Woodlawn's Secret

Shedding light on a forgotten past

When Laurie Ossman became director of Woodlawn in August 2008, the complete story of the National Trust Historic Site in Alexandria, Va., seemed to have already been told. George Washington gave the plantation, originally a 2,000-acre tract, to his nephew Maj. Lawrence Lewis as a wedding gift in 1799. And Lewis commissioned William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, to design the grand Federal house where the major and his bride, Martha Washington's granddaughter Eleanor Custis Lewis, would raise a family and entertain in style.

The story seemed to end in 1846, when the Lewis family sold the property. "My natural curiosity led me to wonder, What happened next?" Ossman says. "What happened to all of the people who must have been here?"

Ossman secured a National Trust Interpretation and Education Fund grant and hired historic preservationist and genealogist Maddy McCoy and architectural historian Susan Hellman to search for answers.

The research team knew that two Quaker families, staunch abolitionists from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had purchased the estate from Lewis' heirs. The new owners wanted to start a "free-labor colony" to disprove Southern assertions that slave labor was necessary to make plantations profitable. What the research team didn't know was how the radical experiment fared at Woodlawn.

Sifting through census records, newspapers, deeds, letters, and family Bibles, the researchers discovered that Woodlawn's new owners had indeed succeeded in fostering a diverse and tight-knit community that included free black landowners and workers, as well as recently arrived Irish and German immigrants. Community members started an integrated elementary school in the old mansion and founded three churches on former plantation property, as well as a variety of area businesses that served local farmers.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Woodlawn's diverse residents found themselves trapped between the Confederate line at Manassas and Union-occupied Alexandria, Va. Remarkably, residents—black and white—banded together to form a civilian militia, protecting themselves from both Union foraging campaigns and Confederate raids. "There was no other organization like it," Hellman says of the multiracial militia, which illustrated how the bonds of community at Woodlawn proved stronger than the politics of war.

Today, research into the plantation's past continues. McCoy, who mapped out the genealogy of the enslaved people at Woodlawn before the Quakers arrived, is now focusing on the free blacks, while Hellman is conducting further research into local military activity during the Civil War.

Ossman plans to unveil their findings next year, in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. "I want to give the people of Woodlawn their names back," she says. "The important thing is that Woodlawn is no longer the story of just one family, but the story of many families forming a diverse community."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.