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From Being Property to Owning Property: A Foundation of Freedom

"Because [African Americans] were denied by law other means of achieving security and social standing... the acquisition, preservation, and expansion of real estate was a critical aspect not only of success, but of survival and the maintenance of family unity." -- Lucia Stanton

During the first half of the nineteenth century, as formerly enslaved residents of Monticello endeavored to establish themselves in Charlottesville, a pattern emerged of propertied free blacks working together to maximize security through all the legal means within their power. Despite enterprising schemes to solidify and expand their assets, the free members of the extended Hemings family had to becontinually vigilant merely to hold on to their pieces of ground.

Main Street Lots owned by members of the extended Hemings family:

Lots 23/24: Thomas Bell/ Mary Hemings/Scott family
Lot 30: Joseph Fossett
Lot 33: Nancy West/Eston Hemings
Lots 35/36: David Isaacs/ Tucker Isaacs
Lot 37: David Isaacs

Property was essential to the protection of Monticello blacksmith Joseph Fossett's family members, who were sold at the 1827 dispersal sale. Merchant Thomas Bell left his house, store, and town lots to his common-law wife, Mary Hemings (Fossett's mother), and their children. This family's economic standing made it possible for Fossett to arrange for the purchase by others of his wife and children until he earned enough to pay them back. Fossett's son-in-law Tucker Isaacs was particularly visible in his efforts to increase the value of the family's property. Isaacs, the son of Jewish merchant David Isaacs and Nancy West, a free woman of color, was remembered by one town resident as "a good citizen and much respected." He was noted for his role in the transformation of Charlottesville in the 1840s, when the commercial center began its shift from the Court Square vicinity to a Main Street lined with new brick buildings.  Isaacs, he wrote, "built" two brick buildings on Lot 35 adjacent to his parents' house.  Nancy West had purchased this lot at public auction in 1841 and, shortly afterwards, a two-story brick dwelling valued at $1,200 was erected on the corner.  A few years later, Isaacs added a two-story brick storehouse on the western edge of the lot.  By 1844, besides the 36' x 28' brick house and storehouse, the lot contained a wooden kitchen and meat house, and a stable.  Five years later it also housed a tailor's shop in a shed addition, and--marking a kind of high watermark in the family's fortunes--a bowling alley.

When the Fossett, Isaacs, and Hemings families moved from Virginia to Ohio, their Charlottesville real estate was critical to the success of their transition. Both Joseph Fossett and Eston Hemings were able to immediately purchase lots in Cincinnati and Chillicothe, and Madison Hemings and Tucker Isaacs bought farms in Ross County. Mary Hemings's grandsons Robert and James Scott remained in Charlottesville. In 1892, the house lived in by their family for a century, considered "one of the most valuable pieces of property on Main street," was sold at auction for $17,000.

Adapted from Lucia Stanton, "Monticello to Main Street: The Hemings Family and Charlottesville," Magazine of Albemarle County History 55 (1997), 94-126.


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