African-American life in Alexandria began in the Bottoms. The area was settled in 1798 by two Free Black families who built small frame houses on South Alfred Street. The houses fronted a dirt road that led to a swampy area southwest of town. Six other families soon built new houses on adjoining lots purchased from Quaker landowners. The first African-American neighborhood in Alexandria grew from these modest beginnings.
In the early 19th century, plantations increased their profits by "hiring out" slaves to business owners and manufacturers in Alexandria, a rapidly growing port town with an expanding manufacturing base. Free Blacks came for jobs on the city's docks or factories or started businesses of their own as bakers, draymen, or laundresses. After Alexandria joined the District of Columbia in 1801, its less restrictive laws against black assembly and education sparked a rapid growth in its Free Black population. Between 1790 and 1810 the number of Free Black residents swelled from 52 to 836 - a third of the total African-American population.
Many of these early black residents settled in the Bottoms. Enslaved blacks who had previously lived in or adjacent to white households achieved a measure of independence. Free Blacks who owned property in the Bottoms staked a claim to financial stability. Their occupations included seamstresses, grocers, and washerwomen, all of whom often operated businesses from their homes.
The first black religious congregation, the Colored Baptist Society, was formed in the Bottoms in 1803, and in 1818 the members built the first black church in Alexandria (Alfred Street Baptist Church) The Bottoms is also home to the Odd Fellows Hall, located at 411 South Columbus Street. Constructed in 1870, the building was the site of African-American ceremonies, social gatherings, and business meetings for over a century.
In the second half of the 20th century public housing projects were built in the Bottoms, and recently some of the older housing stock has been renovated. Today the Bottoms is referred to as The Dip, another name born of its low-lying elevation.
The Alfred Street Baptist Church and a number of townhouses are still visible on the 300 block of South Alfred Street, as well as the Odd Fellows Hall on the 400 block of South Columbus Street. The backyards once would have had animals and orchards for food, but few wells, unlike the white areas of town. The neighborhood eventually grew to a total area of about 20 blocks.
Geographical and Contact Information
South Alfred and Wilkes Street area