Once enslaved, Emily Winfree left a cottage and a legacy

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – With its doors and windows closed and paint peeling off, the old cottage rests on steel and wood beams in a parking lot behind Main Street Station. The Richmond Slave Trail runs right past it; next door is the infamous Lumpkin Slave Prison. Behind it, traffic rumbles off Interstate 95 a few yards away.

If you didn’t know better, you might think the cottage was parked here temporarily, waiting for a truck to come back, lift it onto its back and carry it to a new home. In reality the cottage has not had a fixed address for 20 years and has been hiding here for most of the last decade.

Though neglected and in limbo, the importance of the weathered building does not go unnoticed. A sign in front indicates that it is Winfree Cottage, the 19th-century home of Emily Winfree. Two bedroom flat when she stood across the river in Manchester.

A few years ago, before the sign arrived, the derelict cottage spoke to Jan Meck not only about the story it told, but also about the story it didn’t tell.

“It was another untold story about African Americans in Richmond,” says Meck, who came across the cottage on a personal journey of discovery in search of local history that she felt had been kept from her childhood.


She first saw the cottage during a tour sponsored by the Valentine Museum for local tour guides. Appropriately intrigued, she began digging deeper to learn more about Emily Winfree.

She eventually teamed up with genealogist Virginia Refo, documented details about Winfree, and did something she—a white, retired NASA pharmacist—could hardly have guessed a few years ago: she wrote a book about the complicated, difficult life of a Black woman who was enslaved and then emancipated, and despite suffering and adversity, managed to carve out a life for herself and her children, something that reverberates through her descendants generations later.

It’s a story about the horrors of slavery, the resilience of Winfree, and the importance of preserving your home as a piece of history. Meck hopes her book, The Life & Legacy of Enslaved Virginian Emily Winfree, will raise awareness and funding to find a permanent home for the cottage. But the book is much more, says Winfree’s great-great-granddaughter, Emily J. Jones.

“It’s not just about another hardship story, because that’s what most Americans should understand about that time, but what it’s like in those generations that went on from Emily,” said Jones, director of technical assistance for New York State Education Department of Partnership for Justice at Bank Street College of Education. “Because I think Emily wants us to share that.

“She’d want to say, ‘Yeah, that’s how my life was’ … but then, ‘This is what it looks like when you do what I did, when you pushed like I pushed and you survived like that, how I survived’, and then all these children have these million lives.

“That’s important, and I think that brings us to a broader conversation about American history. It also brings us closer together as people because there’s something about Emily’s story that a white Trump supporter, even if they don’t want to admit, could relate to.”

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Meck, 73, grew up in Northern Virginia in the white suburbs of Washington, DC, and the nation’s capital is the only place she’s ever seen a black man. She was used to hearing snide remarks about black people, and the story she learned in school has long been exposed as one-sided and distorted.

It wasn’t until she went to college in Michigan that she “began to learn some truths,” she writes, and only after retiring from NASA did she return to Richmond in 2011 and volunteer as a lecturer at Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History & Culture), particularly the Story of Virginia Gallery, that she was beginning to understand how incomplete her education had been.

“I became increasingly outraged by the lies I was told at school and by my parents. It became my passion to learn as much as possible about the true history of African Americans in my city of Richmond,” she writes in the book’s foreword.

She learned enough to create her own driving tour, African-American Heroes of Richmond, and offered it to everyone for free. On a Saturday shortly after arriving in Richmond, Jamie O. Bosket, President and CEO of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, went with him.

“We spent a good two or three hours driving through Richmond, which was a welcome opportunity to see the city but most importantly to hear some of these stories that she told with such passion,” recalled Bosket. “She was so invested in it.”

When they got to the cottage, Bosket was intrigued by the story he didn’t know and began asking questions about Emily Winfree that Meck couldn’t answer.

“I just reached out to Jan,” recalls Bosket, “and said — I can still remember the moment — ‘Somebody needs to do this research. There has to be something that fits Emily’s story somewhere.’”

Meck accepted the challenge and began the kind of research she had never done before – some of it at the VMHC. Piece by piece, she began to piece together Winfree’s story, which only made her want to find out more.

“It was life-changing,” she said.

The inclusion of genealogist Refo “really took it to the next level,” Meck said.

They searched for original documents and materials and, while such records of the enslaved are difficult if not impossible to find, were able to chronicle much of Winfree’s life and six generations of her family.

Using census data, court records, medical reports, and other sources, Meck and Refo constructed a framework of Winfree’s life through its milestones: when she and her daughter were sold for $1,025 in 1858, the places where she lived in slavery, the children she gave birth to, the domestic jobs she held after emancipation, and her 33 years of part-time employment at Masonic Manchester Lodge # 14 as a cook.

Regarding the cottage, they found the 1866 deed showing that it was given to her by David C. Winfree, a white Chesterfield County landowner who became her owner just before the Civil War. There is evidence that he was also the father of some of their seven children. In addition to the cottage, he gave her a 109-acre piece of his Chesterfield land. David Winfree died in 1867.

Beyond the official reports, their relationship is unclear. It was not uncommon for white owners to rape enslaved women in order to increase their wealth through more enslaved offspring. The provision of houses and property to the women after emancipation may not have been as typical.

There is no record of David Winfree or Emily Winfree ever being married. Emily Winfree used his last name and was known to at least some in his family as “Mrs. Siegfrei.” In 1919, her death certificate listed her as a “widow”.

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In addition to the documented evidence about Emily Winfree, Meck and Refo delved further into their history by tracing her family tree and finding dozens of living descendants, including Emily Grace Jones Jefferson, now in her 90s, who grew up in Richmond and attended Armstrong High and Virginia Union University and now lives in Maryland; others, like great-great-granddaughter Jones, grew up further afield, their ancestors having left the South during black migration to other parts of the country.

Meck points out that the resilience and steadfastness of Emily Winfree, denied an education and freedom for so many years, is reflected in the achievements of her descendants, which include teachers, community leaders, successful business owners, a military officer, and several with PhDs in Science, Education and Engineering.

“There was an expectation about the name,” said Jones, who, like others in previous generations, was named Emily in honor of her great-great-grandmother. “I didn’t get it growing up, but I get it now. There was an expectation to be focused, to be a little more serious. That kind of ethics and almost like a personal culture. You have a big name.”

It’s a powerful legacy, but a complicated one, Jones said, because of David Winfree. Over the generations, white family members married white men and women and “migrated into a white world,” she said, with some reluctant to even acknowledge the bereaved.

As a result, built into the expectations surrounding the Emily name was a need to show that “the black side of the family was just as accomplished or just as amazing, not in any way,” Jones said. “It wasn’t about that. It was about who you really are, what your character is.

“Because having a family that’s going through (for whites) is a hit with black people. That’s such a gut punch. That’s what we wanted to address with academic and professional success, not so much that we have these degrees… but rather, there’s a secret thing we need to address in this family and the way we’re doing that is through Stand up and be a person who… embodies everything your cousins ​​might have thought they needed to get away from.

In July 2018, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture invited descendants to gather in Richmond for a presentation of Meck and Refo and a tour of sites associated with Emily Winfree. Another reunion is planned for next June at the museum.

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Emily Winfree’s name wasn’t widely known until 2002, when her cottage was slated for demolition and conservationists intervened. ACORN, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, moved to save the cottage and said it is historically significant as it represents part of Post-Civil War Richmond where black people lived and worked.

The cottage was donated to the city and removed from danger. ACORN worked with the city to develop a plan to restore the cottage and find a permanent home for it, even raising money for such a project, but in the end the effort trickled down to city bureaucracy, Meck reports, and nothing came out it. The money was returned to the donors.

Although the cottage was modestly repaired a few years ago, it still stands alone in its “temporary” location, but at least the story of Emily Winfree is becoming known. Her story “represents so many others that we don’t have the materials that we do for Emily,” said VMHC’s Bosket.

“And I think when you look at it broadly, you turn around and you’re like, ‘Gosh, what a shame that this cottage is there after (so many years),'” he said. “It was given a little love, but certainly not enough for the story it represents.”

As for the cottage, the interpretive sign was added in 2019 because there was so much confusion around it, said Kimberly M. Chen, a senior manager at the city’s office of the deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and planning.

A more permanent solution for the cottage “must be found,” Chen said in an email.

“The city is open to any suggestions or suggestions,” she wrote.

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