The lower Caroline neighborhood fights against a slave jail

From John Hennessy (much of what follows is derived from in a short piece I did in the Journal of Fredericksburg History, published by HFFI):

The place is popularly and benignly known as the post-war home of Sue Chancellor, who, as a 14-year old, found herself and her family caught in the maelstrom of the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the war, she and her husband Vespasian Chancellor (her cousin—hence she experienced no change in her name with marriage) moved into 300 Caroline and lived there till her death in 1936.  For decades the home was widely known as the “Sue Chancellor House.”

Slaves waiting for sale.

But the house has an uncommon pedigree beyond Sue Chancellor’s residency there.  It has a brief, vivid connection to the slave trade.

In the 1830s, Mrs. Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford lived down the street with her husband William Matthews Blackford, at what is now 214 Caroline (Fredericksburg’s homes did not get fixed street addresses until the late 19th century).  Though the family would later contribute five sons to the Confederate cause, they were in fact social progressives, advocating education for slaves, colonization for freedmen and freewomen, and evincing discomfort with the institution, though they owned slaves themselves. For several years, Mrs. Blackford kept a journal, “Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery.”  (Read an earlier post about Mary Minor Blackford here.)

In that undated journal, Blackford wrote that “there is within a few yards of our house…a tolerably large brick house owned by Judge Green,” noting that “the front and side of the building are on the street”—confirming that the house was on a corner lot. The town tax rolls for 1833 show that what is now 300 Caroline (town lot 244) was owned by Judge John Green of Culpeper.

Blackford noted with some horror the purchase of the property by a tandem of slave traders, Walter H. Finnall and a man named Smith, probably in 1837 or 1838.  “By deceiving [Judge Green’s] son (who managed his father’s business) as to their object, the Negro traders, Smith and Finnall, bought the property to turn into a jail to put the slaves they purchased for the Southern Market in.”   The attraction, clearly, was the home’s nearness to the town docks, just a block away.  Finnall and Smith immediately set out to improve the property to serve their ends.  They put bars on the windows and, more prominently, built a brick slave pen in the back yard.  “They have now nearly completed a brick wall 16 feet high so as to form a small yard behind the house in which these innocent prisoners can come out to take the air…”

The sight enraged Mrs. Blackford:  “Every time I passed the wall and saw the poor Negroes working on it (not knowing but that they themselves might be the first to be confined there), my heart seemed bursting with indignation at the great wrong to be committed. Yet what was to be done?”

Residents of the neighborhood tried to rid their environs of the jail by attempting to buy the house from Finnall and Smith.  But, as Mrs. Blackford noted, the slave traders asked an exorbitant price.  Finally, she recruited William K. Smith, a “rich, kind-hearted Yankee” (an astonishing combination of words for a Fredericksburger!) who owned property on lower Princess Anne Street and had been doing business in Fredericksburg for several years.  Smith met the slave traders’ price, and, as Blackford wrote, “I have now, thank God, the infinite pleasure of seeing the high brick wall pulling down and the iron grating taken out of the windows. Mr. Smith is preparing to make it a handsome dwelling house.”

The transaction cleared the lower Caroline neighborhood of the slave pen, but did nothing to abate Finnall’s and Smith’s commerce.  For a time they would house their slaves in the town jail, across from the Presbyterian Church.  They also used the basement of what we now know as the Goolrick-Caldwell House at 211 Caroline Street.  The ever-presence of slaves and slave trading in town, Mrs. Blackford suggested, dulled the feelings of the people toward the institution—“what is done under our own eyes would shock us to the last degree were it not for this hardening process,” she wrote.  “I am convinced that the time will come when we shall look back and wonder how Christians could sanction slavery.”

William K.  Smith owned 300 Caroline Street into the  late1850s.  In 1856 he rented the house to a busy local businessman, George Aler–another of Fredericksburg’s slave traders, whom we wrote about here. (Aler put his jail on an adjacent lot, along Princess Anne Street.) Since Aler’s ownership, the house at 300 Caroline has held a beloved place in Fredericksburg’s collective psyche as the home of Sue Chancellor. Today, it is one of the most elegantly simple historic homes in town, belying its short-lived status as a battleground over the slave trade 175 years ago.

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