Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpHerewith a discovery in the story of slavery in 19th-century Arlington.

John Taylor, a local schoolmate who works at Brown’s Hardware, shared with me a remarkable boyhood memory. Back in the 1960s, at an old house two doors from his in the Overlee Knolls neighborhood, he once ducked into a shed and saw a rusted bolt with chains attached to a wall. Some kind of shackle, he says.

That tall, high-ground white house at 2210 North Madison Street was torn down in 1989. But neighbors had long described it as a onetime Civil War hospital that belonged to one of Arlington’s key early landowners, Nicholas Febrey.

I set out to learn whether this was patriarch Febrey’s first home—mentioned by historian Eleanor Lee Templeman as being on “the north side of Wilson Blvd., on the hill just west of Four Mile Run.” (His later home was where Swanson Middle School stands today.)

The 1860 census shows that in Alexandria County (which then included Arlington) was home to 251 slave owners and 982 enslaved people. Of course, the lion’s share were owned by the Custis family at Arlington House. As Arlington historian C.B. Rose Jr. noted, among “the yeoman farmers who made up the bulk of Arlington’s population…. only the wealthiest could afford slaves.”

Among those were the Febreys. Descendant Michael Febrey helped me by checking the slave schedules. The 1850 compilation lists Nicholas Febrey as owning seven enslaved persons, while the 1860 update shows him owning five, with sons Henry and John Febrey owning five and two, respectively.
I plowed through the Arlington land records, with help from courthouse staffer Moe Mozafar. We traced ownership of the property back from current Jenkins, to Dell, to Peete, to Lange, to Anglin, to Neuhauser, to Thompson, to Shafer, to Baumbach, to Hicks, to Paxton, to Brown and, finally, in 1918, to Eliza Febrey, wife of William, the grandson of Nicholas.

Thanks to George Combs and the team at the Alexandria Library’s special collections, I found several deeds of sale between Nicholas and his three sons. They included the patriarch’s original 600-acre purchase from George Washington Parke Custis in 1837, from which Nicholas gradually unloaded land to prominent families in Arlington.

One of the deeds held the key: On Aug. 17, 1859, Nicholas transferred to his son John 136 acres. They stretched from modern-day Lee Highway (then called the Georgetown-Fairfax Road) to modern Wilson Blvd. (roughly parallel to the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railway).

Attached to the deed is simple drawing of two houses. The companion to Nicholas’s house would be his son Henry’s home, which shows up on Civil War-era maps and stands today on Powhatan Street (called Maple Shade).

The idea that Nicholas’s house was used as a Union hospital I confirmed in testimony from an 1887 court case for southern claims against the federal government.

As for the shackles, I asked the final resident of the old house, plumbing supplies merchant John Lange. He recalled no such artifacts, though his sons found bullets.

Ron Anglin, whose family owned the house from 1962-86 and who has long heard Febrey stories, recalls sheds said to have been slave quarters. But no shackles.

I ran the tale by Arlington historian Kathryn Holt Springston, who cautioned, “They may have looked like manacles, but could also be a bear trap.”
***

In conducting this research, I reached out to Arlington Historical Society stalwart Sara Collins, who had previously shared with me her thorough research on the Febreys. Alas, Sara died Dec. 3.

The Dec. 13 memorial service for Sara, the founder of Arlington Central Library’s Center for Local History, was held at Arlington United Methodist Church. It was packed with family, friends and the past-and-present braintrust of the historical society, all paying tribute to Sara’s patient work as librarian, archivist and scholar of Arlington’s heritage.