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The Winfree Cottage on the move in 2002 Photo courtesy of Selden Richardson
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Former slave Emily Winfree, pictured later in life Photo courtesy of Selden Richardson
Sisters Maria and Bettie Winfree, or their brothers, Walter, James, Henry and Clifford, may have descendants living in Richmond's greater environs. They may or may not know that their great-great-great grandmother, Emily, a slave, was in 1866 given a cottage by her former owner and that it was saved in 2002 from destruction and then parked in Shockoe Bottom on a flatbed where the paint-flecked clapboard walls weathered Gaston's waters in 2004. Then came a move to a spot near Main Street Station, where the small house remains, awaiting a useful rehabilitation.
Emily Winfree was born into slavery in 1834. The mother of six died at age 85, on Jan. 10, 1919, and was interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, a burial ground for blacks that was later absorbed into Maury Cemetery.
In the 1870 census, Emily is recorded as a "mulatto." That archaic term and numerous others divvied up the supposed percentage of African-American in a person of mixed race and indicated Emily's recognition as half-black, half-white. In that census her children are listed: Maria, 16; Bettie, 11; Walter, 6; James, 5; Henry, 3; Clifford, 1. No father is named.
In 1866, Emily's former owner, perhaps out of a reward for service or some other kind of personal acknowledgement, spent $800 to purchase for her a two-room, 700-square-foot cottage in Manchester, then an independent city south of Richmond. Along with the cottage, he also gave his former slave 100 acres. She signed the deed with an "X." The Winfrees lived in one half of the place, which was 24 feet wide and 12 feet deep, with a two-sided fireplace, and rented out the rest. The former owner has been identified as David Winfree, described as a prosperous Chesterfield County farmer. He fathered some, perhaps all, of Emily's children.
He was probably a son of James Wiley Winfree, whose estate stood near Broad Rock and received the name British Camp after the Revolution, when invading English solders bivouacked on the site. (The entire house was removed to Goochland County — also to save it — in 1965.) Emily seems to have named a few of her children after white Winfrees: James A. Winfree, Nov. 1, 1819-Jan. 16, 1821, was the third son of James W. and Lucy Winfree. David's sister, Martha Elizabeth Winfree, wife of William T. Lithgow, named their daughter Bettie; she died as an infant, on May 27, 1857.
Emily Winfree's little house, which once sat among 17 buildings of similar construction, traded hands many times through the 20th century. A resident through the 1950s was a white man with the last name of Poe. This led to a legend of the house's association with the writer's family.
By October 2002, the home was abandoned and almost swallowed up by commercial buildings. Taylor & Parrish Construction at 209 Commerce Road sought to expand its parking lot, and the house stood in the way. To the rescue came the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), then a feisty preservation organization with David Herring as its executive director. He recalls that time.
"We had an incredibly short deadline — maybe less than a week — to get it moved," says Herring, who's now the vice president of the Center for Neighborhood Revitalization at the Richmond Better Housing Coalition, which absorbed ACORN in 2011. Taylor & Parrish was agreeable to the cottage's removal.
Emily Winfree's story served as part inspiration for historian Selden Richardson's much-needed book Built by Blacks , which detailed Richmond's African-American architectural history. Richardson writes of Manchester resident Brett Hosier, "who on a Friday afternoon appeared in the doorway of ACORN with the original deed for the ramshackle structure scheduled for demolition the following Monday. He and [Manchester preservationist] G. William Thomas helped piece together the [cottage's] remarkable story."
Jim Matyko of Expert House Movers delivered the house from certain destruction. The first intention was to place it at 1621 E. Broad St., a parking lot near the 17th Street Farmers' Market, but this proved problematic. The house came under the purview of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, which considered it as an interpretive center. It sat in the city-owned lot behind the Exxon in Shockoe but was brought closer to the uncovered Lumpkin's Jail site to benefit from regular patrols by Virginia Commonwealth University police and more passersby.
State Del. Delores L. McQuinn, chair of the Slave Trail Commission, acknowledges that the challenge has been not only to find an "authentic site" for the Winfree Cottage within the context of the Slave Trail but also a purpose.
Herring says that a nonprofit, the National Slavery Museum Foundation, is forming to assist the Slave Trail Commission in its work, including the restoration of the Winfree house. The commission is a city organization and cannot raise money on its own, whereas a nonprofit would be able to send funds toward the Slave Trail efforts. The first priority will be to accept donations for the Winfree house renovation.
"It's long past time to fix it up, get it open, hang some light bulbs, put some artifacts from Lumpkin's in it, let people go ‘ooh ahh' and drop some money in the box and let it further the mission of Slave Trail Commission," Herring says. "Other than the artifacts found underground, it's the only real thing we can point to: This was a slave-related building in Richmond. I guess in a way we can call it success story, from this one woman's world."