declared all slaves to be prisoners of war.
During the time of their imprisonment, the girls’ father and older brother, both of whom were free men, worked tirelessly to free them. Their efforts took them as far as New York, first to Manhattan and eventually to Brooklyn, where they went before the Plymouth Congressional Church and presented their plight. The church, led by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, became instrumental in the Edmonson sisters’ eventual freedom, as they took up the cause and preached about the girls and their certain fate as light-skinned young slaves in the South. It was the impassioned preaching of Rev. Beecher, the generosity of his congregants, all who heard and the tireless dedication of Paul Edmonson and his son that eventually led to the girls’ freedom, which came at the steep price of $2,250, Bruin’s asking price to let them go.
On November 4, 1848, Mary and Emily Edmonson were emancipated. Over the years, Beecher’s congregation continued to support the sisters and donated money to send them to school and get an education. As beacons of hope, the girls became an important part of the abolitionist movement and inspired generations after them. To that end, they were celebrated with a statue on Duke Street, the original sight of Bruin’s slave trade and the girls’ imprisonment in a holding facility.
Created by Erik Blome, the 10-foot-tall bronze statue was dedicated on June 25, 2010, and depicts Mary and Emily Edmonson holding hands as they emerge from the shadow of slavery and look towards the African American Heritage Park. A nearby plaque describes their story, which was also told in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “I think that individuals like the Edmonson sisters should be celebrated and memorialized so that we don't forget those who fought for change and progress, especially if they put their lives and bodies on the line to do so,” says John Taylor Chapman, founder and owner of Manumission Tour Company. “I’m deeply passionate about Black history and it was something that I didn’t learn a lot about growing up. Alexandria has such a rich Black history though, so about five years ago, I developed a tour company that would invite people to learn about it and explore all the places that are so connected to that history.”
As part of Alexandria’s rich history and a past that, as a nation, we would sometimes rather forget or sterilize, the Edmonson sisters are something to honor, admire and strive to. In the face of hate and impossible odds, they achieved what so many only dreamed of, and inspired others to freedom.
“Their story is an example of hope and bravery. They took the risk to achieve freedom, and when that failed, they continued to fight and never gave up. It’s a universal story. They were born into the horrible legacy of slavery and embody the spirt of perseverance and courage. Their lives and lesson have influenced and inspired so many.” - Audrey P. Davis, Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum