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Winfree Cottage: Insights into a Black freedwoman's life after the Civil War

the Winfree Cottage
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Winfree Cottage is seen on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia.

An interview with co-author Janice Meck about The Life and Legacy of Enslaved Virginian Emily Winfree.

The city of Richmond is working to renovate and move the home of Emily Winfree, one of thousands of Black Richmonders who transitioned from bondage to freedom during Reconstruction. The Urban Design Committee recommended approving the plan in November.

The cottage, given to Winfree by her former slaveowner, David Winfree, currently sits in Shockoe Bottom near Main Street Station. The city plans to move the structure to its original location, the historic Blackwell neighborhood in Manchester.

Janice Meck recently co-authored a book about the cottage, along with Virginia Refo: The Life and Legacy of Enslaved Virginian Emily Winfree.

VPM News Morning Edition host Phil Liles spoke to Meck about the history of the cottage and Winfree’s life.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Phil Liles: So Jan, tell me about the cottage and why it's so important to you.

Janice Meck: The cottage is just this little two-room house that was given to Emily after the Civil War by her ex-owner and the father of several of her children. We're not sure how many he fathered.

The cottage was what saved her during the Jim Crow era. He also gave her 100 acres of land in Chesterfield County. So in 1885, when she and the whole family got sick, she was able to use the money from that cottage to keep on going. Nevertheless, she was destitute.

The reason the cottage is so important — and the reason Emily is so important — is because the cottage left a trail of documents that we were able to find. It was the subject of some friendly court cases. When we went down to the Library of Virginia and found all these court files, we were able to trace, step by step, every time that she had to go to court to sell the land, or sell timber off of the land, or sell the cottage or anything like that.

When she was given the land and the cottage, she was also given a trustee because she couldn't read or write, and the documents said that she had to unite with her trustee. Every time they wanted to do something, they had to go to court.

Most people that were in Emily's situation after the Civil War, we have no documentation for — we don't know their stories. We don't even know their names. But because of these properties, we were able to track her down and get a very good idea of what her life was like ... and what life was like for single African American women in the period after the Civil War.

the Winfree Cottage
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The Winfree Cottage is seen on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia.

You got to meet her ancestors.

Yes, we did. We first found a record of Emily when she was enslaved in Petersburg, Virginia by Petersburg Sheriff Jordan Branch. We have the documentation of when she showed up on the inventory after he died without a will. We have the documentation of her sale with her daughter, Mariah. And that was the beginning of our quest to learn about Emily.

We've currently started an effort to look for the descendants of John Marshall's enslaved people. And we looked at some of those inventories and they don't have last names. So it's very, very rare and very, very difficult, that you have a last name and all that documentation.

After we tracked her through living with David Winfree, and after the Civil War, and everything that she went through, we were able to find her living descendants; some of them living in Michigan, some of them in Maryland, some in Lynchburg and some of them right here in Richmond.

The Virginia Museum of History and Culture supported us the whole time that we were doing this. I asked their president, Jamie Bosket, to write a letter and tell them that they would be hearing from me. We sent out the letters and a couple of weeks later, I started calling around. And most of them had never heard of Emily Winfree. And they certainly didn't know who I was.

So I was getting a little discouraged until I called this one number. This elderly woman answered the phone and I said, "Did you get a letter from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture?" And she said, "Yes, I know about that." I said, "Have you ever heard of Emily Winfree?" She said, "I know Emily Winfree. I was named after her."

It turns out this was Emily Grace Jones Jefferson, the granddaughter of Emily's oldest daughter, Mariah. I asked her if she knew that David Winfree had given her great-grandmother, Emily, property. She said, "Well we heard about that, but we never knew if that was true or not."

I said, "I can tell you it's true, because I have the deeds." She was just so happy about that. So she told me all of these tales and once I made friends with her, the others warmed up a little bit and we had a big reception for them at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

There was a branch of the family from Midlothian, the Hicks. They were the descendants of the youngest child. Then there were these descendants of the oldest child and Mariah, and they didn't know each other. So I was bringing them up on the elevator to the second floor where we were having the meeting, and I said, "Here, meet your cousin." And they started hugging and exchanged information.

I've kept in touch with them over the years that this has been going on.

Most people that were in Emily's situation after the Civil War, we have no documentation for — we don't know their stories.
—Janice Meck

Now, where was the house originally?

It was over in Manchester. It was given to her in 1866. And it was on Eighth Street and Porter Street, and Eighth Street kept getting its name changed until it became Commerce Avenue. The address when the house was ready to be demolished was 209 Commerce Ave.

In 2002, they were going to demolish it. It was owned by the city. I assume it was because of back taxes. It got taken over. And the [Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods] saved it and they talked a mover into moving it, and it went over down in Shockoe Bottom where it still sits right now.

Nobody was taking care of it. Nobody knew what to do with it. And nobody knew much about it until I was down there giving a tour. I give a tour called African American Heroes of Richmond, and I was giving it to Jamie Bosket. He started asking me these questions, and I realized that all I knew was that it was the Winfree Cottage and she had supposedly lived in one of the rooms and rented out the other one. As it turned out, that was not accurate. But that's when we started doing the research.

Now just for listeners to know about, it is a two-room cottage and she was able to raise her children in that. There were a lot of people in just two rooms.

Right after the war, she was destitute. Well I guess after David died, he gave her a cottage in 1866 and he died in 1867. We have records of her getting rations from the Freedmen's Bureau and in the ration book, it says that she was very sick and destitute. So she sold some of the timber off of her property in Chesterfield County and moved out there temporarily. But she shows up in the 1870 census back in Manchester. So for some reason, that didn't work.

She was working, and Mariah was at home taking care of the other four children until she got old enough to work. The second child was Betty. And then she got old enough to work. And slowly over the years, the boys got old enough and they started contributing. And so when she lost the house and had to sell the land, they ended up actually buying and owning a house over on Stockton Street back in Manchester.

And that house is still standing. There's a picture of it in the book and there's people living in it now. I was there the other day, and it looks like it's been renovated recently.

Let's talk a little bit about David Winfree. Who was he?

David Winfree was from landed gentry, if you will. They had a lot of land and they had a lot of enslaved people — the Winfrees did. They were here since the 1700s. He grew up in a place that was called British Camp, which is where the VA hospital is right now.

It's called British Camp, because the British had a camp there when the Revolutionary War was going on. He was quite a bit older than Emily. We know of six children he had with enslaved people before he met Emily, or before he had children with Emily, I should say. He went to medical school in Pennsylvania and he was a physician, but we never found any record of him being anything but a farmer on any census records. Right at the end of the Civil War, in 1864, he enlisted in the Farinholt Brigade. They were involved in the retreat to Appomattox in 1865.

But he wasn't there because in December 1864, he had to go to the hospital. We actually found the doctor's report of him showing up in the Farmville Confederate Hospital. He had a very advanced syphilis and was very weak and could only do light duty.

They sent him to Jackson Hospital in Richmond, and then they released him and sent him home. The next spring, he tried to sell the farm they were all living on, but he was unsuccessful in selling it. It was part of that farm, which was the 100 acres that he ended up giving to Emily the next year in 1866. Then he died in 1867.

You actually took this to the city, because you hoped something could be done for the cottage. What was that like?

Janice Meck
Janice Meck

It was a long, convoluted process. The city was getting ready to do other things down in the bottom and the Winfree Cottage really didn't belong there. But they didn't know exactly where it belonged.

Kim Chen, a city planner, called Jamie Bosket and asked to get in touch with me and she had my book. We were talking on the phone and I said, "Have you read the book?" She says "Oh, I've read it three times. And now I know where to put the cottage."

She said, "I never realized that you had so much information about Emily’s environs."

So [the city has] allocated $500,000 to renovate the cottage and they're moving it back over to Manchester at 15th and Maury, and they're planning to [do it] in collaboration with the Valentine Museum, to get a resident African American historian or artist to document the local history of African Americans. That person is going to live in that cottage.

There's also going to be a section so Emily won't be forgotten. We're going to help develop that. And there's going to be a separate building where we can give classes.

What do you hope that folks will learn from reading this book?

Well, one thing is that Virginians don't know the history of African Americans in this city. They don't know how rich that history is, and they especially don't know the history between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

They know about the Civil War, and they know about Martin Luther King Jr., but there were 100 years in between there. Being able to document Emily's trials and tribulations and successes — and the success of her family members — is very important because so many of those stories were lost.

You know that there were hundreds of thousands of people going through the same thing that Emily went through. And we'll never know them.

And to see what her family became as soon as the yoke was lifted off of them and what they are today? They have Ph.D.s in engineering, in education, in microbiology. They own construction companies and are disc jockeys and just a fantastic family. One of them got a full scholarship to Michigan State, and was actually there the same time I was — but of course I never knew at the time.

She's very, very important because it's one of the very rare instances we can actually document a story of what these particular women went through.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.