The 1753 John Carlyle house

I am fresh from spending the day at the Carlyle House Historic Park in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I first heard about this house from an assigned reading in an undergraduate course called Interpreting and Preserving African-American Sites & Structures taught by my favorite undergrad professor, Carter L. Hudgins. Several of my best friends from undergrad and I went to the site in May 2008. However, this summer I was asked by an employee there if I could come and interpret one of Carlyle’s slaves for their 1753 event. I excitedly said yes. The program started at noon today and ran over as people were still knocking on the door at 4PM (when the event ended). I spent most of my day at the side of John Carlyle (portrayed by a regular volunteer there), as I was portraying an enslaved manservant. Unfortunately, I have no photographs of us together or any of me in the house. I saw someone who works at the site snapping a few photographs so maybe in coming days I can point you to some pictures.

We were all portraying early August 1753. On the first of the month, John Carlyle, a merchant of Alexandria, Virginia and his wife, Sarah (Fairfax) Carlyle moved into their house that had taken two years to complete. At the time it was the largest house in Alexandria and the only one constructed of stone. John owned two lots, the one his house was on and another directly behind that fronted the Potomac River. Carlyle, through his marriage, was related to the immensely wealthy Fairfax family. His brother-in-law, George William Fairfax inherited Belvoir (now at modern army base, Ft. Belvoir) in 1757, which was a plantation of 2,200 acres. However, Carlyle was doing well in his own right having thousands of acres of land, slaves (65 by the time of his death in 1780), trading grain crops to the Caribbean sugar plantations, tobacco crops to England, had a foundry and mill, and was a founding trustee of the Town of Alexandria.

The four hour event found a group of 16 volunteers portraying John and Sarah Carlyle, a midwife, a doctor, indentured servants, convict servants, and gentry persons such as George Fairfax, Anne Fairfax Washington Lee (Sarah and George’s sister, the widow of Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s half-brother), etc. The gentlemen were downstairs in the study, the ladies sat in the upper passage, and the servants (indentured, convicts, and myself as the one enslaved person portrayed) moved through the main floor and the top floor. We answered the door whenever there was a knock, helped the volunteer docents escort people to the back door to exit, ran errands through the household for the Carlyles and their guests, cleaned hearths, and kept up regular chatter about a carter who had misplaced, or lost, or stolen, or sold the Carlyle silver. Visitors were told by the docents to keep in mind it was August 1753 so that was all we knew. A few folks slipped up (like the discussion was one point about the War of 1812, kudos to Matt West and Greg Fisher for keeping that on track or the little girl who was insistent that she had ridden in a minivan from Mobile, Alabama with her family) but generally everyone “got it” and played along.

Most of the volunteers were talking about the arrival of the Carlyles’ new baby boy, William, and the completion of the house. In the study, Carlyle and George Fairfax were being boosters for Alexandria (as it was not a sprawling metropolis in 1753), discussing the “French and their Savage allies” in the backcountry, etc. I have to say that while I do not believe Matt (as John Carlyle) and Greg (as George Fairfax) had ever had someone portray a slave at the house before they played along. When people came into the room to be introduced they would introduce themselves and any other folks that may have been in the room and not introduce me. I could tell in the visitors faces that they were curious and most people then asked about me. Matt was dutiful in noting that I was one of his slaves. As I moved in or out of that room, people were entranced by my clothing but people also struggled with the word “slave.” As one woman said “Are you Mr. Carlyle’s servant?” I said “I am, but I am not free. I am one of his slaves.” She said “I just cannot say that word.” This is refreshing in many ways continuing to illustrate how far a large segment of the population has come; but I responded in character “Many other people such as yourself cannot call us such; but they have no problem owning their ‘servants.’”

Several blogger friends and I (along with formal studies) are interested in who is coming to historic sites. We had a lot of people from out of state and a large segment of people from what in 1753 was Spanish lands (now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Mobile, Alabama, and Spain itself). I was surprised at the lack of times that I heard “Alexandria.” I did no study of how many people came in but I know I saw at least about a dozen black visitors and several people of Asian descent. There were refreshingly a large number of visitors who were 40 and under. In fact, I can only distinctly recall one couple with their grandchildren who were gray haired (though still active).

I received the usual gawks and surprises because I was wearing my suit trimmed in robin’s egg blue velvet, with the same blue turban with silver livery lace and silver thread buttons, and the sterling silver collar. People have conjured up images of slaves dressed in ratty, homemade clothes instead of understanding the diversity of clothing that slaves in different jobs may have had. Still, there were several instances of people trying to make themselves or their children “contemporary slaves.” What I mean by that is statements that a dominant household figure (either the wife or the parents) makes others in the household feel subordinate. However, I was quick to challenge them on this by saying a quick statement such as “Sir, I doubt that you and your wife intend to sell your children away from you.” or “I have doubts that you work in a tobacco field sun up to sun down or as I do, take care of my owner from before he is up until after he is in bed.” Every time I had that issue of contemporary people as slaves, the person apologized and said “No, I should have thought about that.” One family acted as though they had seen a ghost when I entered the Carlyles’ dining room. However, we ended up having a very good conversation about what a manservant’s responsibilities were.

I hope to return to the Carlyle house again to interpret experiences of enslaved domestic servants. Next time I’ll be better too about getting some photos of me at the site!


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4 responses to “The 1753 John Carlyle house

  1. Colleen

    Excellent! And hopefully next time I’ll manage to get there!! Colleen

  2. Matt

    Emmanuel, great post. Thank you for blogging about the event. It was a pleasure to work with you this past weekend. Your interpretation added an important element to the event. I hope we have a chance to work together again. — Matt

  3. This was a really neat post, I went to the Carlyle House as a visitor to Alexandria in Middle School, and it remains in my top 10 (maybe 15…) museum visits of all time because of how fantastic the reenactors were, and they were just doing the typical “soldiers encamped” deal. I continue to be amazed by how few people living in/around DC visit the museum, or even know about it.
    What did Hudgins suggest for reading about this site?

  4. Pingback: Kindred Spirits at the Carlyle House | thehistorytourist

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