Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of The Virginia Defender, issue 69, printed July 27. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

Addressing the life and legacy of Emily Winfree, from left: Joseph S.H. Rogers, VMHC’s Manager of Partnerships and Community Engagement; author Jan Meck; Winfree descendant Kimberly Mitchell; and Richmond historian Ana Edwards. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

Winfree Cottage has rested on blocks next to the Lumpkin’s Jail Archaeological Site in Shockoe Bottom since 2007.

Until this year, an interpretive sign in the style of those of the “Richmond Slave Trail” carried the only account of the cottage’s history: The two-room house was owned by Emily Winfree, a woman enslaved and impregnated multiple times by David Winfree of Chesterfield County. Her freedom came from the 13th amendment in 1865 and David’s death in 1866.

This June 16, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture hosted a book talk with Jan Meck, museum docent and coauthor, with Virginia Refo, of “The Life & Legacy of Emily Winfree: From Enslavement to Carnegie Hall.” Meck’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion facilitated by Joseph S.H. Rogers, the museum’s Manager of Partnerships and Community Engagement. The panelists were Winfree descendant Kimberly Mitchell, Richmond historian Ana Edwards and city planner Kim Chen.

When asked by Rogers why she “took on this project,” Meck replied that she’d read plenty of books about heroes “like Gabriel, Nat Turner and Madison Washington …” but “nothing had been written about just somebody like Emily – somebody who just persevered and survived. She didn’t have a book, she didn’t have anything and yet … she represented the majority.”

Mrs. Winfree, as she referred to herself, never learned to read or write and struggled through poverty to become the mother and ancestor of generations of educators and scholars, including a pianist who played Carnegie Hall.

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